Wait, that’s damning with faint praise, isn’t it? Let me try again.
Paul, Apostle of Christ might be one of the best Christian films I’ve— Agh, did it again. All right, I’ll be honest: I’m having trouble with this review. I don’t know what to do with this movie.
And sure, part of it might be my documented disdain for Christian films. But more than that, I don’t know if this even is a Christian film.
Oh, it’s certainly made by Christians, about Christians, probably for Christians. It doesn’t have any major theological or historical error, that I saw. There’s definitely an emphasis on God, Christ, and doctrine; sometimes to the point of unbelievability (though I concede it is Paul we’re talking about here).
But the tropes of Christian film are utterly absent; it doesn’t shrink from dark things, it revels in them. There’s no grand conversion story, except that of Paul himself; and that one happened before the film begins. Kirk Cameron and Kevin Sorbo are nowhere to be seen. It even ends with Paul’s execution!
(That’s not a spoiler. The story’s almost 2,000 years old.)
That said, it’s certainly not a secular film, either. It’s certainly a biopic; a historical drama following Luke’s quest to write down Paul’s life, a quest which would eventually find fruit as the book of Acts. The production value is better than expected, the writing is satisfactory, the direction is adequate, the acting is respectable, and the music is enthralling. It’s solid and somewhat above average, even measured against more traditional Hollywood fare.
Still, at several points, it also devolves into James Faulkner wandering around a garden, rattling off the Greatest Hits of the Epistles while Jim Caviezel says “oh, that’s good.” It has long, lingering shots of groups of people praying. The suffering of Christians in first century Rome sometimes crosses the line from “convicting” into “persecution porn.”
So it’s not all good, and it’s not all bad: Olivier Martinez’s performance as Mauritius was engaging and believable; but Caviezel’s Luke enters a hostile city making every effort to be mysterious and no effort to be sneaky. The brief moment of humanity between Paul and Luke trading tales of the road is charming; but the fascinating conflict about whether Luke really understands the core of Paul’s teaching is brushed off unceremoniously. Aquila and Priscilla’s debate was deftly handled, with neither side seeming foolish or cowardly; but the speculation about Paul’s thorn-in-the-flesh seemed an unwarranted addition to the man’s story.
Over the past eight years now, I’ve been working to redeem culture: to show where man-made stories echo God’s story. But Paul, Apostle of Christ is God’s story. A part of it, anyway. It’s history. It’s in the Bible. At what point does my attempt to connect with this film just become a sermon?
Well, I’m certainly not qualified to preach a sermon, but I will tell you the thing that this movie did the best: it gave me glasses.
Paul has never been my favorite Biblical character, and he’s not even my favorite Apostle. He just always seemed so perfect. Oh, sure, he had some rough spots at the beginning, but those were mostly sanded down on the Road to Damascus where he went from a villain to a mouthpiece for the Hero. I always thought his words and the attitude with which he wrote them seemed a little sanctimonious and paternalistic. And, I know, the words were divinely inspired, but that doesn’t mean I have to like his personality.
Paul, Apostle of Christ gave me glasses about that. See, I am a latecomer to the glasses game; I had my first visit to an optometrist only two years ago, and she gave me a fairly weak prescription. When I got the glasses, I discovered that I could see a little bit better. I could see little details I hadn’t been able to see before without straining, for instance. It didn’t change my whole world, or anything; but it made my life a little better.
That’s what this movie did for me, too. I can see Paul more clearly as a person, and I’m realizing that a lot of my negative attitude toward him stems not from his words, or even the way he expresses them; but from the ways that other people have expressed them. Well-meaning people have used his admonitions as cudgels and his reassurances as chloroform.
Going through a rough time in life? “All things work together for good!” the well-meaning Christian might post on your Facebook page. Or maybe “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Seeking out a better job? “Money is the root of all evil.” Struggling to keep it all together? “I can do all things through Christ!”
But that’s not what Paul was saying. He wasn’t hitting his readers over the head with truisms and sugary-sweet glurge. He was expressing true care for their well-being, and his one-liners were never meant to be heard out of their context.
The Paul of the movie showed me a clearer picture of the Paul of the Bible; a man who would sit, listen, and care for people, not with naked theology, but with applied theology.
I still don’t know what to do with Paul, Apostle of Christ. But I do think I know better what to do with Paul now.