A little over a week ago, Carrie and I were out of town for a few days. We were looking for a few things to do. A friend of mine had given me a strong recommendation for the movie, “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” starring James Faulkner and Jim Caviezel.
I have to confess, I am usually not an enthusiastic fan of “Christian movies” for a variety of reasons. Not to sound cynical, but it’s difficult for me to bear with the usually poor artistic elements. Generally, the acting and the writing are substandard, and the delivery of the message is pretty formulaic and uncreative.
Nevertheless, because this was a biopic of Paul, and because we trusted my friend’s recommendation, we decided to give it a shot.
We were pleasantly surprised. I mean, it’s not Gone With the Wind or anything. But it certainly exceeded our expectations on every front.
And there were particular elements that I really loved about the film. Obviously, with any biopic, there will be a certain measure of artistic license in play. But the film was very faithful to some rather significant and oft-forgotten realities that were experienced during the early movement of Christianity.
- During the first 270 years or so of Christian history, the movement was outlawed throughout the Roman Empire. While fierce persecution was not always widespread and systematic, there were several periods of intense, violent outbreaks upon those who refused to deny Christ. Among the worst of these periods occurred during the reign of the emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68). It was during Nero’s reign that both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul were killed in barbaric fashion. While we never meet Nero in the movie, he is referred to several times. And the violent, savage nature of his persecution was accurately presented in the film.
- In the face of this persecution, history tells us that Christ’s message regarding loving one’s enemies (Mt. 5:44) was the most commonly quoted teaching amongst his earliest followers. Love, self-sacrifice, and the refusal to take up arms were seen as fundamental to what it means to embody the Christian message. This is a strong theme in Paul, Apostle of Christ.
“In all their activities Christians are ‘filled with joy uttering and doing the precepts of the Lord,’ teaching their children never to lose hold of God’s commandments and hope. Christians have God’s laws inscribed on their hearts: ‘You shall not kill . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ and ‘to him that smites you on the one cheek, offer also the other. . . . You [must] patiently endure the severity of the way of salvation.’ At times this approach may lead to martyrdom; if it does so, the martyrs will confirm the truth of their words by their deeds, demonstrate patience to their executioners, and express love to the Lord.” – Clement of Alexandria
- Partly because of this hostile environment, the focus of the early Christian movement was not on strategized outreach. Evangelism, of course, was always happening, but it was personal and organic. The primary concern of the early Christians was to embody a faithful witness of Christ’s teachings.
“The Christians’ focus was not on ‘saving’ people or recruiting them; it was on living faithfully—in the belief that when people’s lives are rehabituated in the way of Jesus, others will want to join them.” – Alan Kreider (The Patient Ferment of the Early Church)
- The film does an excellent job of demonstrating how Christianity, in its earliest form, was a movement that spread primarily among the poor and marginalized. Despite all of the factors working against it, Christianity grew at an astounding rate of 40% per decade (from the Acts 2 outpouring on the Day of Pentecost until the reign of Constantine). The heroes of this expansion are not only the “big names” like Paul, Luke, Timothy, and Peter. Most were anonymous merchants, traders, and especially women and slaves.
- One final observation relates to the issue of prayer. At a crucial point in the film, when torture and death seem imminent, Luke leads a group of believers through a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. We know for certain that the early Christians (much like the Jews) often utilized prescribed prayers. The Book of Psalms has been used in this fashion for nearly 3,000 years. For the early Christians, the Lord’s Prayer in particular held a central role in their prayer practice.
For more insight into the growth and practices of the early Christian movement, I highly recommend Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church.
The painting is St. Paul Writing His Epistles, attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century.