by Judy and Tom Kuster, CMI Board
First, do not confuse this film with To the Ends of the Earth, the WELS-produced short film about St. Paul and his activities in Philippi. Paul, Apostle of Christ is a feature-length movie that came out this year starring Jim Caviezel (who played Christ in The Passion of the Christ) as Luke, James Faulkner as the aged Paul, Joanne Whalley as Priscilla, and John Lynch as Aquila – these are the four characters that get the most screen attention. Produced by Affirm Films, it is pretty much an auteur effort by Andrew Hyatt, who made The Frozen and other faith-based films, and who wrote, directed, and produced this one.
Judy and Tom saw this movie together, and each of us had a slightly different take on it, so here is a double review.
Paul: the Apostle of Christ (2018) was a difficult movie for me to watch in some ways – Stephen being stoned, Saul’s persecution of Christians and the graphic and horrid cruelty in Nero’s Rome make this movie at least PG13 and perhaps not one for some children. But the movie relates a possible way Luke could have written Acts with the Apostle Paul dictating as he faced his final days before his execution in Rome, and with Paul verbally expressing the written words in Acts – that brought the Apostle and the words to life for me. I will read Acts again through somewhat different eyes.
Paul, Luke, Aquila, and Priscilla and the persecution of Christians in the first century also became more real than simply reading the history or even touring the Coliseum in Rome as I did a few years ago. The role of Priscilla was not only a helper for and problem solver with Aquila, but her model of Christian service and love for others was especially touching. To me the character development and acting were spell-binding and by the end of the movie, everyone in the audience sat quietly during the credits and many (including me) left with tears.
It is interesting to read several of the reviews on IMDb – even their titles are worth scanning: 1. Quite moving & poignant, 2. Powerful and unusual, 3. Reverent, 4. An important film. Stirring. Brilliant. 5. Very uplifting story, 6. Incredible film, 7. Would we walk that path? 8. A must see for Christians!, 9. Humbling, 10. Awesome and powerful, 11. Inspiring, 12. THE Best, etc. Of the 87 reviews I scanned, there were a few negative comments in early postings but the film was generally highly rated. One review in particular from an avowed atheist (“A non-believer who is searching”) gave me pause. His review said in part “I personally don’t find any reason to celebrate as I think of my own life ending and that’s all there is. Christianity of all the religions is the only one that gives me some spark of hope. . . ” He concludes referring to some other reviewers, “To those nitpicking the little things, I really say take another look and think it over, you’re missing the gravity of what these people went through and depth of their beliefs, crazy as it sounds, despite the physical pain they endured, I envy them.” As I read that, I only wished I could reach him and suggest reading the Gospel of John next and pray that he too will “take another look.”
Apostles, prophets, martyrs, And all the sacred throng Who wear the spotless raiment, Who raise the ceaseless song; For these, passed on before us, Savior, we Thee adore, And walking in their footsteps, Would serve Thee more and more.
ELH 558:2 From All Thy Saints in Warfare
This movie, like most “faith-based” films, is an excellent illustration of a major theme of the Christ in Media Institute: there is no substitute for face-to-face witnessing. That may seem a strange theme for an organization dedicated to using media and technology to reach out with the gospel, but it’s true. The best use of technology in service of evangelism is to make it easier for a Christian to talk to a friend or relative about Jesus. That’s the best use of Paul, Apostle of Christ.
This movie was not about what I expected. Its promo tagline says, “The story covers Paul going from the most infamous persecutor of Christians to Jesus Christ’s most influential apostle,” so I expected to see many of the incidents in the book of Acts dramatized for us. Instead, only a couple of scenes from Acts appear in flashback: the stoning of Stephen, which portrayed Paul as “Saul” the persecutor, and the incident on the road to Damascus, which portrayed his change to Paul the Apostle. The rest of the movie is set in Rome, where Paul is a prisoner, a group of Christians led by Priscilla and Aquila are being persecuted by Nero, and Luke is risking his life to sneak into the prison to interview Paul as he prepares the manuscript for the “Acts of the Apostles.”
The movie is heavy on portraying the suffering of Christians under persecution. In that regard it reminds me of The Young Messiah (2016) which features a speculation about what Jesus was like at age 11, and which also spends lots of screen time focusing on suffering. In Young Messiah the unforgettable scenes are the mass crucifixions, which in somewhat lumbering fashion foreshadow the fate of the young Jesus; in Paul it’s the Christians used as streetlamps. I remember when studying Latin in high school the Romans were portrayed to us as noble, with interesting legends and exalted literature, an admirable civilized government, and of course a fine language with a grammar that made sense. These movies remind us that none of that was true, and that at any time in history, empires are built on cruelty and violence.
In Paul, anything resembling a plot takes a back seat to that portrayal of cruelty and suffering – and running an hour and forty-eight minutes, that’s a long time for the viewer to suffer. It’s not an easy movie to watch. Yet this viewer came away aware that his own discomfort watching the agony in the movie was nothing compared to that which was actually endured by the people portrayed. He could walk away and resume enjoying his life; they could not.
There are three insubstantial plot lines: whether the Christians should stay in Rome to serve the needy or flee to save their lives; whether Luke will survive his risky prison interviews with Paul; and a rather transparent subplot involving the prison supervisor’s sick daughter. No spoiler alert is needed to predict what happens to her.
The acting and production values are very good. Too often “faith-based” films work only for Christian believers who are willing to forgive subpar production. Not so with this movie and that’s an important plus; it works also for a general viewer who will not be distracted from the movie’s message by embarrassing production values.
The theology of the movie is not deep, but it is adequate to what seems to be the movie’s purpose: to portray what “living the faith” was like in times different from our own. The movie does a good job at that: in the face of persecution, Christians endure it patiently with trust in God, and continue to serve others.
Is that enough to recommend it as a good “Christian” movie? As explained at length in my presentation “How Christian Was that Movie?” in the fall 2016 GOWM online conference, my criteria for that label are quite high – unreasonably so, according to most friends with whom I have discussed this, for a film intended for public audiences in movie theatres. Making it “more Christian,” they claim, would turn off the general viewer. They are probably right, but I still cling to my criteria as an important challenge to any of us aspiring to producing “good Christian movies.”
A Christian, who already knows the gospel, can see the good news message loud and clear in this movie. This comes in one way through some of the discussions with Paul, whose dialogue is sprinkled with snippets of verses from his epistles – the viewer familiar with Paul’s writings is delighted to recognize them as they pop up. And they are key gospel-bearing passages (“For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” and many others). It’s easy for a Christian to view the experiences of these early Christians as people living Christian lives entirely as a response to the undeserved grace of God.
One of my criteria for a good Christian movie is pretty basic: it has to mention the name of Jesus. This movie certainly does that; Jesus is mentioned prominently, a plus not always present in “faith-based” films – and trust in him is consistently urged. That makes this movie better than most.
But it falls short in regard to my most demanding criterion for a good Christian movie. While Jesus is often mentioned and trust in him urged, less prominent is any explanation of what he has done for us that would merit such trust – I recall hearing nothing about atonement or forgiveness of sins. That message, the plan of salvation, delivered clearly so that an unbelieving viewer can understand it, was the highest criterion I asserted as essential to a good Christian movie. It doesn’t often occur in faith-based films.
That’s why this movie, like many others like it, reflects the theme with which I started above: it needs a good Christian to rent this movie, watch it with an unbelieving friend, and then use it to talk about Jesus and what he did, to recommend, as Judy suggested, that to get the full picture the friend should read Acts, or read Luke’s Gospel.
Without that, the unbelieving friend might draw from the film a wrong conclusion. For him or her, the message of the film might be that if we love, endure suffering patiently and without retaliation, and trust Jesus, we will achieve Heaven. Here, it seems to me, is the greatest challenge of the Christian screen-writer: it is far easier to portray on a screen what people (we) do than to portray what God has done for us – that’s the nature of the medium. And yet the essence of the gospel is not anything we do, but all about what God has done for us.
What then is the benefit of going to see this movie? It is certainly effective in taking us back to the early days of the Christian church, and to what many early believers lived (and died) through. Most if not all of the non-flashback incidents in the movie are fictional – I don’t think Luke needed to sneak into prison to interview Paul in order to write Acts, since he was a fellow-traveler with the Apostle for many of his journeys. Still many of the incidents COULD have happened as portrayed, and they prompt us to imagine ourselves living then. Certainly our reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, frequently rote, takes on a new dimension of meaning when spoken by Christians about to be herded out into Nero’s coliseum to face the lions.
More important, there is, as Judy noted, value in a well-made film that portrays how Christians live their faith; observing this can touch the unbeliever, and at least stimulate curiosity. And then, as she said, it can be our opportunity to take that person to the next step, to “read John’s Gospel,” to lead them one way or another to hear, probably for the first time, the Good News of the forgiveness and love we have from God in the work and person of our Savior Jesus Christ.
For those reasons this movie is worth seeing, and it should be considered a useful if not important contribution to the growing number of “pretty good Christian films.”