by William Collen
Every so often, I hear reference made to the idea that we are living in a post-Christian era. This idea is especially relevant to European and American culture—Christianity no longer holds together the fabric of society, and basic familiarity with the doctrines, ideas, and characters of the Bible cannot be assumed. It can often be wise and useful to compare the modern moment with the church in the first century of its existence—to compare today’s post-Christian culture with a culture that was pre-Christian. This is what is done in Andrew Hyatt’s 2018 film Paul, Apostle of Christ. Although the parallels between our current moment and the film’s setting of AD 67 are not explicitly made in the film, the underlying milieu and tensions are very similar.
What would it be like to live as a Christian in a time when you could not be certain that you would escape persecution and even death for your faith? Such is the situation for the Christian church in Rome at the beginning of the film. The church is struggling to exist as a viable entity; its leadership is torn by division; and its most important leader, Paul, is slowly dying in a Roman prison, his body broken but his spirit strong. Urgently needed financial assistance is brought to the Roman Christians from Greece by Luke, who has also come to speak personally with Paul in the Roman prison. The community of Christians is fracturing from the strain of living in hiding and seeing their friends and relatives tortured and killed; Luke wants Paul to impart his wisdom and direction to the community, especially in the matter that is weighing on their hearts the most: should they stay in Rome, despite the persecution, or should they seek to escape while the going is good? Paul refuses to give an authoritative pronouncement on the question, but he does recount to Luke the story of his missionary journeys, which Luke incorporates into the book of Acts as an attempt to offer comfort and hope to the Roman Christians.
The daily lives of the Christians are fraught with danger. They have been accused of setting fire to half the city and are viewed with suspicion and contempt by the rest of the people of Rome. Yet, the Christians continue to perform essential mercy ministries to the marginalized people around them. This is one of the reasons put forward by the faction of Christians who want to stay in the city — “if we aren’t here, who will help these people?” But by staying in Rome, the Christians risk death. Parents find it hard to justify keeping their children in such an environment of constant danger.
Although this film is ostensibly about Paul, most of the narrative impetus is found in the community of Christians in hiding. We get to see their pain and struggles, their fear and their love for their tormentors. The best scenes in the movie are when the Christians argue amongst themselves; the dialogue in these scenes is tight and concise, as if these people have been arguing these points for so long that their positions have nearly been boiled down to slogans. Isn’t that the way it is sometimes in our own day, as Christians debate how best to engage with an almost thoroughly secularized culture? The most saddening aspect of contemporary Christianity is the internecine fights we sometimes allow ourselves. In this film, the opposing factions come to the point where they simply cannot move forward in unity, and a group of young men seeks to storm Paul’s prison and set him free. Paul refuses to go with them, however; his condemnation of these revolutionaries reveals a ferocity that might have been unexpected in an old and weary prisoner.
However, this event has a positive consequence. Mauritius, the jailer who was initially suspicious of Luke’s meetings with Paul, begins to wonder more and more about this strange prisoner who seems to be so free of the bitterness and resentment that he himself carries inside his own heart. An act of mercy by Luke convinces him that these Christians are worth closer inspection, and Mauritius spends time.
William Collen is a Christian art critic who writes about art of all kinds at ruins.blog. He can also be reached on Twitter at @william_collen. He and his family live in Omaha, Nebraska.