Peter Chattaway is, as always, right on top of the announcement that there is a film about Paul in the works, with Hugh Jackman in the lead. Given the famous anecdote in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla which describes him as short, bald, bow-legged, and unibrowed, I have always pictured Paul more as Wallace Shawn than the strapping Jackman. Even though Thecla was not well accepted as a legitimate description of Paul, one can still see its effect on representations of the apostle in early Christian art.
It is true that Paul is fairly self-deprecating in his letters, as when he reminds the church in Corinth that he did not initially come across as a very charismatic or eloquent man (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). But they were persuaded nonetheless, and a small community of Christians grew amidst the bustle of this thriving crossroads of Greece and Rome. They were compelled. There was something about Paul they found wise and true, and even a little bit revolutionary.
This personality of Paul lies between the lines of much of the New Testament, and is an important part of understanding how the church bloomed so quickly north and west across the Roman empire. His rhetoric was often antagonistic. He read the Hebrew scriptures in odd ways. His work among Gentiles ran against the grain of more established early Christian practice. He was accosted by crowds and chased out of cities.
He just wasn’t exactly the kind of person you want to claim as a religious or theological inspiration. But so many did because they could see in Paul what others had seen in Jesus. He had an unwavering sense of mission, an alluring conviction about the nature of time and history, and a subversive generosity of spirit (usually).
Because this can be difficult to see in the text, good movie representations of Paul are very valuable. A few points this direction:
1. The personality of Paul is one of the driving forces of the New Testament. It can be hard to hear this across so many centuries through the obscurities of his prose and Luke’s account of his travels through Asia Minor and Greece. But if we want to understand what made Paul tick and how he arrived at some of his core theological convictions, we need to be able to imagine him in action. We need to be able to grasp the features of his biography that made him such a unique and tireless witness to the earliest Jesus movement in Jerusalem and Antioch.
A lot of the clumsiest scholarship on Paul is marked by a lack of this imagination. Conversely, much of the best scholarship on Paul begins by entering into his interesting biographical drama.
2. Paul’s theology was narrative in scope. He was not necessarily a teacher of ideas, but someone with a new story to tell about how God works in history and invites others to participate in that redemptive work. His story encompassed re-readings of the history of Israel, the foundations of the Empire, and even of himself. He thought of himself as someone called by God from one story to another. He lends himself to the medium of cinema.
3. It is always a good time to hear Paul. Paul often gets a bad rap. A few of his texts are battlegrounds for debate on homosexuality, gender distinctions, the authority of the church, etc… It is fair to quibble about these elements of his work. But at the center of Paul’s thought is a call to liberation. Because Paul was able to see through the politics and ideologies of his own era in timeless ways, he was, as F.F. Bruce described him, the “apostle of the heart set free.” Even just his basic biography has much to say to us today about what it means to live and flourish in society.
These are the kinds of things a movie can get very right about Paul.