I saw Paul, Apostle of Christ during Holy Week. I’m torn on commenting on the movie, mostly because I left a theater with so many talking about how inspiring it was. I left ready to put the movie on the Index and call for an auto-da-fé for it’s makers. There are two major concerns I have with the film – one theological, specifically in what the movie lacked, and the other on it’s craft, which is a fallout of eschewing symbolism. Let’s talk about craft first.
Christianity without Symbolism is not Christianity
While theatre has a long history of being didactic – an emphasis on the spoken word can do that – film has brought to the fore the power of symbolism in theatre. Now I’m not saying there is no symbolism in stage theatre, but the emphasis on the visual, on the sensual, makes film an especially powerful vehicle for symbolism. Symbolism is all about some sensual object revealing or manifesting meaning – being a signpost at its weakest, or a sacrament at its strongest.
Christianity, prior to Protestantism, was all about symbolism. Judaism swam in it – gardens and cities, shepherds and lambs, mountains and temples – Christ’s teaching is resplendent with it, and Paul, John, and Peter preach it. From the early Church through the Middle Ages, symbolism was both a didactic tool and the primary method of Christian worship and life. One need only participate in a well celebrated Catholic Mass with eyes wide open to see it.
Protestantism (of the Low Church variety) changed all that with radical readings of “No graven images” leading to suspicion of anything we took in with our eyes.
And that seems to be the point of view of Paul. There’s not even a cross in the film.
There are two shots which could be considered packed with Christian symbolism – the baptism of Paul with water as death and refreshment; and a wall of light soon-to-be martyrs walk into – but these are the weakest form of symbols. They are simply signs or metaphors to realities “we can’t show”; symbol as crutch for the ineffable, rather than a bridge to the ineffable.
In fact, highly symbolic shots are mostly given to the pagans – images of billowing incense and bloody sacrifices offered to statues of gods or a graven face with light flowing from its eyes. These three or four shots are given without words. They make palpable the frustrated appeals to the seemingly divine, the sense of being alone in a world where the gods don’t care about you. They confront the uncaring transcendence of dying paganism and scream into that darkness. It’s haunting.
But among the Christians, meaning seems to be an unimportant affair. Their lives seem to be nothing more than following the teachings of this great man Jesus (often through gritted teeth). Life seems to lack any meaning save doing good things until you die, after which you live happily.
Symbolism, you see, is how meaning is made manifest in our life and how we actually participate in meaning. A birthday cake signifies another year lived and consuming it celebrates in that. Fireworks represent victory, and firing them and watching them makes it real. For Christians, all of creation is a symbol, brought into existence by the Father’s Word, redeemed by the Son’s sacrifice, and sanctified by the Spirit’s presence. Christ makes this clear in his very incarnation and life among us. We partake of this by looking, listening, bowing, standing, submerging, oiling, consuming… The sacramental life is Christ reclaiming the symbolism of all creation, reclaiming it to make it a bridge to His life.
Film, perhaps more than any other medium, is capable of making this truth about reality manifest to us. That a Christian moves seemingly eschews this is a travesty.
Christian, do you worship Christ?
I can’t remember a single point in the film where Jesus is declared God and Lord – though others say it happened once, maybe twice. The Christian community performs no act of worship (beyond holding hands and saying the Our Father “at the darkest hour”). The leaders of the Roman Christian community, Aquila and Priscilla, are remarkable for their charitable activity, but rarely, if ever, speak of Christ as anything more than a model of morality.
Perhaps most damning to me is the movie’s treatment of martyrdom. Read any account of the martyrs – Stephen, Lawrence, Polycarp, Ignatius, Perpetua and Felicitas, – and one will recognize that martyrdom is a form of worship, of uniting with the sufferings of Christ. This belief is so radical that the martyrs are often described as embracing their sufferings, even seeking and desiring them. It is not some “all will be well” heaven they seek, but to share in the life of Christ, even His pains. Polycarp’s hagiography and Ignatius’ letters even make an equivalent of their death’s with the Eucharistic offering. Polycarp, in the flames, takes on the appearance and scent of baking bread. Ignatius foresees his feeding to lions as being like wheat ground to make bread. Bread, of course, is the species which is consecrated into the Body and Blood of Christ – they sacrifice is an act of worship, of becoming the Eucharist.
The Paul of the Epistles even boasts in his sufferings (not only his weakness), for that is Christ alive in him.
In the film, martyrs are simply those persecuted for their faith. Any aspect of suffering is meant to be stoically ignored. Luke, when called upon to prepare the martyrs for death, minimizes the suffering they are about to endure and reminds them that they will soon be in the kingdom. What he says is not untrue (though the suffering of the Roman games wasn’t a short, quick thing), but it pales before the reality of what Christian martyrdom is. He seems to not recognize the importance of Christ’s suffering and death at the center of Christian life.
This is made even more a mockery when the only people to be martyred are random extras. Aquila, Priscilla, and Luke are saved from death. Among the main cast, only Paul is killed in the end, and he really does experience “only a moment” of pain before he’s in the comfort of heaven. Christ is not found in suffering, the movie seems to say.
I never get a sense that the Paul, Luke, and other Christians of the movie worship Christ. I get a sense they worship niceness and comfort and see Christ as the, sometimes paradoxical, means to that worship.
So Tomas, you grumpy heresy-hunter, is it really that bad?
Let’s say you’re not as over-educated as me, that you aren’t looking for all these problems. Let’s say you liked the film, that you feel it was inspiring to your faith. Is there anything wrong with it?
Perhaps not. Perhaps it is a fine preambula fidei, a way in which someone may be inspired to take their faith more seriously. Perhaps we are so cocooned in the comfort of the 21st century that being confronted with even the glimmer of real persecution will wake us up. That’s a good end. I don’t belittle that.
However, if this movie is taken as a manifestation of real Christianity, that it actually purports to reveal its depths, that’s a problem. It seems to fail in making real the value of Christ’s incarnation (in it’s eschewing of Christian symbolism) and dilutes the faith to a doctrine of kindness and pacifism.
If you liked the film, I’m not condemning you. Though, at the risk of sounding prideful, I would recommend you to seek more and better nourishment. Spend some more time with the scriptures, with the lives of the early Church, with the symbolism of 2000 years of Christian art, music, and literature. Watch or rewatch Gibson’s Passion and compare it to Paul.
Paul, given the most charitable of readings, is only a child’s scribbled ideas of Christianity. Those scribbled ideas are true, to an extent, and may fill one with giddy joy at how comforting they are. But they are not the nourishment one needs to be prepared for Eternal Life.
And yes, art in all forms can contribute to that nourishment. We’ll talk about that one later.