Easter is the season for reading the Acts of the Apostles. So it seems an especially appropriate time to see the new film Paul Apostle of Christ, a dramatized version of Luke writing the Acts of the Apostles through a series of conversations with Paul, while the apostle was in Rome's Mamertine prison, awaiting his execution, in the aftermath of Nero's fire and the Roman persecution of Christians that followed. Although Paul quotes himself (i.e., his epistles) throughout, the film is as much about Luke and the Roman Christian community (led by Priscilla and Aquila) as it is about Paul himself. It is also about the Romans - as seen through the military commander of the prison, whose daughter Luke heals, not by a miracle but by his skills as a physician and the charitable cooperation of the Roman Christians.
Although the film ends on a triumphant note with Paul's martyrdom (having fought the good fight, etc.) and with Priscilla and Aquila and the remnant of the Christian community successfully fleeing from Rome, the overall atmosphere is one of great fear in the face of the terror of Roman imperial persecution. The movie makes clear that being a Christian put one in conflict with the powers of the world and worldly culture. Modern Christianity, in contrast, struggles and is internally conflicted over how much to accommodate to secular society and its values, how much to give in to the world - whether the issue is sexuality or trying to reconcile being Christian with being part of a profit-making, commercial, capitalist economy. The film highlights the tension between an apocalyptic sect of martyrs and a Church for ordinary people, families, and nations, very much at home and settled in the world. (That tension is overtly treated in the conflict caused when some dissenting members of the Roman Christian community can't quite cope with the pain and stress of seemingly permanent persecution any more and so decide to take up arms to save Rome - and themselves - from Nero.)
So why would anyone in Rome join such a group? The film does illustrate the distinctive character of Christianity in contrast with paganism, how it created a loving community of brothers and sisters committed to caring for one another - and even beyond the sectarian boundaries that separated them from the rest of Roman society. While the movie shows how challenging and demanding and dangerous it was to be a Christian, it also highlights their love for one another and the powerful witness of that love to the wider pagan world.
The final scene seems to imagine Paul's reunion in heaven with Stephen (and the others he persecuted in his pre-Christian period) - a sort of on-screen portrayal of the famous sermon of Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe (460-533): Now at last Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exults, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen's death, and Stephen delights in Paul's companionship, for live fills them both with joy,
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