A Primer on Paul
Holy Week always prompts a shower of Christianity coverage in the mainstream media. Recently readers and viewers have been doused with reconstituted Jesus Seminar skepticism and a few location shots, but this year it seems even the journalists tiring of that game. The major newsweeklies shifted their coverage from the usual "Who was Jesus—really?" to such topics as Jerusalem in A.D. 33 (Time) and the growth of the early church (U.S. News). And this Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/PT, The History Channel will air a pleasantly surprising original documentary, "The Apostle Paul: The Man Who Turned the World Upside Down."
As anyone with passing knowledge of Acts is already aware, Paul's life story contains plenty of made-for-TV drama: dark past, supernatural conversion, travel, death threats, shipwreck, interpersonal conflicts, imprisonment. The documentary pretty much takes its details on these events straight from Acts: narrator Martin Sheen (whose voice lends an odd "West Wing" feel to the whole thing) simply reports that Paul's conversion and healing from his first stoning were "miraculous," his message was inspired by God, and he persuaded thousands to accept Christ. Another voice quotes Scriptures about the stories. The historicity of the book is, refreshingly, never questioned.
In addition to chronicling Paul's exciting life, the film touts his pivotal role in liberating Christianity from its Jewish trappings and transforming it into a world religion. One of the documentary's talking heads suggests that without Paul, we (21st-century non-Jews, presumably) might never have heard of Jesus. I don't quite buy the idea that God's worldwide mission rested entirely in Paul's hands, but then again, we're talking about the "Apostle to the Gentiles," relentless adversary of Judaizers, model for all Christian missionaries, and author, especially in Romans, of our clearest early doctrinal expositions. There's no doubt he was a "man who turned the world upside down."
Could the documentary have been better? Of course. It could have benefited from a bigger budget, fewer confusingly overlapping images, a more inspiring voice of God, more information on important people in Paul's life (Silas, Timothy, Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos are never even mentioned), and a better selection of talking heads. At least two of the on-screen "experts" have, as far as I could tell from a Web search, never published anything on Paul, the early church, or any related topics.
On the other hand, could the documentary have been worse? Oh my, yes. One of the experts who has never published on Paul, J. Gordon Melton, has published widely on vampires and the New Age movement, yet his on-screen comments don't come from left field. Neither—significantly—do anyone else's, though the commentators shown in basic agreement with one another hail from such diverse institutions as Georgetown, USC, and Asbury Theological Seminary. The co-producer of the feature, Paulist Productions, has ties to the Catholic Paulist order, yet the influence of Paul on reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin is noted in positive terms.
Also, though the documentary suggests that only seven New Testament epistles (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) can be attributed reliably to Paul, it remains mum on other Pauline controversies, such as his views on sexuality. Those discussions can be interesting and important, but a 90-minute documentary is not the place to explore them.
Obviously the makers of this documentary view neither Paul nor contemporary Christians with contempt. For that, and for sending me back to Acts thinking "I really should read this more often," I thank them.
* For a rundown of the newsweeklies' Christianity coverage this week, see Holy Weeklies—Again.
* The "Who was Jesus—really?" line of questioning will be taken up in two other documentaries this weekend, the BBC's "Jesus: The Complete Story" on the Discovery Channel (Sunday, 8 p.m.) and "The Face: Jesus in Art" on PBS (check local listings)
* Christian History delved into the life of Paul in issue 47, which is not available online but can be purchased at the Christian History Store.
Elesha can be reached at cheditor@ChristianityToday.com.
The online issue archive for Christian History goes as far back as Issue 51 (Heresy in the Early Church). Prior issues are available for purchase in the Christian History Store.
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