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.
Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Christianity Today's Weblog offered a rundown of the newsweeklies' Christianity stories on Monday.
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 available online at Christian History.
Earlier Christianity Today articles about Paul include: "The Quest for the Historical Paul | Would your congregation want this apostle to be its pastor?" (Aug. 11, 1997) and "In Search of the Lost Churches of Paul | Turkey is inviting Christians to discover its biblical legacy"(Aug. 10, 1998).
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
Image Is Everything | The Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues is only the latest controversy over the Second Commandment. (Apr. 6, 2001)
Christian Education for All | The first Sunday schools provide a positive example of government partnerships with faith-based organizations.(Mar. 23, 2001)
The Sport of Saints? | Forget St. Pat's. It's time for March Madness, baby! (And yes, it's Christian.) (Mar. 16, 2001)
Digging in China | Christianity in the world's most populous country may be a lot older than anybody imagined. (Mar. 9, 2001)
Food for the Soul? | Lenten traditions range from fowl-turned-fish to pretzels. (Mar. 2, 2001)
The Radical Kirk | The Church of Scotland has a long history of intense reforms. (Feb. 23, 2001)
Marching to Zion | The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church celebrates its 200th anniversary today. (Feb. 16, 2001)
Innovating with the Flow | John and Charles Wesley harnessed the momentum of their time. (Feb. 9, 2000)
Dangerous Myth-Conceptions | A new book traces the origins of historical misunderstandings about Christianity. (Feb. 2, 2001)
1,700 Years of Faith | Armenian Christians celebrate their heritage and look to their future. (Jan. 26, 2001)
This Is Your Life | Exploring the "well-worn sawdust trail" between fundamentalists and evangelicals. (Jan. 19, 2000)
The Heavens Declare the Glory of God | Like Paul, Galileo believed that God made himself known through creation. (Jan. 5, 2000)