Love Is The Only Way: The Death of Storytelling in the Twenty-First Century

Victor Chininin Buele

My wife and I were invited to a screening of Paul, Apostle of Christ.  I walked away from the movie deeply saddened. There are a ton of thoughts I have about the movie, but the one that is most important is the death of storytelling in the twenty-first century.  With The Fate of the Furious and Toy Story 4 and every possible franchise coming to a similar predicament, I find myself more and more frustrated by movies.  We have lost storytelling.

I would not recommend the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ at all.  It fails to tell the story.  I understand that you have to build screenplays and more “robust” stories to keep an audience’s attention.  I understand that there are 10,000 details that are not present in the pages of scripture.  We don’t know what clothes Paul wore, we don’t know the physical details of the jail where he was, we don’t really know Aquilla and Priscilla.  Pictures were not included.

So, there is a lot of room for the imagination.  And that’s fine.  And understood.  My commentary does not come from that.  Creativity must be exercised when trying to bring a story from the page to the big screen.

My commentary relates to bad storytelling.

What we do know is that Paul died preaching the gospel he once opposed.  Paul died proclaiming the Messiah he had once persecuted.  He died because he believed that God sent His Son Jesus Christ to become a man, to live a perfect life, to die a brutal death, to rise three days later, and to be raised up in glory.  He died because he proclaimed his witness of this message throughout the Ancient World.  He died because his Spirit-given boldness could not be silenced.  He died with a certainty that he had finished the race.  He died without fear of not being accepted by Christ.

The Paul portrayed in this movie was not the man I have admired, respected, hated at times, been instructed by, been convicted by.  The Paul portrayed in this movie was not the Paul that wrote the words that were put at times in the mouth of the actor.  The Paul of this movie dispensed wishy-washy Oprah advice to a suffering people.  The words of the Paul of this movie (or the lack of words) brought about division, anxiety, fear, and death, rather than the comfort and peace that the words of Paul in Scripture bring to us even today.

Paul is in prison in the movie, and the Roman prefect in charge of the prison has a daughter.  This girl is dying.  The prefect obeys all the rituals to the gods and goddesses to ensure his girl would live.  He is having marital problems because his wife blames him for their girl’s illness saying he is angering the gods by being a little lenient with Paul and Luke (who in this movie sneaked in the prison to write the Acts of the Apostles from Paul’s stories).  As anyone could predict, eventually the illness gets so bad that the prefect calls for Luke.  Luke comes and the girl is healed.  All the Christians end up praying for the girl.  The girl goes from being dead to being radiant.  So, this gets Paul some time alone with the prefect under the sun.  The Paul of the Bible would have been gracious, humble, and bold to proclaim the gospel to this prefect.  Acts 26 comes to mind and his defense portrayed there before King Agrippa.  The Paul of this movie gave a somewhat decent metaphor about water that I predict will be used in many sermons in the years to come.  Then he said a couple of platitudes.  A sentence of comedy relief.  He said, “I’m not trying to convince you.”  The whole theater laughed.  I don’t think Paul would have laughed at that.  In verse 28, Agrippa asks Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul responds in verse 29, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am–except for these chains.”  Paul was most definitely trying to convince Agrippa.

Sure, you can argue that you don’t want to alienate people who want to watch the movie for entertainment purposes.  You can argue that you are building a bridge.  You can argue a lot of things.  But make up a story for that.  Put the words you want in the mouth of a police officer or a football player or a firefighter.  If you are going to take the life of a man from the pages of Scripture whose life is a manifestation of human weakness magnifying the power of God, tell the story.  Add your art.  Add your music.  Add extra-scriptural details.  But don’t change the character of the man.

Summarizing the theology of Paul as “Love is the only way” falls far short.  While I was thankful for the glimpses of the tragic persecution our forefathers faced and for the reminder of the blood that was spilled to guard the treasure that we now get to buy and carry and read and share freely, the portrayal of Christians as belligerent, vengeful, and defeated left me pondering the consequences of storytelling like this.  People who have never read the Bible and people who may never read the Bible and people who read the Bible can take bits and pieces of this and strengthen what they want to hear instead of sound doctrine.  That would have grieved Paul gravely.  Yes, the story arc of Luke having to overcome the temptation to not seek to heal the daughter of the prefect, even as many brothers and sisters were being thrown to the beasts at the Coliseum, is an important one.  The triumph of love over hate.  The triumph of love over abuse and violence.

But the movie never defined the source of this Love.  Yes, there is 1 Corinthians 13.  But that Love, that Love needs to be defined.  We can’t leave it to the imagination or to whatever feels right to us in the moment

The movie was left with these empty pockets for you to fill in with whatever makes it work for you.  I was really confused to hear pastors speak of the prefect’s conversion.  The prefect never proclaimed Christ as Lord.  He stood by as Paul was killed.  We saw a bit of a happy ending in this life for the prefect and his family, but we weren’t told anything.

They had Paul speak parts of his epistles as he would move through the movie.

We keep doing violence to storytelling when we take our view of the world and our feelings and our agenda into stories from the past.  We need to let stories be the stories they are.  We don’t get to rewrite history.  The subject of the married life of Aquila and Priscilla as portrayed in the picture is highly anachronistic and Scripturally suspect. That can be a conversation for another time.

The biggest disappointment of this movie was that the gospel was never proclaimed.  There is not a letter of Paul that does not proclaim the gospel.  This was clearly a case of bad storytelling.

It was so strange to walk into a movie theater and see you’re being (1) manipulated (constant repetition of “Love is the only way”), and (2) treated as a gullible demographic.  Because actor x is in a movie you all went crazy about years ago, we are sure you’re going to love this movie.  Because it barely touches upon the Bible, we are certain you are all going to come in and hand over your money, bring your friends and all.  People were clapping in the end.  People laughed at the comedy relief thrown sporadically.  People left ready to bring their churches in to watch this.  It’s been released right before Easter so I’m sure many will think this is the next big thing that will bring the world to the gospel.

But when we step back, we find that the most wonderful story, the one that our souls long for, and the only story that makes sense of our existence was never mentioned.

The trailer mentioned this, but it wasn’t in the movie:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15–17 ESV)

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