Last night was the screening of the movie, A Polite Bribe, which is about the life of the apostle Paul. The film especially focused on the ill-fated delivery of a collection of money from Gentile believers, via Paul, to mainly Judean believers in Jerusalem. After the screening was a brief panel discussion and audience Q & A with the director-writer, Robert Orlando. In the blog picture, the director is to my left and my two colleagues from other seminaries in Kansas City are on his left (Israel Kamudzandu from St. Paul School of Theology and Andy Johnson from Nazarene Theological Seminary).
It was amazing on a cold and windy Thursday night that the theater was filled with folks who wanted to see and hear about a bandy-legged visionary who crisscrossed the Mediterranean 2000 years ago. Below are some of my observations about the film.
1. I liked the animation presentation that was interwoven with interviews with leading New Testament scholars. I am a big fan of animation. This film was screened at the Tivoli Cinema. In the past this theater has hosted the Oscar nominated short-animated films, and I have often gone to see them. Typically documentaries have the narrator dressed up like Indiana Jones and walking among the ruins of Corinth, Antioch, Philippi, or some other city. The history channel is filled with these types of documentaries. The other type is where “actors,” dressed up in bathrobes and sandals, “reenact” some biblical scene by standing around a fire or running around in a little courtyard carrying a clay pot. This film, however, takes a very different approach with its appealing visual effects. The animation is quite different. It reminds me a little of the tableaus we use to create in shoeboxes in Vacation Bible School; however, this was much more sophisticated. The scenes were ones in which the camera would zoom in/out and around the drawings. It gave the images a 3-D effect. Particularly eye catching was the one scene depicting Paul escaping from Damascus (Acts 9:23-25) and also the one in which a beaten (unconscious?) Paul (Acts 21:27-36) seems to review the summary of his life in a dream-like state. I did have some questions about a few background scenes that were rather strange and didn’t really play into the film. For example, in what I took to be the Corinthian setting, some erotic scenes popped up in the background. Perhaps the director wanted to capture some of the alleged sexual context of the Corinthians environment, but these scenes/drawings were not the focus or mentioned at all.
2. The film does a good job of presenting the early Jesus movement in Jerusalem, and its spread throughout the Mediterranean world, as a complex movement. Too often an incorrect assumption exists of Christianity as a monolithic whole (catholic with a little c) with everyone on the same page and operating as a unity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Various trajectories of Christianity developed, and these could be (and often were) in intension with the larger pagan world but also with each other. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament represent a larger and bigger variety of Christianities (plural) than we often realize. This film illustrated well the tension that Paul’s activities would have generated with different strands of the Jesus movement. At this point, no orthodoxy existed; the Jesus movement was learning, developing, and adapting its way forward. Paul happens to be one of the most influential adapters.
3. This tension is illustrated in the film with Paul operating in two worlds: the Judean and Gentile. Perhaps nowhere better is this point illustrated than when Paul is depicted as going back to Jerusalem and taking his uncircumcised coworker Titus with him. As Paul points out, Titus did not need to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3). As one of the scholars in the film noted, no doubt Test-Case Titus was sweating it out. The film did not, however, note the contrasting situation with Timothy. Timothy, whose mother was Judean and father was a Gentile, had to be circumcised (Acts 16:3). Paul has a foot in both worlds and often gets caught between groups. In trying to hold together Judeans (Christians and non-Christians) with Gentile Christians, Paul could easily be misunderstood. One key principle for Paul, and perhaps something the film could have highlighted, is Paul’s theological reliance on the Shema (Deut 6:4), “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” There was not God for the Judeans and another God for the Gentiles. Gentiles did not need to become Judeans to enter into the promise accomplished through Jesus. God is God of both Gentiles and Judeans.
4. The film depicts the humanness of Paul. Paul often gets caricatured and stereotyped in some popular preaching and teaching. This film portrayal illustrates a Paul at times depressed and frustrated. The film illustrates this well by noting the lengthy time Paul spent in prison. This particular fact is often overlooked or given relatively little emphasis. Perhaps because we read and study Paul’s prison epistles (Philippians, Philemon, Ephesians and Colossians) over a short period of time, we compact Paul’s time in prison also. Paul was not a one-day prisoner like Henry David Thoreau or just a few weeks or months in confinement. He was imprisoned for years. As the film notes (I cannot remember if it was the narrator or one of the scholars who pointed this out), when Peter is imprisoned, a divine agent of God gets him out, but an imprisoned Paul languishes and God does nothing. This certainly would cause cognitive dissonance for Paul and raises the question: “Why?” Paul believes he was doing God’s work and was on a passionate mission and yet he was stymied. For years he could not actively do his work because of chains. (See the interesting book, Richard J. Cassidy, Paul in Chains: Roman Imprisonment and the Letters of St. Paul ). No doubt this experience helped Paul develop his cruciform theology of suffering. The movie highlights this connection with images of Paul superimposed upon a crucified Jesus.
5. At the end of the film is a brief thesis about how Gentile Christianity thrived while Judean Christianity did not. The film depicts the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Of course this event is after the death of Paul, but the narrators and scholars note that because of Paul’s colonizing of the Gentile Jesus-movement outside of the Judea/Galilee, it had a better chance of surviving (perhaps not unlike Pharisee-Judaism after the Temple’s destruction becauseof the network of synagogues in Israel). The implication seemed to be that James the brother of Jesus and other Judeans staked the community’s life around the center of Jerusalem, but once Jerusalem fell this trajectory of Christianity began to decline.
All in all, the film stimulated good discussion and thoughts. While I have highlighted some of the good aspects of the film here, the next blog posting will deal with more of the problematic issues.