Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Footprints of God—Paul: Contending for the Faith (2004)

I think the Apostle Paul is fascinating, so I recently rented this documentary about his life. It is part of a multi-volume series, “The Footprints of God,” but this is the only one I have ever watched. It was produced by a Catholic film company.

To be quite honest, my husband couldn’t get beyond the cheesy film techniques. The narrator was an American who dressed a bit like the Crocodile Hunter. His analogies and theatrics were at times a little over the top. My husband kept laughing and shaking his head.

I agreed the documentary’s style had a high cheese factor, but I was able to overlook these cinematic foibles. I thought the film did a great job of telling St. Paul’s story in greater detail than a lay person can glean from just reading the Bible. The documentary wove together coherently many different parts of the New Testament, as well as the research insights of historians, anthropologists and archeologists.

I would characterize the film as being like an episode of Rick Steves’ show if he became a televangelist with a Catholic bent. The narrator told the story of St. Paul’s life while traveling to the various places the apostle lived. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to visit the places where the people described in the Bible lived, so it was fascinating to at least see what those varied places look like via film.

There were several aspects of the film’s telling of Paul’s life that struck me in particular. I have always been amazed at the conversion story of Paul. A devout, zealous Jew goes from persecuting Christians to becoming the most celebrated Christian evangelist and missionary of all time. What a dramatic 180! The film talks about Paul’s prior confidence in the righteousness of his own observance of the Mosaic laws and persecution of the Christians. Then he has a miraculous encounter with the post-Easter Jesus, who asks “Why are you persecuting me?” The narrator emphasizes that Jesus did not ask why Paul was persecuting the church or his people, but “me.” The film talks about how that encounter laid the foundation for much of Paul’s later theology.

Subsequent to the encounter, Paul is humbled; he is physically blinded and led to Damascus like a child. The Bible tells us that the miraculous encounter on the road to Damascus convinced Paul that some of his most strongly held beliefs had been incorrect. What tremendous humility Paul must have had to accept that. It is probably human nature to be very confident in our own beliefs and think others are wrong. I’m not sure all of us would have had Paul’s humility to admit he had not been as correct as he thought. What a great example for the rest of us.

The film also describes Paul’s later presentation to the leadership of the early Christians, and how he spent a number of days alone with Peter, who gave him instruction in the faith. How remarkable that Peter, who had much to fear and mistrust from Paul, was able to see that God was going to use Paul to spread his message of unconditional love. And it was striking that Paul, the learned scholar, would humble himself to take instruction from Peter, an uneducated fisherman. How amazing that God can use each of us, regardless of our backgrounds, to do great things. I admire Peter’s courage. And again, I admire Paul’s humility.

It was also amazing to me that Paul was almost constantly in trouble with the authorities. He was often jailed, or he was fleeing those who wanted to arrest him. I guess I had not previously thought of St. Paul as an outlaw. But indeed that is exactly the point that the film made. The film demonstrates quite dramatically the daring escapes Paul made to avoid capture by the authorities, and it describes how he was often fleeing just one step ahead of the law. It is interesting to me that Paul did not just turn himself in to authorities when they were looking for him. On at least one occasion, God did perform a miracle to get him out of jail. And Paul trusted God fully, constantly putting himself in harm’s way to do what he understood to be God’s will. Paul survived all kinds of things that ought to have ended his life, e.g., shipwrecks, a snake bite, a stoning. As a result, Paul did not have reason to fear the authorities. But perhaps Paul did not equate compliance with misguided human laws or fallible human authorities with compliance with God’s will.

Acts 16:25-26 (King James)

But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.

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