And here’s the kicker: This second version of the film becomes the only story ever known. But critics discover some telling differences between the facts of the new story and the original reviews, mainly regarding a collection of money. The plot has changed. Central characters have been moved around. Yet the story plays well to an entirely new audience; it is a great triumph. Moguls stand behind it. Teams of new critics are hired to support the film. The original gets edited (redacted), and at times silenced, for controversial comments. So some of the new story contradicts the original version. The final scene (Jerusalem) no longer makes sense. And the world has changed since that earlier screening.
As a filmmaker and independent New Testament scholar, the above is how I would describe my latest project, after more than 20 years poring over the letters of the apostle Paul, I am finally retelling the narrative in its original form. It is a task I feel quite suited for; when I was only 17, I developed something of an obsession with Paul, his character, his narrative, and how he has been understood throughout history. Since then, to test the case for Paul, I have read voraciously and also traveled widely to talk with the world’s leading Pauline scholars.
As my own career as a writer and director was gaining success, I began to probe more into Paul as the storyteller, the bringer of his own unique version of the evangelion⎯the good news⎯to the gentile world. And to ask very tough questions about how his career began and ended, and how his life was recorded. I wanted to splice the missing original frames back into the film, and turn on the projector. A Polite Bribe is the culmination of my life’s two marquee journeys, to tell the Paul storyon film. My goal has been to paint a fresh, human, and dogma-free picture of Paul by directly challenging several of the “cover stories” that many in the Church have held to for nearly two millennia. To shatter the image of the man fixed on stained glass, and instead to recast a complex, flesh-and-blood man based on his own words (his letters).
Finding the new Paul, the man, not only led me to rethink my personal faith, it led me to question the world as we’ve had it presented to us, particularly in the religious realm. I came to see how a story can be accepted based on its emotional power, or spiritual promise, regardless of its accuracy. This apostle’s impact on modernity is immeasurable. Nearly every aspect of Western culture has been affected by Pauline ideas, but it is apparent–even with just a small amount of digging–that Paul the man and Paul the ideal are two very separate people.
Take Luke-Acts, for instance. Here is something of a biography of Paul; however, one written 30-plus years after his death, for Luke’s political purposes. It presents a mythic, mystical holy man rather than the often pedantically concerned, crudely political, and personally troubled Paul that comes out of the epistles. There has been a bit of whitewashing going on. Just remember the Indian government’s production of a film about Gandhi. It won mass acclaim, numerous awards. The only problem was that most of it was veneered propaganda, crafted to create the myth of a perfect Indian state, for the government’s own ends. Like Luke-Acts, much of it was true. But also, like with the epistles, if you read Gandhi’s letters, you’ll find some of his story was profoundly different, and with this slight shift in perspective, you encounter a very different man.
It is only through patching together Paul’s critiques, commentaries, and praise for the early Christian churches, writings which are akin to the lost film’s critical reviews, that we can gain an accurate account of what Paul’s Christ and the fledgling church looked like. Paul’s letters track a number of journeys he takes from the mission field back to Jerusalem. At each return, he finds the level of antagonism between the Jewish Christians and the non-Christian Jews in Jerusalem mounting; ultimately, he is almost killed by a mob at the Temple while in one final effort to reconcile himself to his people.
Paul’s ministry is defined by a widening fault line. It is the line between those who believe the Jesus cult is inherently Jewish and Paul himself, who seeks to include the gentile world in the religion of Christ. He, with his apocalyptic fervor being almost an anti-hero, adopts a brash and lonely stance to challenge the establishment and take on the likes of James, the very brother of Jesus, and Peter, his most trusted disciple. You can find ample evidence to support this narrative of Paul within Paul’s own writing. And, through careful study, with in-depth interviews from the world’s leading Pauline scholars, present a coherent picture of Paul the man that is far different from the popular conception.
In summary, with Paul, we have a few honest reviews from a first-century film critic tasking himself with describing a grand, challenging, and exciting narrative about the foundation of much of Western religion. And, for various reasons, we have ignored what he’s said. We have muffled his voice. We have changed the original story into self-fulfilling myth. My task is digging into the writer’s notes to recast the film in order to call forth a real and challenging Paul, for the sake of better knowing our history and knowing ourselves.