Whenever a new movie or show based on the Bible is released, I usually worry first about the historical accuracy. Even if a series intends to remain faithful to the text, there is inevitably extra dialogue or moments of action that add to the portrayal of Biblical figures. So I often find myself wondering, “Is the dialogue in line with Scripture? Do the actors distort the personalities of saints negatively or romanticize the sins of others?” And while those are necessary questions, they don’t invalidate the usefulness of a new form of media in portraying the events of Scripture.
One benefit from these films is that we are reminded of the very real and three dimensional nature of the men and women in Biblical narratives. I was reminded of this as I read Mike Aquilina’s Ministers and Martyrs, companion to NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on NBC on Sundays at 9/8c). Aquilina writes there,
“Modern readers tend to see the Gospel through a filter of tradition. We see individual characters as we have been trained to see them. The text may present them as complex, with a variety of competing virtues and failings, but our mental shorthand reduces them to a single quality.”
Aquilina uses as example here, Thomas the Apostle, whom we often think of simply as a symbol of doubt. We forget his commitment to Jesus and his profession in the Gospel of John of his desire to go to Judea to die with his Master. We also ignore his later work as missionary to the most distant land of any apostle, India.
The less we know about certain Biblical figures, the more we tend to simplify them. They can become quite two dimensional to us, background “characters” instead of real men and women who actually lived and interacted with each other and – in some cases – with God.
Reducing Biblical men and women to mere characters undermines not just the historical reality of Christianity but also the core of the Gospel message. As we’ve just relived the events of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection during Holy Week, we’re reminded that our Catholic faith is centered on a moment in time and on a real place where real figures lived. We’re also reminded, in suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus that these events cannot be mere stories. Our faith depends upon their reality.
The historical accuracy of events may not be nearly as important to other religions. A Buddhist, for instance, could practice Buddhism whether or not everything said about Siddhārtha Gautama proved true. This was often true of religions popular around the time of Christ. Their tenets were, as Aquilina says, “couched… in Allegory.” The origin stories of these religions were often unverifiable. I’m reminded here of a joke about the laziness of Ancient Greeks, that their gods were said to live at the top of a very climbable hill yet no one ever bothered to go up there and check. Many faiths do not stand or fall according to their historicity. But Christians do not simply follow the teachings of an individual. We place our faith in a person who lives and died and rose again. As Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14 “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.”
Given the importance of our faith’s historical reality, it can often be helpful to step back from the stained-glass images we have in our minds of Jesus and his apostles. Not because stained glass and icons are bad. On the contrary, they are incredibly useful for delving into theological truths. Still, it can be helpful at times to step back and remember the men and women of the New Testament not as icons but as they were in the flesh. To remember them as real people who got dirty and sweaty, who ate and drank, who struggled with normal tasks as well as their weighty challenges we hear described in Scripture.
Seeing the events of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles on screen can offer a fresh perspective on stories many of us have heard dozens of times. This perspective can help us remember the flesh and blood reality of our faith. Of course, the fact that our faith IS based on a historical reality ought to make us skeptical of speculation and deviation from Scripture and tradition. The questions I mentioned earlier about historical accuracy are still valid. But what about those Apostles and saints we know precious little about from Scripture? This is where it can be incredibly helpful to have a guide to the history and tradition that gives us such a rich understanding of the truth of the Scriptures. Mike Aquilina’s Ministers and Martyrs does a fantastic job of summarizing and making accessible much of what we know about the time of the Acts of the Apostles. Here in this Easter season is a great time to reacquaint ourselves with the reality of our Risen Lord!