How to Use Movies to Energize Your Bible Engagement

Going deeper into the story of Paul

A new Hollywood movie depicts the life and ministry of the apostle Paul. It should get the usual promotional buzz, at least for its opening weekend—and its release is timed to coincide with Easter. For those of us who promote Scripture engagement, there are important questions to consider. Is this a great opportunity or a major distraction? Will it spark interest in the Bible among a new group of people—unchurched moviegoers—or will it reawaken interest among bored parishioners? Will it bring the Bible to life, or will it misrepresent the clear message of Scripture?

The answers may depend on us. If this is an opportunity, what will we do with it?

Are movies helpful?

Face it: we Christians can get starstruck just like anyone else. When Hollywood takes on the story we have majored in, we can get excited. It’s as if our beliefs are validated. The larger culture is recognizing what we’ve known all along—the Bible is full of gripping drama and great characters. From a ministry standpoint, we rejoice in the millions of people who will be viewing biblical truth.

If they don’t screw it up.

We’ve been down this road before. Other films have tackled biblical themes with mixed results, sometimes disappointing results. Filmmakers don’t always treat Scripture with the respect we’d like to see. This uncertainty about the treatment creates a wait-and-see attitude, which makes it hard to plan ahead for any film-related programs.

Paul: Apostle of Christ

In this case, Paul: Apostle of Christ is firmly biblical. It’s set in a time a few years after the book of Acts concludes, when Roman Emperor Nero had imprisoned Paul and was savagely persecuting Christians. This is historically accurate. The film creates a significant plotline from a minor scriptural detail: Luke visiting Paul in prison to complete the book of Acts (see 2 Timothy 4:11). And it’s nice to see that the Bible itself becomes a pivotal character in this story. Paul’s story must be written and shared. In the film, the biblical events of Paul’s life are presented in flashback.

Our question remains: What can we do with this? Rather than expect a movie to do our Bible-engagement work for us, we should think about how we might work alongside this movie—and its promotional efforts—to lead more people into the biblical story.

What happens after people see the movie?

Even the most devout, true-to-the-Bible movie provides just two hours or so of actual Bible engagement. Yet we know the power of the silver screen. People can be deeply affected by a story. It can change lives. Can interest in a biblical story lead to a next step of interaction? What next steps can we provide?

You may already be thinking of throwing a “viewing party” in which, say, a Bible study group watches the movie together and goes out afterward to discuss it. Imagine that happening church-wide.

But what then? What might happen in the weeks and months to come? The book of Acts is great material for ongoing Bible study, and it could fuel your group curriculum for quite a while. Of course, it could also fill the preaching schedule. Consider interweaving the Acts accounts with the epistles—Acts 16 with Philippians and so on. The strategy is simple: If the film stirs new interest in Paul, build on that to drive people back to the source material.

We’re trying to bridge the gap between a single viewing experience and the personal discipline of an ongoing Bible-engagement habit. There are hundreds of ideas you could try. A few of them might work.

Could you challenge the people you lead to read a chapter of Acts each day for the four weeks after Easter—providing the appropriate notes and helps and apps? Could you dare them to read an entire Pauline epistle every week through the summer season? Post study tips and questions on the church website to keep people connecting with the content.

Use your imagination

It’s possible to divide all Bible study methods into two types. You can study the actual lines of the text, or you can read between the lines. We need both approaches.

A film, by its very nature, must operate between the lines. It is a visual medium, and there are zillions of visual details the Bible text does not tell us. The scriptural narrative often leaves out parts of the story that a filmmaker must depict. Purists often object to the creative license used in film treatments of Scripture, but a certain amount of conjecture is necessary.

But this isn’t just a matter of the artistic medium. The history of Bible study has long included allegorical interpretation, rabbinic extrapolation, the imaginative meditation of Lectio Divina, Ignatian gospel contemplation, and even biblical fiction. In tandem with close attention to the actual text, such creativity can be extremely helpful.

So a film like Paul: Apostle of Christ might serve to spark the imagination of the people you lead. If they’ve been doing line-by-line study of Scripture, this “between the lines” approach might be a welcome change. It might spark fresh questions, not only about what was happening to Paul and his associates, but also what that might mean to us today.

Emails from Paul

We at American Bible Society have had the opportunity to participate with the makers of this film in one small way. We’ve created a series of emails with text chosen from the epistles of Paul (in the Good News Translation, which we find very fresh and personal). People can sign up and receive these “emails from Paul” twice a week during Lent. (You can also get an audio link with the text read by the actor who plays Paul in the film. How cool is that?)

We’re hoping that this might personalize Paul’s message for people. Perhaps when they see the film, Paul will seem like an old friend, and they’ll connect with his situation. Maybe this will also nudge some people toward a regular habit of Scripture engagement that will last long after the film closes.

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