The last few years have been some of the bloodiest ever for Christians the world over. ISIS is in hiding, but their atrocities against believers remain fresh in memory. After thirty years of relative freedom, China’s new president-for-life is ramping up pressure against Churches. Iran arrests Christians and jails them without charges, North Korea routinely murders believers, and Boko Haram continues its rampages in Africa.

American believers aren’t as attuned to these realities as we should be, but the new film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, will help us connect not only with fellow believers around the world, but also with some of our own struggles with the faith.

If you are accustomed to being disappointed by Bible-themed films prepare to be encouraged. Paul, starring Jim Caviezel (Luke) and James Faulkner (Paul), is an excellent film that shows the gritty reality early Christianity. Though it is not a sweeping epic on the lines of Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments, as Paul’s life no doubt deserves, it is a compelling story simply told.

The film alternates between two locales’, Rome’s Mamertine prison, the stinking hell-hole where Paul spent his last days, and a large villa, home of Aquilla and Priscilla and a community of refugees from Nero’s persecution. The danger to believers is punctuated by the cries of human torches, Christians the emperor scapegoated for the fire that consumed half the city, and constant fear of arrest followed by death by wild beasts in Nero’s circuses.

World Radio’s movie critic Meghan Basham found fault with the film for weaving too many themes into one script, arguing instead for a long-running TV mini-series format. She has a point. I counted fourteen possible themes that would make—in the hands of the right producers and writers—good storytelling on the small screen. And I found a few petty problems, like Mamertine prison not being as nasty as we know it was, along with some costuming issues. But, the complexity of the plot kept me engaged. And the gritty realities of persecution, suffering for Christ, loving one’s enemies, and conflicting convictions between husbands and wives as each follows Christ’s call grip the viewer.

Further, we expect great acting from Caviezel and Faulkner, and we get it, as each man struggles under intense pressure to live in love and grace. But all the acting was excellent, not always a feature of Bible-themed films.

The storytellers of a culture shape the values of a culture. Jim Caviezel understands that. In an interview some years ago he said, “I want to make films that make a difference.” Paul, Apostle of Christ is just that. It’s a great way to introduce someone who doesn’t understand the history of the faith to the founding of the Church. And seeing it in theaters is the best way to make sure more stories like this make it to the large and small screen.

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