In The Footsteps of St Paul and St Peter
(PG) Starring: David Suchet
The Apostles Peter and Paul are two men who were instrumental in actually changing the world. But despite more than 2000 years of reading in the Bible about them, as well as studying their letters, so many of us can still find these leading Christian figures remain a mystery. What were they really like? What was their world like and how did they go about navigating it, proclaiming a gospel message so radical it got both of them killed?
Looking to solve the mystery of Paul and Peter is Hercule Poirot. Well, almost. The beloved detective created by author Agatha Christie has been most famously played on-screen by English actor David Suchet. In a case of life imitating art, Suchet (who is a committed Christian) decided to investigate the two apostles. Unlike the fictional world Poirot exists in, Suchet’s sleuth work is real. He presents his findings in the documentaries In The Footsteps of St Paul and In the Footsteps of St Peter.
Made during the past few years and available on DVD this month, these engaging explorations are an easy way to get into Christian history. They provide insight and understanding about crucial Christian leaders, as well as The One upon whom their faith was based. Not that every single thing Suchet says or presents should be swallowed as fact. Often, he makes what seem to be off-handed remarks during key interviews, or speculates about Paul or Peter’s motivations — without evidence to support unconvincing claims.
But the whistle-stop tour he guides, through Biblical sites and revelations, is vast and considered. Suchet is a likeable and passionate host, and the personal vibe of these documentaries is appealing. As suggested by their titles, Suchet visits stacks of places that Paul and Peter are recorded as having intimately known. To direct the course of his investigations, he uses the Bible’s timelines and content. Scholars, religious leaders, archaeologists and other experts are interviewed for their input into the life and times of Suchet’s subjects.
As he tracks Paul, Suchet follows the Book of Acts’ itinerary. Along the way through the ancient ruins and roadways of Ephesus, Corinth, Athens or Rome, the esteemed actor combines questions, information and writings from Paul’s letters. He often “performs” the latter, using his skills to deliver the drama of written words.
This same approach of bringing together biblical, expert and personal material is applied to Peter as well. One of the most memorable moments is Suchet going through Matthew 16 and 17, at the sites where Jesus is believed to have told Peter, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:18), before that same disciple witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration (17:1-13). Like a micro-sermon on location, Suchet reminds us these events point to Jesus’ identity as The Messiah. At the same time, Suchet also provides historical detail, geographic oomph and impressive critique of what Matthew 16:18 actually refers to.
As should be the case with any documentary about ye olde figures, Suchet’s Footsteps take seriously the most reliable and relevant sources. In the cases being investigated by Suchet, those sources are the writings of the New Testament. The majority of information we have about Paul and Peter already has been revealed by the Bible. How Suchet contrasts all other details against what the Bible says is a subtle reminder about the weight and importance of God’s word.
However, while Suchet frequently treats the Bible as trustworthy and a fact file about what happened in the early years of “The Jesus Movement”, he also calls the Bible into question. He raises valid issues about whether Paul hated women or changed his mind about when Jesus was coming back, yet Suchet’s conclusions on such topics are quick and unsubstantiated. The main problem is he suggests Paul’s letters on these topics are so “of Paul’s time” that the timelessness of divinely inspired Scripture is challenged. Given Suchet elsewhere upholds Paul’s writings as the unchanging word of God, how can he also suggest they are not?
A similar undermining of God’s role in human efforts occurs as Suchet praises the leaders he is investigating. When Suchet salutes Paul for becoming “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22), or admiringly wonders why Peter chucked in his job to follow Jesus, he doesn’t mention the work of God’s Spirit in guiding the lives and decisions of the apostles. Such an absence of giving credit to God is odd, considering how convicted and moved Suchet is by the God-given mission of Peter and Paul.
Bringing up these criticisms is so we are reminded to assess the proclamations and speculations of Suchet’s Footsteps. As we weigh them up, we discover Suchet has put together a thoughtful and enthusiastic pilgrimage into the birth of Christianity. Rather than just stoke an interest in ancient history, it also can fan the flames of any Christian’s faith.
At the end of the Paul documentary, Suchet’s reading from 1 Corinthians 15 is a heartfelt pointer to what the Christian faith is all about – the way, truth and resurrection life of Jesus.
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