[Blanket spoiler alert for the movie Paul. And for the New Testament.]
After the sci-fi road comedy Paul opened last week, some saw in it a strong advocacy for, of all things, atheism. Jesse Taylor of Pandagon called it “the most openly pro-atheist movie I’ve ever seen.” The Catholic News Service decried its “militant atheism” and its “explicit rejection of Christian faith and morals.”
Lord, have mercy. Why does this little stoner alien have these commenters so worked up? Paul does more than just make alien probe jokes while he runs from government agents and tries to get back to his spaceship. He also shatters the worldview of a fundamentalist Christian (Kristen Wiig’s character) and makes cutting remarks against religion and faith in general along the way.
Both of the above commenters are probably reading too much into his seemingly pro-atheist commentary, mostly because the targets of the satire are clearly on the lunatic fringe of American Christianity. I mean, you can’t take a character wearing an “Evolve This” t-shirt depicting God shooting Darwin with a gun as a stand-in for mainstream religion:
Nevertheless, it’s still notable the extent to which religion plays a significant role in this film. Most sci-fi stories skirt the issue entirely (does anyone in Star Trek ever go to church?), but this one spends significant time
probing exploring the topic.
So it shouldn’t surprise you that a movie called Paul in which the characters struggle with Christianity actually borrows heavily from the Apostle Paul and his story.
What’s that? You are surprised? Well, it’s a good thing I wrote this article to explain what, exactly, those connections are and to explore the extent to which Paul is or isn’t “anti-Christian” or “pro-atheist.”
Let’s start with the name itself. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, who wrote the movie in addition to starring in it, could just as easily have named the alien “Frank,” “Chad,” or something else that Anglophone audiences typically associate with slackers and stoners. But they chose a biblical name instead. Many Christians attach great significance to names and whether or not they’re from the Bible (hence the existence of christianbabynamesandmeanings.com) precisely because they want people to make a subconscious distinction between a person with a biblical name and their counterpart in the scriptures.
Also, it helps that the name “Paul” roughly translates to “small” in Latin. (Thanks, christianbabynamesandmeanings.com)
But enough riffing on the name. Let’s get into the Text with a capital T, shall we?
The one thing most people know about Paul is that he underwent a dramatic conversion to Christianity after making a career of persecuting Christians. God revealed himself to Paul on the road to Damascus and, in a flash, turned him from a hater in to a player. This act of radical transformation is essential to his identity; it shows that God works through atypical agents, and it shows that no one is beyond the point of saving and redemption.
Given this context, let’s examine the events of the movie Paul. Although we don’t see it happen on-screen, the alien Paul goes through a radical conversion after arriving on this planet. He goes from the ultimate outsider–a literal alien–to pot-smoking, R&B jammin’, cool-guy insider sometime in between crash-landing in 1947 and meeting Pegg and Frost in 2009.
But since we don’t see Paul’s conversion, we take for granted his status as a fully acculturated alien-turned-resident. We do, however, witness the Kristen Wiig character’s conversion, which is by far the most interesting and direct connection to the story of the Apostle Paul in this movie.
This is how the “conversion” goes down. Pegg, Frost, and Paul meet Wiig at an RV camper facility run by Wiig’s redneck father, also a devout fundamentalist Christian. Wiig steps into the RV and questions Pegg and Frost on their faith. Upon hearing of their lack thereof, Wiig begins to lecture them on how we’re all created in God’s image. Paul overhears all of this while hiding and out of frustration reveals himself to Wiig, who promptly faints. This is only the first part of her dramatic conversion; after she wakes up, she alternately refuses to believe that Paul is real and accuses him of being a demon. Paul responds by telepathically sharing his knowledge of the universe and science to Wiig, and at that moment, she experiences conversion from fundamentalist devotion to secularism. She then spends the rest of the movie hurling curse words and contemplating how to “fornicate freely.” Granted, she stops short of proselytizing her newfound “faith” with the zeal of the Apostle Paul, but her transformation is just as complete as both the alien and the apostle.
It’s an interesting subversion of the apostle’s story, but one that ultimately leads to similar outcomes. Wiig escapes from a destructive past life of ignorance, “persecuting” those that don’t share her beliefs, to embracing those same people and leading them to salvation–in this case, Paul’s escape from Earth and Pegg & Frost’s attainment of success in their science fiction comic book careers. Just like Acts and Paul’s Letters…except with less Jesus and God in the mix.
So, about this act of subversion. Sure, it’s a reversal on one hand, but on the other hand it remains true to a lot of the essentials of the original. Fans of previous Pegg/Frost movies should be having an “ah-ha” moment about now, so in case you’re not in that category, allow me to explain:
Shawn of the Dead: clever parody of zombie movies that both lampoons many of the genre’s conventions yet stays true to the social commentary through use of gore and violence that defines the genre.
Hot Fuzz: clever parody of American cop movies that both lampoons many of the genre’s conventions yet stays true to the portrayal of heroism through use of fetishized gun violence that defines the genre.
Paul: clever parody of the New Testament that…
OK, you get the point, right? Paul, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz all have fun at the expense of their source material, yet never full deviate from the spirit of the source material. Which is important when we consider the perceived pro-atheism or anti-Christianity of Paul. My whole point with drawing these parallels between the Apostle Paul’s conversion and Wiig’s conversion is that even though this part of the story appears on the surface to be a repudiation of Christianity, it retains enough of the original spirit that it in a small way validates Christianity.
Even Paul’s pseudo-scientific “healing” powers, which could be construed as pro-secular digs at Christianity, help bolster this argument that the movie isn’t entirely rejecting Christianity. For those that haven’t seen the movie, the alien Paul uses his healing powers to resurrect a dead bird (before eating it to great comedic effect), heal Wiig’s long-deformed eye (yup, sight to the blind), and finally, to save Pegg’s life after he takes a shotgun blast to the chest (Paul almost dies so that we might have life).
Throughout the movie, Paul’s powers are explained as some sort of “science,” but, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, Paul’s “scientific” healing powers function essentially as supernatural or magical powers. More importantly, by the end, Paul does so in an act of pure sacrifice and charity. He literally takes on Pegg’s chest wound and nearly dies from it himself when he could have just hopped on his spaceship and sailed on home.
The Apostle Paul had some of these tricks up his sleeve, too:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
[The young man] fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!”
And trust me, he is not having a fun time while he’s out spreading the good news and performing miracles:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
2 Corinthians 11:23-27
So why does he do it, if it’s so hard?
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Because just as Christ suffered to comfort us, so we must suffer to comfort others. Paul (the alien)’s selfless act of healing is just as the Apostle Paul describes it here, just without the Jesus stuff.
Now, some would say that the fact that both Pauls express selflessness doesn’t point to some sort of pro-Christian hidden message in the movie. And they’d be right. But again, I point to the existence of this plot point as an indication that the movie at least isn’t truly anti-Christian in the sense that it stands against the fundamentals of “Christian morals” as the Catholic News Service so strongly states.
Perhaps I’m setting a low bar for what it means to be “Christian” and the Catholic News Service is setting an extremely high bar for what it means to be “Christian.” When judging a movie like Paul from such drastically different standards, it’s not surprising at all that different observers will come up with different observations.
As for the movie’s “pro-atheism”: to my knowledge, no one in the movie flat out denies the existence of God, or a God, not even Paul. The movie clearly comes out against fundamentalist Christianity, but I don’t think it’s as clearly against theistic religion in the same way. [Note: if anyone has seen this movie and can speak to this point, please do so in the comments.]
I went into writing this article thinking that comparing the alien Paul to the Apostle Paul was merely a cheap joke that could be converted into a starting point for a discussion of themes of Christianity in this movie, and I was surprised to find that after writing it, the story of the Apostle Paul is actually key to understanding how this movie deals with Christianity. It’s not kind to Christianity’s lunatic fringe and its dogmatic interpretation of the faith, but at its heart, it espouses ideas that are right in line with the Apostle Paul’s teachings: the power of conversion, miraculous healing, and selfless sacrifice.
Hmm… interesting. I never thought of Paul in this manner. Maybe these Christians are on one of the more radical ones. I mean some of them are crazy enough to condemn gays and lesbians. I’ve even heard some claim that reading comic books(or at least comic book conventions) is a sin. Their reason for that is… you praise(?) these people with godlike powers or something like that. The crowd that says Dungeons and Dragons is Satanist.
I study in a Catholic school. There are some gays and the people in the school are aware of it and they don’t bring pitchforks to burn these guys. There have been people(like me) who brought some comic book issues(if you want to be specific, some Batman, Infinite Crisis, Iron Man, THOR, Final Crisis,etc) and weren’t punished for bringing them. Even an alumni told me that they played Dungeons and Dragons in the 70s and 80s inside the school and nobody told them it was Satanist. I see no reason to condemn Paul for it is good in its genre(satire). I believe God exists and I don’t think that Paul is pro-atheist like you said. Instead I think it’s more of a social commentary and possibly an experiment to test what would the more radical and close enough to normal Christian would say.
Whether it’s pro or anti Christianity, it doesn’t matter. It is a satire and it is a great one. Maybe they were trying to make a point, but I still haven’t figured it out.
Before the Biblical scholars out there jump all over me, I should go ahead and say that obviously, there are a lot of differences with the Apostle Paul’s theology and the ideas endorsed by the movie: sexism & sex, most notably. Feel free to bring up examples in the comments, but do cite your chapters and verses. ;)
Ahh, well it turns out that Paul might not have actually written those bits (that the fundies love) about women needing to shut up and be subservient.
According to scholars (see Misquoting Jesus for an in-depth explanation), the earliest versions do not contain those bits.
So its likely that Paul was not a misogynist as generally thought, but his name and authority were hijacked at a later date to tell those uppity women to get back to the kitchen.
Ah, I didn’t know that. The things they didn’t teach you in Sunday School, but you later learn in the comments section of Overthinking It.
Is this what you’re referring to when you’re referring to “Misquoting Jesus”?
I dunno, I thought the movie was fairly explicit in rejecting the idea of God, even though, as you say, it’s lampooning fundamentalism rather than Christianity as a whole. It would have been interesting (if outside the film’s scope) to explore the possibility of believing in both God and extraterrestrial life, which I – and apparently the Catholic church (
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0905002.htm – do.
Well, as a Catholic I have never discarded the possibility that there are aliens. Besides there is a thing called theistic evolution(I’m not sure if it’s called this). The gist is there are some Christians who are convinced of both God and evolution. I still don’t like the more radical ones who were too quick to condemn Darwin, Galilei, witches, etc.
“I dunno, I thought the movie was fairly explicit in rejecting the idea of God…”
You may be right–I don’t have a good recollection of the specifics of the movie’s dialogue in this regard. Can you bring up any examples?
Afraid I can’t remember either – the movie came out 6 weeks ago here in the UK, so it’s a while since I saw it – so I guess it could just be a matter of our differing interpretations. Just like with the Glee episode on religion: atheists seemed to think it was on the side of the Christians, while Christians thought it sided with the atheists.
Apologies if I’m not making sense. I am somewhat addled on flu medication.
It seemed to me that most of the characters accepted the premise that the existence of extraterrestrial life meant that the Judeo-Christian God as described in the bible could not exist. Of course, that could just be that all the Christians were the hard-core fundamentalist kind.
However, Paul himself seemed to be quite certain that there was no God, based on his advanced understanding of the universe.
I just watched it and the most explicit from Paul is when the Dad says a goodbye to him “God be with you.” and Paul says “Whatever dude.” Also after Paul heals Pegg, Dad says “It’s a miracle! God has delivered his healing hands!” Wiig says, “I can’t believe these people.” Also the dialogue in the RV Paul says “Bullshit.” to her Intelligent Design theory.
Which given that Paul does have such vast knowledge does seem he’s explicitly rejecting the idea of a Christian God, and possibly even a Grand Cosmic Engineer theory where God works in big broad strokes and lets the small things play out themselves.
I agree it comes off as pro-atheist, but the way Paul deals with Christianity in America isn’t going to convert any fundamentalists. The instant mind transfer thing is convenient but gives the wrong impression of what the scientific method is and how it works, which is a key issue in the Fundamentalist vs. science debate, and doesn’t give me any tips on how to affectingly talk with a Fundamentalist about science; what just blitzkrieg them with facts till they faint?
But if the movies point is to get people to understand an Other’s point of view with tolerance and respect I think it fails to to it convincingly, and it needed that South Park specialty type of satire that’s so sharp it separates and examines the exact aspect that’s ridiculous without killing the patient; ex. Mormon’s Joesph Smith and Catholic’s bad priests episodes.
And I suppose Paul was trying to separate America Christianity from it’s bigoted and gun obsessed factions, but didn’t work because it denied Christianity offers anything positive, just showed everyone whose violent and bigoted isn’t necessarily Christian, which is faint praise.
Reading Rainicorn’s link is really important to this discussion, because it shows the Catholic Church’s point of contention with Paul isn’t the existence of alien life disproving God, and that the Catholic Church isn’t anti-science.
From Catholic News movie review, “By assuming that scriptural faith would be fatally undermined by the presence of intelligent life on other planets, Pegg and Frost prove themselves as unfamiliar with biblically based religion as they are contemptuous of it.”
The review warns of Paul’s “endorsement of homosexual acts, nonmarital sexual activity and petty theft, a benign view of drug use, occasional gory violence, a few uses of profanity and pervasive rough and crude language.” And gives it “The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive.”
And I think that’s Paul’s point, to show all that stuff is not morally incompatible with the Christian core of “selfless sacrifice.” But that’s also Paul’s problem as it doesn’t do it well, it ties hedonism and knowledge together, and chastity and ignorance as if there’s a causal relationship; that chastity begets ignorance and knowledge begets hedonism.
Well actually, shortly after Paul zaps her with the knowledge, he apologizes and tries to equivocate. I don’t remember the exact line, but it’s something like “Look, don’t take it too hard: all this disproves is your specific brand of ‘earth-is-4,000-years-old’ nonsense, it’s not like there couldn’t be some kind of god.” It’s just one line, and you could argue that he’s just talking out of his ass to calm her down. But it definitely leaves the door open.
That’s interesting, given that young Earth creationism has always been a bit of a subset since palaeontology and geology got going, right? I imagine that’s the sort of thing that gets thrown in by a studio though, so the less fundamentalist believers can still otherise the featured Fundamentalists… and thus enjoy the movie.
Impeccable article as always, Lee. You have a real talent for being able to read between the lines and separating the blacks and whites of truth. It seems to me that people get so caught up in the details of religious living (HIS NAME IS JESUS NOT ALLAH!) that they forget the reason they are supposed to be living religiously in the first place: to be a better person.
I’m an Apatheist. The question on whether or not God exists is irrelevant to me because nature grants us all the tools we need to know how to live virtuous, moral lives. If there is a God, I would think that he would think more highly of those who took the time to realize what it means to live morally and to apply it to their lives than someone who was morally bankrupt but sung the loudest hosannahs at the church to which God also happens to belong to. I haven’t seen Paul, but your ability to objectively connect the dots between a seemingly anti-religious movie like Paul with the thoroughly religious texts of the apostle Paul leads me to believe that you are absolutely correct in your assessment because you are willing to examine both sides of the issue to find the underlying subtext, instead of stubbornly clinging to an ideology and dismissing anything that the other people said because, well, the other people said it.
oh cool, i didn’t know there is a word summarizing my views and beliefs so nicely. the things i learn from overthinking it…
just based on the article, i was wondering who is the target audience of Paul? “teenage to college male stoners”?
Yeah, that’s what I thought, that’s Rogen, Pegg, and Frost’s typical demo more or less. The reviewers at reverseshot.com think it was geared towards young teens, and I after watching the movie and seeing how tame it was I agree, it’s kind of what Goosebumps is to creepy Paul is to stoner, there’s just a lot of f-bombs.
That diptych showing Saint Paul’s halo in the next panel being filled in with brain seems to capture what the problem is, the body. I think more than “being nice to you’re neighbor” or “existence of God” what Catholic News really means by “Christian faith and morals” is sex.
In a Joesph Campbell way all beliefs say “be nice and selfless” but they all differ on how that’s interpreted on the body. I think that’s one of the biggest hang ups for people considering Christian lifestyles, I know lots of friends that are all up in Buddhism because they don’t associate it with oppression, but it teaches the same thing about not being a jerk.
So the reaction to that stifling chastity is going full sexual and bodily experimentation like Hippies, and I think Paul is trying for that, but instead of breaking the ice it just reinforces it because it gives the impression it’s pagan hedonism or nothing. But I haven’t seen it so maybe it does give room engagement.
I’m also viewing Wiig’s conversion as from chase to someone who’s sexually awakened and open to experiences of the body, she’s not so much learning be selfless and sacrifice her comfort.
Other plot detail: when looking for images for this article, I tried to figure out if Kristen Wiig’s character is still wearing the “Evolve This” t-shirt at the end or not. I’m pretty sure she has a new shirt, but for the life of me I can’t remember her getting a change of clothes in the movie. Does anybody recall this?
She gets new clothes when they stop over in the town.
IIRC, she cuts up her “evolve this” shirt to be more revealing and turns it inside out for a little while (the shirt she’s wearing is still the same light blue, but has nothing on the front, so that’s where I got that impression).
Also, I think The Invention of Lying was a more atheistic movie than Paul.
Hey, an OTI post that quotes my favourite Bible passage, crazy (2 Cor 1:3-4)!
Anyhow, I know that the author is dead, or at least has been abducted by aliens, but Pegg has certainly been going for a more ‘actively atheist’ position recently, especially on Twitter around Christmas for example. When interviewed, they suggested the film was a go at fundamentalism of all sorts but not at Christianity either as a whole or specifically.
I guess what’s pointed out above is interesting – there’s no possibility of a mind transfer from a sufficiently advanced alien that somehow has the empirical (and not problematic as empirical evidence of religious experience) evidence to ‘prove’ God’s non-presence and/or existence. Which has gone back and forth between philosophers, theologians and amateur commentators for centuries.
Also, it does seem the consequences on Wiig are not especially positive… e.g. it seems she swings from one extreme of an unhealthy sexual attitude to another.
Paul, Peeg, Frost encourage Wiig’s new attitude and thinks it’s a positive change, and the writer’s don’t punish her by having her get an STD or kill herself or someone else accidentally while high, or even anything gently negative.
Lee wanted to point out the atheist issue, but I’m having a hard time separating the atheism issue from the moral/embodiment issue. If Paul isn’t atheist and believes in a God, the difference between the Fundamentalist Dad’s and Paul’s God, is that Paul is enjoying his body and doesn’t think that enjoyment will be punished by God so his jerkyness doesn’t have the physical threat behind it like the Dad’s does.