Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of his most famous and controversial. Scholars debate when it was written, where it was sent, and how to interpret its claim that humans are justified by faith and not by works of law. No one disputes, however, the influence of Galatians on Protestant theology and practice since the Reformation. Nor does anyone dispute that, whenever Paul wrote it, he was angry.
His vexation is clear from the start: unlike all of Paul’s other letters, Galatians has no thanksgiving after Paul’s signature “Grace and peace” greeting. Ancient letter-writing was more formal than today’s texts and tweets, and at 1:6 Paul’s recipients would have likely expected something like “I give thanks for you in my prayers” or “Blessed be God”; instead, he says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you. . .” Later he exclaims, “O foolish Galatians!” (3:1). At times he may even be writing in all caps (6:11). He’s not happy.
Why is Paul so upset? Only the letter itself can say fully, but three issues lie at the center of Paul’s passionate appeals in Galatians: human incapacity, steadfast leadership, and the nature of Christian freedom.
To the extent that films express the culture in which they are made, looking at films that illustrate themes common in Galatians helps us to both better understand Paul’s letter and also to see how our own culture wrestles with similar issues. Examples can be seen in Henry V, Citizen X, Whiplash, Darkest Hour, Moneyball, All the President’s Men, The Post, Philomena, I Can Only Imagine, The Son, and Jane Eyre.
Paul does not believe humans are worthless vermin; the governing claim of Genesis 1 that all people are created in God’s image is certainly foundational for him. Yet he insists that apart from Christ, human beings are utterly incapable of delivering themselves from sin and its consequences. Already in his greeting Paul reminds the Galatians that we can only be delivered from the present evil age by Jesus’s death for our sins (1:4).
For Paul, God’s law is the height of morality and justice, so when he insists that no one will be justified by works of the law (2:16), he is speaking of the holiest human actions imaginable. If the works of the law cannot save us from sin, no human works can. Faith in Christ is not a new morality or a new philosophy; trusting Christ only leads to life because it crucifies the old, incapacitated human: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (2:20).
Faith in Christ is not a new morality or a new philosophy; trusting Christ only leads to life because it crucifies the old, incapacitated human.
If justification or righteousness comes through law-works, then Christ died pointlessly, as humans could follow the law and live (2:21). Rather, Scripture shows that human beings are imprisoned under sin (3:22). We are enslaved in our natural “fleshly” condition, and only the Spirit of the resurrected Messiah can liberate us and bear fruit (4:3-9; 5:16-24).
Films regularly depict venal or evil characters. They occasionally champion those who are—by the world’s standards—virtuous. But what about narratives that illustrate characters who, though striving to be good, come face-to-face with the limits of human capacity?
In Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the young king prays to God before battle, wary that a just God might fault him for inheriting or accepting the crown his father seized:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth. . .
Henry understands theologically that no amount of good works can earn God’s favor. Yet he continues to struggle with old ways of thinking about God’s favor and what actions will make him a worthy king.
HBO’s Citizen X tells the true story of Lt. Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea), a Soviet officer attempting to apply the nascent science of criminal profiling to catch a serial killer preying on children. Burakov is completely and sincerely dedicated to his task, but he is unaware of the psychological effects of relentlessly pursuing serial killers by immersing himself in their thought processes. Eventually he has a nervous breakdown. Burakov is not weak; his endurance and perseverance win admiration from his superiors in Moscow and his colleagues watching afar in the United States. But he lives in a fallen, sinful world, one that makes demands on him (and all of us) that exceed his capacity to endure. Only when he’s forced to recognize the limits of his own mental, emotional, and spiritual capacity can he apply his efforts to save others effectively.
Although the stakes are less high in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, it too illustrates a protagonist pushing himself to the limits of endurance and demanding perfection. Andrew (Miles Teller), wants to be a great drummer, and he is willing to practice until his hands bleed if that is what the law (in the form of his bullying teacher, brilliantly played by J. K. Simmons) tells him is required. As should not be surprising to anyone who has read Galatians, Andrew’s attempts to meet nearly impossible standards don’t lead to peace and joy. He actually becomes more miserable as his talent increases, dismissing his girlfriend as a distraction and alienating his family. Why do some Christians seem to prefer—as Andrew does in this film—the relentless demands of a cruel taskmaster to the “easy” yoke promised by Jesus? Could there be more pride than we care to admit in our legalistic perfectionism? Do we secretly believe—or at least hope—that we will be the one person good enough to satisfy the law’s demands for perfection?
Why do some Christians seem to prefer the relentless demands of a cruel taskmaster to the ‘easy’ yoke promised by Jesus? Could there be more pride than we care to admit in our legalistic perfectionism? Do we secretly believe—or at least hope—that we will be the one person good enough to satisfy the law’s demands for perfection?
Paul is also concerned about new leaders who have infiltrated the Galatian churches since his departure, troubling the Galatians’ minds and distorting the true message of Christ (1:7).
What is this distorted gospel? It preaches circumcision, i.e., keeping the Jewish law in order to be justified or saved (2:12, 16, 21; 3:2, 10; 4:21; and so on). These false leaders are bewitching the Galatians (3:1) with a more palatable gospel. How on earth is Torah observance more palatable? The circumcision preachers and their disciples are more respectable to some of Paul’s fellow Jews (1:10; 4:17; 6:13), likely because they align more closely with traditional Judaism and maintain Jew-Gentile distinctions (1:13-14; 2:3, 12-14). Additionally, Paul and his Torah-free converts are exposed to persecution that the circumcision party can avoid (5:11; 6:12). The Galatian churches are experiencing a leadership crisis, and Paul warns his congregations of deceptive, people-pleasing “gospels” that contradict the original message that brought them salvation and the Spirit.
Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning performance as Winston Churchill, in the recent film Darkest Hour (TGC’s review), brilliantly illustrates a leader sticking to conviction while challengers malign him personally and promise his listeners an easier way. In one of the film’s most tender scenes, his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) tells him, “You are strong because you are imperfect.” In one of his meetings with George VI, the king advises him the best way to win over the people is to tell them “the truth unvarnished.” Churchill’s situation is represented in many ways as eerily similar to Paul’s—he too is angry at rival leaders who tempt his people to abandon their commitment.
Bennett Miller’s Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a general manager for the Oakland A’s who attempts to use analytics to gather a team of players who can compete with opposing teams boasting a much higher payroll. Moneyball is about a leader trying to enact change rather than stifle it. But it also shows the isolation faced by conviction-driven leaders and the ways they can be sabotaged by those more committed to personal goals than corporate ones. Much like Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) in All The President’s Men and Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) in The Post, Beane must remain committed to the principles behind his decision-making in the face of personal attacks, professional risk, and the pressure to accede to those who prefer old ways of thinking and doing business.
Paul envisions the human plight apart from Christ as slavery. Human beings are prisoners to sin (3:22), enslaved to this world and its evil powers, and only the crucified and resurrected Messiah can set us free (1:4; 4:3-9). But free for what? Paul’s law-free gospel generated controversy on this very issue, because he seemed to disregard ethics: one, he preached salvation by grace not works, and two, he admitted Gentiles into the people of God without requiring them to follow the law. Some even believed Paul encouraged sinning, because that would magnify God’s grace for sinners all the more (Rom 3:8; 6:1)! But in Galatians, Paul clarifies that Christian freedom is neither libertinism nor some modern privatized freedom to do whatever you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone.
Christian freedom is neither libertinism nor some modern privatized freedom to do whatever you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone.
For Paul, Christians are freed from slavery to sin and fleshly desire for a new identity as sons and daughters of God who are animated by Christ’s Spirit (Gal 4:3-7) to walk in love, kindness, and generosity instead of envy, anger, sexual immorality, and idolatries that control us when we “do whatever we want.” We are freed for the sake of service: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use this freedom as an opportunity for fleshly desire; rather, through love serve one another” (5:13). Paradoxically, and nearly unthinkable in much of the modern West, this new freedom begets humble service and may involve persecution and even death. Yet it reaps eternal life (6:8). In other words, Christian freedom looks like Jesus.
In movies, “freedom” is almost always represented through the lens of the modern, Western understanding: freedom of the body or freedom to act in one’s self-interest. The ubiquity of this (mis)understanding of freedom makes the rare cinematic examples of self-sacrificing freedom so memorable and powerful.
In Stephen Frears’s Philomena, the protagonist (Judi Dench) chooses to forgive the nun who took her baby from her and gave it to an American couple for adoption. The act of forgiveness is both despised and misunderstood by the atheist journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who tacitly admits he is a slave to his own anger:
Philomena: Sister Hildegarde, I want you to know that I forgive you.
Martin Sixsmith: What? Just like that?
Philomena: It’s not “just like that” . . . it’s hard. That’s hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you. . . Look at you.
Martin Sixsmith: I’m angry.
Philomena: Must be exhausting.
Acts of transcendent forgiveness are not the only representations of Christian freedom in contemporary film, but they are certainly the most common. In I Can Only Imagine, Bart’s Christian growth is measured by his struggles to forgive his physically abusive father. In the Dardenne brothers’ classic, The Son, a carpenter comes face to face with the youth he believes is responsible for the death of his son. In Jane Eyre, the adult protagonist hears the deathbed confession of Mrs. Reed, who lied to Jane’s uncle in order to try to keep Jane from an inheritance. Despite her understandable anger at the woman’s selfish cruelty, Jane forgives Mrs. Reed, even as she continues to justify her sin by blaming Jane for provoking her when she was a child. “Love me, then, or hate me, as you will,” Jane says at last, “you have my full and free forgiveness: ask now for God’s, and be at peace.”
Each of these examples shows people—real or fictional—whose Christian faith frees them from bondage to anger and empowers them to freely offer grace and compassion.
No matter how often modern people are told that righteousness can be attained through adherence to the law, an awareness of human incapacity persists.
That the films illustrating Galatians’ themes are both beloved and esteemed—despite the often counter-cultural thrust of the epistle’s message—suggests that Paul’s letter remains resonant and relevant. No matter how often modern people are told that righteousness can be attained through adherence to the law, an awareness of human incapacity persists. No matter how many movements try to undercut leaders or seduce their followers, viewers remain attracted to narratives about those who hold fast to their convictions.
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