It’s always refreshing to see a film that’s thin on dialogue, but dense with meaning. Polycarp took home the top prizes at the recent Christian Worldview Film Festival, which is no surprise given its frank treatment of first century persecution. A creeping concern among Christians today, persecution of the church in America is a fast-growing fear and slow-but-steady threat. So how can we find hope?
Polycarp is based on the life of an early church father who studied under the apostle John. A missionary turned scribe in his old age, Polycarp was the anchor of the Christian community in Smyrna. As persecution from Rome encroached on their freedoms, Polycarp and other Christians in Smyrna had to decide whether they would pursue their work in the safety of another town or stand and fight in their local community. Polycarp’s story is viewed through the eyes of a slave girl who immediately receives her freedom after being purchased.
Three things stood out to me about this film. First, I was intrigued by the dialogue of the Polycarp character. More often than not, he quoted Bible passages as though they were ordinary speech. He didn’t use a preachy, heavy handed, “Jesus said…” style, but simply spoke sacred words in the most natural contexts. This idea wasn’t too far-fetched since his sole occupation was copying the words of the apostles, ie. what would become the New Testament. These God-breathed ideas and phrases would have made their home in his subconscious after numerous transcripts, and he could have spoken them as naturally as you or I would talk about the weather. It intrigued me how Scripture gets into the soul today, even though our culture is now so far removed from “oral tradition.” Like Polycarp, those who memorize scripture often find the Holy Spirit opening doors of conversation with others, and sacred words come naturally in the right context.
Second, the film challenges us to be brave and true. After watching the movie, my daughter asked me a pointed question: “Would you deny God in order to keep our family safe?” What a loaded question!! Prior to watching this film, I might have said yes. I’ll be honest. When I’ve imagined a world of religious persecution (like what would I have done if I was a Jew in World War II), it always seemed more reasonable to lie to corrupt authorities in order to continue the work of Christ underground. It seemed to me that surviving to preach another day made more sense than needless martyrdom. But this film made me think much harder about that scenario. It raised questions about the internal and external ramifications of denying God, even falsely denying him. I began to consider the bigger picture of “life,” which brings me to the third point…
Polycarp reminds us that as Christians, we are part of something much larger than this temporal life. While most Christian movies today focus on the life we live right now, surviving the challenges and pitfalls of a frustrating existence on Earth, Polycarp reaches beyond the immediate. For one, it shows us that we are part of a much larger, historical story, one that reaches throughout the centuries. Many came before us and fought for the Gospel, and we too will play out our roles in the grand scale of God’s story with humanity. Second (and this is where my answer to the kids came in), our “lives” extend far beyond our time on this planet. We can’t make decisions based on the immediate ramifications of our choices. We have to look into the far, far future. What do our enemies threaten us with, death? Death is to be immediately in the presence of God. Torture? Even those who are being persecuted across the world today endure suffering with a supernatural kind of peace. The apostles of the Bible faced it with joy, singing, and even witnessing. If I am to be honest, I have only ever heard that God gives his people uncanny courage and peace when persecution comes. So, when the power-driven Quadratus fumes his greatest boast, “I wield the power of the gods in this place!” his greatest weakness is exposed. He does not understand God’s protection, provision, end-game or even the nature of the universe. And Quadratus’ threats weigh false on an eternal scale.
Perhaps that’s the vehicle of hope in this film. With today’s increasing religious restriction and a spreading dread of persecution, Polycarp argues the opposite of weakness and fear. It raises up pillars of Biblical truth instead. Quoting from the Bible, Polycarp describes how he deals with his own fear, “Perfect love casts out fear.” When he looks honestly at the God who loved and saved him in his sinful state, the God who walks with him every moment, and the God who will be waiting for him even if he should die, fear is an empty lie. Somehow we emerge from the film with a greater trust in God as our sovereign, protector, and trustworthy advocate. We emerge with gratitude for what Christ did for us, and a sense of belonging in God’s eternal story. We emerge with the courage to resist our own weakness and expose fear for the lie that it is.