So I just (as of 3 minutes ago) finished my 14 page take home exam from my Greek/Biblical Studies class, "Textual Synthesis: Romans" and by next week will be done with my research paper for it as well. Partially by coincidence and somewhat on purpose, I spent the last week and a half concurrently doing research for said assignments and watching Season One of HBO's series ROME. This should be a required process for all students of Romans (caveat- this inter-textual experience will involve exposure to graphic violence and sexuality, but that's in some ways, part of the point. Just don't say i didn't warn you).
The makers of the series repeatedly mention that the show was their attempt to de-Hollywood Rome, and for that matter, de-Enlightenment it as well. What does this mean? Well, when you picture Rome, what do you see? Likely, lots of white: white togas, white columns, white men. The series not only fleshes out the ancient center of the world with color, human and environmental, but it also strips away the Judeo-Christian morality that has hovered over it for centuries. While you identify with the characters, as you would in any good piece of storytelling, you are forced to shift your perception of right/wrong/ appropriate. As one of the actors explains in the commentary, Romans were incredibly religious, but it had nothing to do with morality. For most of us, no matter how hard we try, its nearly impossible to imagine the past without the stamp of Christendom. Watching Rome will make that process about 90 times more possible. You begin to understand Rome as a culture that did not hold compassion or love as a virtue, but rather, power and honor. Mercy brought shame whereas a well-timed murder was not only justifiable, but prudent.
It's also illuminating to set aside a North American perception of slavery and see instead the many echelons of slave culture in the ancient world. You see the paradox of a culture where slaves could work towards freedom and move up in society, but who at the same time were treated as invisibly as air. if viewers are surprised by the flagrant amount of sex and nudity in the show, they may be more shocked at the fact that these scenes always take place in the presence of numerous servants who stand by as if a meal were taking place, not an orgasm. if the deaths are brutal and visceral and the sex is full frontal, then it serves to help the viewer understand a culture that treated life totally different than we do today. What we hide, they advertised and much of what we consider intrinsically human, they would view as weak and disgusting.
So how does this affect my reading of Paul's letter to the Romans? Well, first of all, anyone whose ever struggled to understand New Testament language about slaves and masters will find most of their bugaboos done away with by watching the series. You get a much clearer picture of what it must have been like for early Christian communities to be made up of nobility, tradespeople and slaves, and why slavery would not have been viewed as a social pariah. At that time, questioning slavery would have been like questing the existence of grocery stores or tennis shoes. Why question something so prevalent and benign?
Secondly, since the Book of Romans has almost entirely been interpreted as Paul's grand theological treatise on life, the universe and the essentials of all Christianity, it might be helpful to flesh out a picture of the community he was actually writing to, even if its just to remind you that he was indeed writing to specific people, not writing a master theological opus to span centuries. If you're going to read Romans, then get to know something about the Romans who originally received the message.
Final thoughts: I love anything that helps me picture a historical period as real people with real homes and real lives. It's pretty tragic that this is rarely considered necessary or beneficial when interpreting scripture. Frankly, the interplay of watching Rome with reading Romans did far more for bringing the reality of the gospel message home to me than any Jesus film ever has (do they ever?). As someone trying daily to understand what it means to let a scared text shape my life, it helps to see the lives of those among whom it was originally formed. (Now, if only they were speaking Greek instead of Latin, that really would have helped me with my homework!)
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