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'Alexander' Review

Film critic David Edelstein reviews Alexander, starring Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie.



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Other segments from the episode on November 24, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 24, 2004: Interview with John Dominic Crossan; Obituary for Cy Coleman; Review of the new movie "Alexander."


DATE November 24, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: John Dominic Crossan discusses his new book, "In Search
of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, John Dominic Crossan, is one of the world's leading scholars of the
historical Jesus. This is the study of the real person to whom the Gospels
refer and an analysis of the culture, politics and religion of his time. This
historical analysis is often controversial for challenging certain accounts in
the Gospels as well as challenging commonly accepted interpretations.

Crossan is a former priest. He left the monastery when he found himself
unable to pursue the full extent of his convictions and historical research.
Crossan is a professor emeritus of DePaul University. His books include "The
Historical Jesus," "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography" and "Who Killed Jesus?"
His new book is called "In Search of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's
Empire with God's Kingdom." It offers a new interpretation of Paul's
writings. Crossan describes Paul as the most dominant figure, after Jesus, in
the New Testament. Thirteen of its 27 books are attributed to Paul, and about
half of another is about him.

Why did you want to re-examine Paul?

Professor JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN (Author, "In Search of Paul"): Because Paul
has got really bad press. It's a major question for the readers, as one of
our chapters says--an appealing or an appalling apostle. And the reason is
this; that there really are three different Pauls in the New Testament: a
conservative Paul, a liberal Paul and a radical Paul. And it depends upon
whether a given letter was really, originally, authentically written by Paul
or was attributed to him later. That's the issue, really.

GROSS: When you say that Paul has gotten a bad rep, I think one of the things
you're probably talking about is what he said about women. Why don't you
quote some--you know, one or two of his most famous passages about...

Prof. CROSSAN: Infamous.

GROSS: ...the submissive role of women?

Prof. CROSSAN: Let me use the gender controversy as a way of discriminating
the three Pauls. The conservative Paul is usually what everyone knows from I
Timothy, where he says that women are to be at home and they're not supposed
to be teaching men in church, which, by the way, tells us, of course, that
they were. You wouldn't have to forbid something that wasn't happening. But
in I Timothy, women are not to be teaching men in church. They're to be at
home. They're to be pregnant. They're to be silent. If they have questions,
ask their husbands--nice and clear. That's the conservative Paul in I
Timothy, which was not written by Paul.

The liberal Paul would appear, see, in Ephesians and Colossians, also not
written by Paul, where he says that women should obey their husbands but then
spent a lot more time telling husbands that they should sacrifice themselves
for their wives, something that tends to get forgotten. I call that the
liberal Paul.

The radical Paul is the one, say, in Corinthians or in Romans who insists that
women are equal to men in the family, in the community--that's the church--in
the apostolate; the Paul, for example, who sends the Epistle to the Romans,
his most important Epistle, with a woman. And, of course, she's going to have
to then read the Epistle, explain the Epistle to the community at Rome. This
is the radical Paul, who simply says that, `In Christ Jesus, there is neither
male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, in Christ Jesus.'

GROSS: Well, your new book, "In Search of Paul," is co-written with an
archaeologist. And is there, like, archaeological information that helps you
determine which of these three Pauls you think is the more authentic?

Prof. CROSSAN: What we are really doing in archaeology is looking for the
archaeology of Paul's theological world, not just his social world, but--for
example, all over the Roman Empire, in archaeological digs that you can
find--you can't miss them--in coins, in inscriptions, in images, in
structures, you're getting a message that Caesar is divine, son of God, God,
god from God, lord, savior of the world, redeemer, liberator. All of that
stuff is there. So when Paul walks into Ephesus, for example, he walks under
a gate that says that the Emperatur Caesar is the son of God. Now when he
talks to his people in Ephesus about Jesus being the son of God, that is known
technically as high treason. So it's precisely the archaeology of Roman
imperial theology that makes so much importance for Paul, rather than--well,
we know he was in Ephesus; here's what Ephesus looked like in the first

GROSS: Let me quote something from your new book about Paul. You write,
`What is newest about this book is our insistence that Paul opposed Rome not
because the empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he
questioned the normalcy of civilization itself, since civilization has always
been imperial; that is, unjust and oppressive.' Could you explain that?

Prof. CROSSAN: Yes. It's an invention. Civilization is an invention, and it
has always been imperial, from the first time the Accadians went roaring down
the Mesopotamian plains. And isn't it ironic, you know, it starts in the
Mesopotamian plains, where we are today? Empire has been the normalcy of
civilization. We tend to think, well, civilization is about music and art and
literature and all that magnificent stuff, which it is, of course, very often
on the back, of course, of an empire, sometimes at its most fruitful times.
So if civilization has always been imperial, then Paul is not against Rome
because he wants, say, a Jewish empire or an Irish empire, maybe. It's
because there's something wrong with civilization--not with human nature, but
with civilization. It always goes imperial, which means unjust.

And he is--his language, see, of `a new creation,' I don't find even, you
know, hyperbolic. It's like, `We're going to have to go back and start all
over again because'--using my metaphor--`our drug of choice in civilization
has been violence, and we're now getting to the point where the withdrawal or
the continuation are about equally awful.' So Paul is really challenging
civilization on its basis. `Why is it always imperial?' he wants to know.

GROSS: What did Paul do that was most challenging of the Roman Empire?

Prof. CROSSAN: What Paul is doing is really setting up, I would almost say, an
alternative empire, because he is not just sitting down in one place. He's
moving around the whole Mediterranean, and what he is doing is setting up
small little cells, as it were, in the major cities. If you watch what he
does, he goes straight for the capitals. He's in Thessalonica, capital of
Macedonia. He's in Corinth, capital of Achaea. He's in Ephesus, capital of
Asia. And he grows up in Tarsus, capital of Cilicia. He's a man of capitals,
and his strategy is to go to the capital, set up your little cells of an
alternative lifestyle; they'll go out to the other cities and maybe they'll
get to the countryside eventually.

And his method of doing it is setting up these tiny Christian--he calls them
assemblies. We translate them as churches, which throws us off. They're
really--the Greek word is `ecclesia,' which is the word for the at least male
members of the city when they come together to decide the city's destiny in
faith. And I imagine him in the shops. I think that's where he would meet,
not in the villas or not in the houses or the tenements, but in those shops
you can still see all over Roman cities. They're maybe 10 feet by 10 feet,
and people coming in and out not going to draw any attention to themselves.
Small little groups, 10, 15--I'm not talking huge, but there might be three,
four, five in any given city. There's certainly six or seven in Rome alone,
but they're all over the place. It's not so much whether there are a thousand
Christians by the year 50 but whether there's 10 in a hundred cities.

GROSS: Paul believed that the end of days was near and that the second coming
would happen in his lifetime. How did that affect his view of the Roman
Empire and what should be done about it and his view of what the righteous
life was?

Prof. CROSSAN: And, by the way, thank you, Terry, for saying the `end of
days,' because sometimes what people say is the `end of the world,' and in the
first century, Jews and Christians never imagined the end of the world because
only God could destroy creation, and God would never do that since God had
created it and said it was all good. We can imagine the end of the world,
because we can do it, unfortunately. So what Paul is claiming, like Jesus
before him, is that this great period of what he calls justification, meaning
making the world a just place. It's a very simple, everyday word. It sounds
strange to us. But justification--God would probably say, `That's what I'm
doing, yup. I'm making the world just.'

So Paul talks about justification, and what he is declaring is that the end of
days when God would make the world just has already commenced. Now you're
also quite right in saying that he tells us, `Don't worry, it'll be over
soon,' because any radical mutation in thinking, we always want to say, `Well,
it's not that great a radical. It's just a minor thing.' Now he was wrong on
that, and my advice is simply get over it. The more important thing, though,
is he was insisting that it has begun and God is calling us to participate
with God in the process, rather than us waiting for God, as it were. It's a
dialectical process between God and us. Nobody's waiting on the other. This
has to be done together; not us without God, not God without us. Otherwise,
it will be impossible to explain how Christianity didn't dribble out after
about two generations and acute disappointment. But he was simply wrong about
the minor point.

Now if you want to say, well, the second coming is still off in the future,
and when he said `soon,' that means today, well, good luck. I would simply
say anyone who has talked about the future--well, let me speak within
Christianity--has been wrong. It might be time to begin to wonder is our
assertion about the second coming our refusal to accept the first one, and is
this idea of a non-violent Jesus just something we can't handle? So we want
Jesus to come back and do it right. Come back and get it right. Come back
violently, in plain language. So the real question about the second coming is
do we or do we not believe in a violent God and did Jesus and Paul proclaim or
did they not proclaim a violent God?

GROSS: Now I should say listeners who are listening to us might be thinking,
`Have they changed format? Is this a religious show now?' because we're
talking--I mean, we're literally talking chapter and verse here.

Prof. CROSSAN: Right.

GROSS: And so I'm wondering, for anybody who isn't Christian who's listening
and who isn't interested in studying Paul, because it tells them more about
their religion, what historical significance does your book about Paul have or
what relevance does it have for people today who are not necessarily followers
of Christianity?

Prof. CROSSAN: Well, we've just gone through an election in which the
conservative right in this country assumed a monopoly on Christianity, on
moral values, on biblical traditions, and probably, at least indirectly, on
Jesus and Paul. What this book does, as the earlier book, "Excavating Jesus,"
does is insist that there is another vision of Christianity and of the Bible
and of moral values, which is equally Christian, and I'd even go on to say
that four years from now, if the Democrats want to be able to meet the
Republicans on an even field, they'd better do some theology, and they'd
better learn to put their theological language in public discourse. For
example, I can talk about Jesus and Paul or I can talk--using Christian
language and all the rest of it.

I could use Paul's Greek term `dikaiosune,' `justification and righteousness,'
or I could translate that into `global justice,' which is what it is, by the
way. I'm not just, you know, flipping it. Paul is asking, `How is this
world--the world'--He would say `God's world,' but let me say, `the world to
be maintained justly?' And justly simply means that everyone gets a fair
shake at it. That is public language. Actually, it's the language, since I
am in Philadelphia, of all people being created equal and endowed by the
creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness. That's not what Paul is saying, but that's the way we
said it. So this is actually transcendental language. You make a claim that
all--let me say all people are created equal, that's an imperial claim,
almost. It's a transcendental claim. It is, in plain language, a theological
claim. And if the T-word, theology, is a dirty word for some people, then
they better at least learn how to oppose it with public discourse language.

GROSS: My guest is John Dominic Crossan. He's a scholar of the historical
Jesus. His new book is called "In Search of Paul." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is John Dominic Crossan, a scholar of the historical Jesus.
He's professor emeritus of religion at DePaul University. Crossan's new book
is called "In Search of Paul." It examines the life and writings of the
apostle Paul.

I want to get back to the fact that Paul believed that he would witness the
second coming of Christ in his own lifetime and that the end of days was near.
Many Christians believe that today, that the second coming is imminent, they
will witness the end of days. And there's a vision of the end of days that
says that those who have been born again will rise to heaven, and everybody
else will be left behind on Earth to face the tribulations. And this is a
vision that is, among other things, described in a very popular series of
novels called the "Left Behind" series. That's co-authored by Tim LeHaye,
who was one of the founders of the Moral Majority and who is one of the
leaders of the new group that was just founded by Jerry Falwell which is kind
of like a new vision of the Moral Majority.

So for--how--is there a way--do you think that today's vision of the second
coming is affecting either culture in America or politics in America?

Prof. CROSSAN: Yes, I do. I think it's infecting it, not just affecting it,
but it's infecting it with a sort of a culture of violence, first of all,
because it says, in effect, that God's final solution to the problem of evil
is to kill the evildoer rather massively. The rider on the white horse in the
apocalypse is going to have blood up to the bridles for 200 miles, which is a
pretty ghastly scenario. And I think it does infect us in general, but it
also infects us in particular that when it was communism against capitalism,
as it were, and both had the atomic bombs, they held one at bay, because we
sort of could trust that nobody would do anything really stupid.

If I imagine religious fundamentalism of any sort, but we're talking for the
moment about Christian fundamentalism, which has atomic power, I don't mean
it's going to go out and destroy the world someday, but it could do this,
which leads to that, which leads to this, which leads to that, and at that
point, we have no alternative, let's say, but use the atomic bomb. It could
have a certain carelessness about the faith of the world since it presumes
that it and people like it are going off to heaven, to a better place, and
that maybe God is consigning the world to hell, as it were.

GROSS: Do you think that the center of mainstream Christianity has shifted?

Prof. CROSSAN: I think what has happened is the center has grown flaccid,
weak, uncertain of its message, can give you a whole list of things it doesn't
believe in or you don't have to believe in or that are in the Bible, but you
don't have to follow, many of which are quite correct, by the way. But it
hasn't a positive message. A lot of the positive message, the message of a
Jesus or a Paul, I find myself being told, `Well, you're just talking
politics,' and I say, `No, I'm talking at the point where politics and
religion cannot be separated. Maybe be distinguished, but they cannot be
separated. And talking at the same level that Paul, talking of a silver
denarius that said Caesar was the son of God, couldn't say, `Well, now Caesar
is political but the son of God, that's religious.' I think at the deep
level, you cannot separate religion and politics, because you cannot separate
body and soul at a deep level.

GROSS: I think I've asked you this before on FRESH AIR, but do you practice
religion anymore?

Prof. CROSSAN: I may have answered the same way that I would have to say I
don't know the difference between prayer and study. This is what I think
about all the time. This is the default condition of my mind. I don't mean I
can't do all sorts of other things; I don't. But if I'm out jogging, for
example, this is what I'm thinking about, not because I think I should,
because I don't know how not to. I don't consider that practicing religion
means when you go to church on Sunday. That's one way of doing it. And
sometimes, that is one hour a week. I have spent most of my time in the last
30 years trying to live with Jesus and to walk like Jesus and, a lot of times,
to walk where Jesus walked and where Paul walked. I think that's what it
means to be a Christian. It's not a statement that you can be a Christian by
not going to church. It's not a statement that you can be a Christian by
going to church. It is a question of what's on your mind most of the time?
What are you thinking about most of the time?

GROSS: Do you pray?

Prof. CROSSAN: Yes, but for many people, I notice that prayer is sort of
asking God for stuff. I try to bring my whole life into the presence of God.
And what I take very seriously is how the human will gets in some kind of
unity with God without deluding itself. A very simple thing, as a scholar, I
have to read all sorts of people telling me how wrong I am. I can't simply
say, `Well, you're all wrong' back, because I have to, in public, very often,
comment, so my own will is constantly being challenged. I don't know how
people who say, `Well, I prayed over it, and I decided,' I don't know how they
have not simply certified their own will as the will of God.

GROSS: So prayer or religion for you isn't about self-affirmation or about
giving you more of a sense of certainty?

Prof. CROSSAN: No, and I have been asked, `Well, don't you have doubts?'
Well, first of all, you have to have certainty in order to have doubts, and I
consider that this is a--well, in the title of the book, "In Search of Paul,"
it's a search. It's an ongoing search. Now I'm quite going to say `This is
what I think we have found, and this is what we're trying to live by,' so it's
not just all in the future. But it's an ongoing process, so certainty doesn't
come up. Trust comes up. Faith comes up. Hope comes up, and charity comes
up, as it were. But certainty, I don't find that term too often in the Bible
except in the sense of trust. In the sense of intellectual certainty like two
and two is four or something, that doesn't seem to be a concern of the Bible.
What is very much: `Can you trust this God?' `Yes.' `Could you love this
God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your
mind?' `Yes.' `Could I trust Jesus?' `Yes.' `Do I trust Paul?' `Yes.'
But that's an act of faith. It's not simply it's an intellectual proposition,
and I find it rather interesting, no. It's a commitment of life. It's not
simply a set of propositions that you find, that you approve of. It's a
challenge of life that I find I can barely live up to, but I think it is

GROSS: John Dominic Crossan, thanks for talking with us again on FRESH AIR.

Prof. CROSSAN: It is, Terry, as always, a great pleasure and an honor.

GROSS: John Dominic Crossan is professor emeritus of religion at DePaul
University. His new book is called "In Search of Paul." I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, we remember songwriter Cy Coleman. He died last week at
the age of 75. His best-known songs include "Witchcraft," "I've Got Your
Number," "Hey Look Me Over" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now," which is
from his musical "Sweet Charity." Also, David Edelstein reviews the new movie

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New movie "Alexander" starring Angelina Jolie and Colin

From 336 BCE until his death, Alexander the Great believed he had a mandate to
become the ruler of the world, to be even greater than the greatest Greek
gods. Now his life is the subject of a new movie by Oliver Stone. It stars
Colin Farrell as Alexander and Angelina Jolie as his equally intense mother.
David Edelstein has this review.


"Alexander" has done something I never thought possible. It has made me feel
sympathy for Oliver Stone. The movie is a mess, a botch, a non-event. But
it's not like Stone's other bad movies, which are overinflated. This one
seems almost too puny and fragmented for its great subject. It feels as if
Stone, for the first time, ran out of hot air.

You have to understand, I consider Stone's "Natural Born Killers" to be
hands-down the worst movie ever made, and not the worst like Ed Wood's "Plan 9
from Outer Space." I mean, the worst in its combination of aesthetic and
moral ugliness, in the way it bombards you into accepting the idea that a pair
of serial mass murders could be enlightened hipsters and even existential

Now Stone attempts to tell the story of another mass murderer and existential
hero, Alexander the Great, the young Macedonian king who swept through Greece
and then the Persian Empire, what is now Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq, and then
into India--a dozen years of conquests that at the very least touched the
lives of more people on the planet than any military leader before him. How
does Stone feel about this man, played by Colin Farrell? Guardedly positive.
Yes, there are all those people he massacred, but isn't that a small price to
pay for greatness? And if his men didn't always see the logic of his dream,
to spread Hellenic civilization and unite the world, maybe that's because they
weren't fellow eagles. They couldn't see nation-state borders as illusions,
as he did, soaring above them.

If Stone is ambivalent about the man, he is certain that, as his narrator puts
it, his failures dwarfed other men's successes. That narrator is Anthony
Hopkins as the aged General Ptolemy. He's dictating his memoirs for
posterity, and he can't quite get a handle on how to tell Alexander's story.
Neither, for that matter, can Stone and his co-screenwriters. There's a huge
leap from the young Alexander having a public fight with his drunken, one-eyed
father Philip, played by Val Kilmer, to Alexander leading 40,000 men against
250,000 Persians at the battle of Gaugamella. Late in the move, Stone doubles
back and fills in some of the gaps, but by then, the dire storytelling and
tinnier dialogue have dulled our curiosity.

Much is made of Alexander's tactical genius in overcoming long odds, but
despite the eagle-eye views--I mean literally--"Alexander" has this bond with
the ubiquitous bird of prey. It's impossible to tell where any army is in
relation to any other army. "Alexander" is packed with kinetic images, but
the editors must have had a stroke trying to make them flow together.
Listening to Alexander appeal to his exhausted army, which sensibly thinks he
has gone too far instead of consolidating power in the lands he already holds,
you find yourself fearing most for Colin Farrell's vocal cords.

(Soundbite from "Alexander")

Mr. COLIN FARRELL: (As Alexander the Great) You're right, Crateros. I have
been negligent. I should have sent you veterans home sooner, and I will. The
first of you shall be the silver shields. And then every man who's served
seven years and respected, rich, loved, you'll be treated by your wives and
children as heros for the rest of your lives and enjoy a peaceful death. But
you dream, Crateros. Your simplicity long ended when you took Persian
mistresses and children and you thickened your holdings with plunder and
jewels, because you've fallen in love with all the things in life that destroy
men. Do you not see? And you as well as I know that as the years decline and
the memories stale and all your great victories fade, it will always be
remembered: You left your king in Asia.

EDELSTEIN: Farrell had a good, handsome, bully-boy presence in "Daredevil,"
and in a terrific Irish movie called "Intermission," he's likably small-scale.
You can imagine him firing up the lads at the pub before he gets too
stuporous. But all armies of the Western World? He doesn't begin to have the
stature or the lung power. And the poofy blond locks don't help.

Quite a bit has been written about the acknowledgement here of Alexander's
bisexuality, but it's tame stuff, moist looks mostly traded with Jared Leto,
an actor with bright blue eyes, who's too self-intoxicated to be much of an
erotic force.

Despite a part that has no dramatic arc, Val Kilmer blusters through in
entertaining style, but the only real heroic presence is Angelina Jolie,
improbably cast as Alexander's imperious mother, Olympias. I don't care how
nuts she is. Jolie is the real deal, an actress who can commit herself body
and soul to a part and transform from the inside out. She could eat Colin
Farrell for breakfast and pick her teeth with Jared Leto. Forget "Alexander."
This is Angelina the Great.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.


GROSS: All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy Thanksgiving. I'm Terry
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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