Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Robe

I saw an old movie called The Robe last night. IT is a story of a Roman soldier who winds the rob of Jesus during the crucifixion. It was a big Hollywood production made in 1953. It had Richard Burton as the lead and the whole look and feel of all the big movies of that era. In some ways it shows how far we have fallen. Hollywood would never make such a movie now. The main character becomes a Christian and becomes willing to die for his faith. So Christianity is seen as a good thing.

But what struck me more is that even in 1953 how much Christianity was watered down. There was a strong anti-supernatural streak that I didn't expect. In one scene, Emperor Tiberius talks about how he expected this martyr in some unknown corner of the empire to unleash ideas that would topple Rome. Essentially saying the triumph of Christianity over Rome was predictable within a purely secular mindset. I don't see it. Lots of people were killed by lots of Roman governors. They didn't spawn religious movements that were impossible to stamp out.

The other thing was the reduction of Christianity to vague ideas about peace, love, and freedom. There was no mention of salvation. Sexual morality didn't seem to be a part of it either. In one scene the main character defended Christianity before Emperor Caligula. This is a man whose name more than any other is associated with sexual orgies. But he just says that if he is one the side of freedom and justice then Jesus will be his friend. He even said it was unimportant whether the stories about Jesus were true or not. Just the fact that the stories were nice was what mattered.

It makes me think the 1950's were not quite as golden an age for Christianity as we tend to believe. People embraced the language of Christianity and the institutions of Christianity but did they really embrace the Christian faith? Did they somehow remove the offensive bits of the faith and just accept the softer virtues of peace and justice? We certainly have done that today but when did that process start? People trace it back to Vatican II or contraception. The seeds seem very much in place before either of those things. It points back to the warnings about modernism that Pope Pius X and Pope Leo XIII gave us in the 19th century. They saw a danger in the way the ideas of people like Darwin, Marx, and Freud caused people to reorder Christianity so that salvation did not come from the cross.

It is ironic enough. Given this movie starts with a premise that is at the foot of the cross. Somehow it preaches a Christianity that has political development as its center and not the cross. The Jewish idea that Jesus came to free them from the Romans. Of course that does happen in the 4th century but Jesus is about so much more than that. He is about saving our souls. He is about bringing God to man.


  1. What you describe is true of all the religious movies I've seen from Hollywood's golden age-- the real content of the Faith isn't there. Contrast "The Sound of Music" with Maria von Trapp's actual autobiography. I was going to watch "Boys Town" the other day, but couldn't get past the opening scene in which a condemned criminal asks the priest why he's not afraid of death, and the priest replies, "I've tried to live a good life and make up for my mistakes." GAG!

  2. By the way, I think that vagueness about the actual Gospel is much older than the 1950's. Certainly a lot of what I've read from the 1800's is very vague on Christianity. Think of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

    And yet if some movie actually did present the full-on Christian faith, I think audiences might like it. It'd be novel, that's for sure.

    You might like the book "Let Dons Delight", by Ronald Knox. He presents a conversation that takes place in an Oxford common room in 1588, and then another from 1638, and so on every 50 years up to 1938. The main theme of the book is the gradual disintegration of the Christian faith and even of the ability to reason, once England is unmoored from the Rock on which Christ built His Church.

  3. Good to hear from you Rachel. Glad you found me back.

    The true story of Christianity is hard to tell. Some have come close. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind. But truth is stranger than fiction. Real stories of saints are great if we dare to tell them.

    I remember watching Zeffirelli's movie about St Francis. He took all the miracles out. I mean there are so many accounts of miracles involving St Francis. O well, I am probably too hard to please.

    Anyway, I find people telling their own stories so inspiring. That is why I love blogs so much.

  4. Glad I just found your new blog! I think you're right that it's hard to tell the true story of Christianity. How to show a big internal conversion on a movie screen? It'll fall flat with anyone who hasn't experienced something like it. Maybe the best way to show a moment of grace is something like in Brideshead Revisited, but of course that was pretty subtle. I guess the lives of the saints and our own stories really are the best way. :)