A Vision of Christian Community: Thoughts on The Robe

Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch

If you love a well written story about the powerful transformation that comes from following Jesus’ teachings, read the The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas.  There’s also a 1953 film version starring Richard Burton, but I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to.  I don’t want the images in my own mind altered by someone else’s; plus, I must confess that I really don’t care for the melodramatic acting common in films of that era.

So, I recommend reading the novel.  First published in 1942, it tells how Jesus’ crucifixion affected the fictional Marcellus Gallio*, a Roman tribune who was assigned by Pontius Pilate to carry out the execution, and Demetrius, Marcellus’ Greek slave.  In trying to understand the strange but powerful feelings they experience in the aftermath of this event, they finally reject the paganism and atheism prevalent at that time and become followers of Christ, profoundly altering the course of the lives.

One historian’s blog provides a detailed explanation of the historical inaccuracies of the story and rightly criticizes its depiction of Christianity as nothing more than “a moral code in which people are just really nice to each other and practice a vaguely-defined ‘justice.’”  Fundamental Christian doctrines are never mentioned, so the story fails to portray what the faith is truly about.

Despite the novel’s very watered-down presentation of Christianity, though, I still found it fascinating to be plunged into the world of 33 A.D., where the effects of an extraordinary event began rippling outward from Jerusalem and impacting the ordinary people who were alive at that time.

Also, I found Douglas’ idealistic portrait of Arpino, a community transformed by Jesus’ teachings about social justice, to be irresistible and deeply moving.  Marcellus, a man who was raised in the luxurious Roman villa of his father, decides to escape from his life as a soldier and make his way as a common laborer.  He seeks a job picking melons on a farm but ends up working as the farm owner’s secretary.  It’s a business operation in which the farmworkers are surly and uncivil, and the wealthy owner, Kaeso, is arrogant and disrespectful.  As Marcellus imparts to Kaeso and his family and employees what he has learned as one of Jesus’ newest disciples, and Kaeso begins to change the way he treats people, Marcellus reminds us that paying people a fair wage for their labor — thus lifting them up and out of an impoverished and undignified existence — and treating them with respect helps them to become the decent, industrious, caring people they were meant to be.  This part of Douglas’ tale dramatizes how Christian values can elevate whole societies, not just individuals.

In contrast to the idyllic Arpino, Douglas describes ancient Rome as a city that has been totally polluted by greed, lust for power, and wickedness.  I found it impossible not to compare it to our own modern society of Have’s who are determined to enrich themselves even at the expense of the Have Not’s.

When Marcellus recites The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10) to this community before he leaves to return to Rome, the true power of those words hit me, and I cried for a world that we could create but don’t.  However, this story also reminds me of the power of the individual follower of Christ.  Through our actions and influence, we can and should work toward creating the more fair, more just, more compassionate community that Jesus described.

Christ’s Peace,

Ann Marie

 

*The soldiers who carried out the crucifixion are not named in the Bible, but Christian tradition holds that the centurion who drove the spear into Jesus’ side at the moment of his death was a Roman who became known as Longinus.  According to the Gospel of Mark, Longinus instantly converted:

When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)

Longinus is now the patron saint of conversions.

3 Comments

  1. From a post on my FB page I wrote mentioning you:

    Speaking of The Robe (book), the 1953 film based on it is in my opinion is one of the single worst adaptations I’ve ever seen.

    The film drastically altered the very nature of the characters and their relationships. Only the names remained the same to annoy readers. The casting was poorly done. I could buy Victor Mature as a gladiator, but not as the cultured slave, Demetrius. Nor did I find Richard Burton credible as his athletic near twin, Marcellus. Both fine actors, but not in these roles. Other characters are also tossed aside or changed beyond all recognition.

    Important parts, those that delineated the author’s background as a Lutheran and Congregational minister, were eliminated. In a sense I don’t totally blame the screenwriters, Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz and Philip Dunn, since they had to squeeze 552 pages into 135 minutes, but still.

    But I read present-day reviews by religiously inclined commentators and they praise it for its positive value even as the beating Christian heart of the novel had been cut out of it.

    I’ve long dreamed of a more respectful remake, but I could find only one reference to a feeler by Colin Farrell in 2005 and it basically sounded like he’d keep the script the same. He was reported to have said that the 1953 movie is one of his favorites. That wouldn’t satisfy me.

    Noting the novel’s length I’ve since come to believe that it could only be done correctly as a multi-episode TV program. But I can’t even think who’d I’d contact to suggest it to.

    The first episode should include introducing the characters in Rome and Capri and the voyage to Minoa, the second to include his command of the garrison, its assignment to Jerusalem during Passover, the Crucifixion, his breakdown in its aftermath; next his voyage back to Rome and then on to Athens, where he begins his recovery with the aid of the Robe, studies Aramaic with a Samaritan weaver, Demetrius confronts a bully and flees. The next episode should his Include his next voyage to Rome followed by his imperial assignment to investigate Jesus’ intimates in Galilee, and his time there, especially his encounter with Miriam at Cana, and in Jerusalem, where he witnesses the stoning of Stephen and then back to Rome.

    The following is about one of my favorite sections, which I haven’t found mentioned in any synopses, and, of course isn’t in the film. It should be a significant part of the final episode of my fantasy series.

    From a blog (Faith and Reason) by Anne Marie Rad (12/2018):

    Also, I found Douglas’ idealistic portrait of Arpino, a community transformed by Jesus’ teachings about social justice, to be irresistible and deeply moving. Marcellus, a man who was raised in the luxurious Roman villa of his father, decides to escape from his life as a soldier and make his way as a common laborer. He seeks a job picking melons on a farm but ends up working as the farm owner’s secretary. It’s a business operation in which the farmworkers are surly and uncivil, and the wealthy owner, Kaeso, is arrogant and disrespectful. As Marcellus imparts to Kaeso and his family and employees what he has learned as one of Jesus’ newest disciples, and Kaeso begins to change the way he treats people, Marcellus reminds us that paying people a fair wage for their labor — thus lifting them up and out of an impoverished and undignified existence — and treating them with respect helps them to become the decent, industrious, caring people they were meant to be. This part of Douglas’ tale dramatizes how Christian values can elevate whole societies, not just individuals.”

    “When Marcellus recites The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10) to this community before he leaves to return to Rome, the true power of those words hit me, and I cried for a world that we could create but don’t. However, this story also reminds me of the power of the individual follower of Christ. Through our actions and influence, we can and should work toward creating the more fair, more just, more compassionate community that Jesus described.”

    Of course, what follows is his final return to the City and his full profession of faith before the Emperor after a fateful meeting with Simon Peter.

    Writing in The New York Times, Catholic priest and bestselling novelist Andrew M. Greeley told of the influence and power of Douglas’ book, “I was in eighth grade, 14 years old [I was ten in the fourth grade, JA], when I read Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel The Robe, a story about the Roman officer who crucified Jesus and won his seamless robe in a toss of the dice. Douglas’s tale of Marcellus, the officer, Demetrius, his slave, and Diana, his love, had an enormous influence on me. The Robe was the first adult novel I had ever read [same for me, JA]; it changed my mind about religion, about fiction and about the possible relationship between the two. Douglas was a transition between the adventure stories of childhood (including, I confess it, the Hardy Boys) and the classics of young adulthood (we didn’t have teen-agers in those days). I continued to reflect on the relationship between religion and fiction through the years, especially as I devoured in high school so-called Catholic novelists who were much discussed in the Roman Catholic Church in my young adulthood-Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Leon Bloy. Finally, almost 40 years later, when I turned to storytelling of my own, it was a result of a long intellectual and imaginative process that had started with reading The Robe.”

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    1. Thanks, Jerry, for these comments. You’ve reinforced my decision to skip the 1953 film version.

      Also, I wholeheartedly agree with you about the power of fiction. As with all art forms, literary works can move and inspire us in profound and lasting ways. I’ve written about several books and films that have affected me intellectually, emotionally, and spirtually. I hope that readers of this blog will share with us the works of art that have changed and inspired them.

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