“Can I Do Less?” Thoughts on Another Memorable Scene from “The Robe”

Over the holidays, I watched “The Robe” again.  Despite all its 1950’s melodrama, or perhaps because of it, I find myself drawn to this film.  Previously, I shared the scene where Richard Burton’s Marcellus Gallio appears before the petulant, insane Caligula played by Jay Robinson.  It was a powerful scene as Marcellus stands his ground and refuses to renounce Jesus.

There were a number of other scenes that were also very powerful, but none more so than when Marcellus speaks with Peter, the big fisherman, played by Michael Rennie, who is better known for his role as the alien in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”  In that scene, both Peter and Marcellus confront their demons:

Peter: Let me tell you of the burden I bear. Justus told the others I was steadfast. He didn’t know. The night Jesus needed me most, I denied him… not once… but 3 times. I swore I never knew him. Now…

Marcellus Gallio: [stammering, pointing to himself] I… crucified him.

Peter: I know. Demetrius told me.

Marcellus Gallio: [shocked] And you can forgive me?

Peter: He forgave you from the cross. Can I do less? Now, is there anything stopping you? Can you become one of us?

Marcellus Gallio: [new strength in his voice] From this day forward, I am enlisted in His service. I offer Him my fortune, my sword, and my life. And this I pledge to you on my honor as a Roman.

Why is this fictional scene so powerful?  I think it’s because it speaks to a deep truth.  I believe there are people who feel that they are unworthy to be simply Christians due to their perceptions of their past or their own misconceptions of their worth.  Maybe they look for relief from some inner pain and suffering by turning to drugs, alcohol, and/or meaningless sex.  The harmful outlets they choose to treat their problems eventually come to define them.  Society, including the people who should be most compassionate, may look down on these broken people, thus reinforcing that negative self-image.  The negativity grows, and more relief is needed to deal with the hurt.  The cycle of self-loathing and self-medication continues to spiral out of control. 

In the film, Peter was not shocked by Marcellus’ confession.  The runaway slave, Demetrius had already told the whole story.  Demetrius, played by Victor Mature, had himself undergone a major transformation from the belligerent Greek captive in the slave market, once destined for the arena, to the devoted disciple who traveled with Peter.  In the film, he was taken to the brink of death in Caligula’s torture chamber, yet never recanted his faith.

Paul talked about the same kinds of things in I Corinthians 6.  After listing a catalog of sins—including drunkenness and sexual sins— Paul says, “11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

“12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.”

Granted, he is talking to people who were ostensibly already Christians.  But they were rationalizing their continued engagement in their pet practices by saying that they had liberty in Christ.  The key here, for Christian and non-Christian alike, is in that resolute statement, “I will not be dominated by anything.”

Jesus knew people.  He knew their hearts and he loved their souls.  Nowhere is that any more evident than in Matthew 11.28ff:  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  29  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Here, although he is talking to a people burdened by the legalistic chains of rabbinic law, his words speak to anyone who is carrying any burden that hinders their freedom and makes them soul-weary.  His invitation is not only to those who are already righteous; his nail-scarred hand is extended for all who labor under any burdensome circumstance.

Like the fictional Marcellus, who thought he was unworthy and un-redeemable because of his involvement in that unjust execution, we may feel unworthy of redemption.  But like the cinematic Peter explained, “He forgave you from the cross.”  That is the heart and essence of grace.  It is not earned, but freely given as a gift. 

But like any gift, the benefit of grace is only realized by accepting it.  In the film, Peter continues, “Now, is there anything stopping you? Can you become one of us?”  Those questions are relevant to every broken person, regardless of their circumstance.  Jesus promises “rest for your souls.”  That’s a lot more than any chemical or meaningless relationship can do.      

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Coming to Terms with “Joy to the World”

For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been an enigma.  My family has always celebrated the holiday in the secular sense, always with the caveat that this is not really Jesus’ birthday.  For years I heard about the pagan origins, the festival of Sol Invictus, the druidic rituals of hanging greenery, the early catholic tradition of adopting pagan celebrations and putting a Christian twist on them to make converts more comfortable.  Some in my faith tradition see any observance of Christmas as wrong.  I heard of people who refused to decorate Christmas trees, out of a conviction that it was sinful.

But over the years, I felt something was not quite right.  I loved the music of Christmas, both sacred and secular.  I appreciated the messages of good will and peace, but then I appreciated them at all times of year.  I felt like something of a hypocrite.

No, I don’t believe that Jesus was born on December 25.  But someone did: in fact, the link to December 25 is probably closely linked to an early belief about Jesus’ life.  According to Andrew McGowan, writing in Bible History Daily, the reasoning goes something like this: 

“There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

“Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

“This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

“Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”

“In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.” Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.

“Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).”

(http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/)

Now of course, the old arguments regarding meteorological evidence (shepherds in the fields are more likely in spring or summer), suggests a different time of year.  And at the risk of sounding like a modern political hack, we have no birth certificate to conclusively prove the timing of his birth.

Timing notwithstanding, I believe Jesus was indeed born.  I believe that this event was one of the most life- and history-altering events in the history of mankind.  And while there is absolutely no evidence that the first Christians ever celebrated Jesus’ birth, as humans in awe of the divine, it is natural that we set aside a day to reflect on this most auspicious event.  If angels sang, and shepherds assembled, and (later) wise men offered precious gifts, is his birth not worthy of our continued remembrance?  Yes, we are instructed to remember his death and sacrifice in our frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper.  But without his birth, there could have been no perfect life, no foundational teachings, no life of compassion and love to emulate, no sacrificial death to save us.

The timing of Jesus’ birth will remain a mystery.  That those who show him honor and reverence should honor his birth is no mystery at all.  While I cannot personally commend this observance as a matter of religious obligation, I cannot condemn the general observance by people who love Jesus, and choose to honor him in this way.

In 1719, Isaac Watt published the hymn, “Joy to the World,” as an anticipation of Jesus’ triumphal Second Coming.  With its echo of the angelic message in Luke 2.10, it is no wonder that people would adopt the song as an anthem in honor of his birth.  As his arrival marked a new dawn for humankind, I can see how celebrating his birth in a cold, bleak time of year, looking forward to the warmer days of spring and new life would take on an appealing significance.  In that spirit, I join with that sentiment.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room,

And Heaven and nature sing,

And Heaven and nature sing,

And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

 

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!

Let men their songs employ;

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains

Repeat the sounding joy,

Repeat the sounding joy,

Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

 

No more let sins and sorrows grow,

Nor thorns infest the ground;

He comes to make His blessings flow

Far as the curse is found,

Far as the curse is found,

Far as, far as, the curse is found.

 

He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove

The glories of His righteousness,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders, wonders, of His love.

When Ignorance Becomes Sin

Ignorance comes in all shapes and sizes.  In fact, if we accept the definition of ignorance as being uninformed, then we are all ignorant of some things, for the simple reason that we cannot know everything.  Indeed, there are some things in life of which we would be better off if we remained ignorant of them.  But in other cases, becoming enlightened, dispelling the darkness of ignorance only brings greater appreciation and joy.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about the topic of ignorance, and most of it is not good.  For example, sins may be committed in ignorance (Ezekiel 45.20), but when knowledge is made available, all are expected to turn away from their ignorant sins (Acts 17.30).  Even Paul noted that he had sinned in ignorance, blaspheming the name of Jesus and persecuting his followers (I Tim 1.13). 

The goal for any person who professes a life dedicated to Christianity should be to achieve a greater measure of perfection—completeness—each and every day.  Jesus expects his followers to grow in knowledge (Matt 11.29), and thereby grow in grace and usefulness (2 Peter 1.8; 3.18).  The ignorance that holds us back from growing and maturing and performing to the best of our abilities is to be laid aside as the burden that it is, and we are to reach ever farther, ever higher, to achieve more in God’s service. 

Personally, I take great pleasure in learning and growing in understanding.  I hate the ignorance that I have in the past displayed.  I am ashamed of some of the things that I used to hold as true, but which I can no longer accept, having come to a greater understanding.  Not that I have achieved all knowledge.  Far from it.  But the more I learn, the less sure I become of some of the things that I once thought as immutable as a mountain of granite.  But like the forces of wind and heat and water that can over time reduce a mountain to a plain of sand, understanding changes perspectives. 

The Greek philosopher, Socrates, noted that the first step toward knowledge, even wisdom, is to admit one’s ignorance.  It is interesting that from that point, two classes of people can be ascertained: those that refuse to remain in ignorance and those that revel in it.  The Wisdom literature of the Bible speaks repeatedly about the dichotomy of wisdom and foolishness.  In these comparisons, the characteristics of the wise generally lead to happiness and prosperity, while the fool is fated to ruin.  Of course, Ecclesiastes could be seen to decry the futility of wisdom of earthly nature, outside the realm of true wisdom that springs from service to God.  I consider the New Testament book of James to be wisdom literature, and from the very outset of his letter, the source, way and value of wisdom are commended to his readers.

Now, I could spend many words discussing the dangers of ignorance in religion.  In doing so, I might reveal some of my own ignorance, which I would certainly not intend to proffer as anything to be adopted by anyone else.  But if I am ignorant on a subject, whether in matters sacred or secular, I pledge not to willfully remain so. And if for some reason, I don’t have the time or resources to correct my ignorant state, I hope I have the good sense not to get on my soapbox and display that ignorance by expounding on some topic of which I have at best marginal, limited knowledge. 

Willful ignorance is a sin.  There, I said it.  Why should I make such a pronouncement?  Because I see no other way of considering it.  If we are presented with truth and we reject that truth, whatever it may be, we have sinned against the ultimate author of that knowledge, and sinned against anyone else whom we have convinced to remain in ignorance.

This goes not only for matters of faith, but also for matters of life in general.  I got to thinking about this whole issue when I became aware of the dubious work of a minister for the non-institutional churches of Christ, who has taken it upon himself to enlighten the world about the futility and sinfulness of modern psychiatry.  I will not provide a link to his web page, because I do not want anyone to blame me for introducing them to his blatantly dangerous ideas. 

This person who paints himself as a man of God makes broad statements in his articles about mental health issues.  He says that that conditions like depression, autism, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, and virtually anything else relating to the field of mental health are lies perpetrated by a nefarious cabal of psychiatrists.  Children with symptoms of autism are just the products of bad parenting.  (Never mind the vast body of literature that indicates the autism spectrum is comprised of conditions with causes too numerous to count, including gene mutations and changes in chromosome structure (e.g., chromosome 11).)  Depression is a result of sin or sinful choices, and has no biological basis.  With regard to ADHD, he blames educators for wanting classrooms filled with Ritalin-laced zombies, to make their lives easier, because they are essentially lazy, worthless parasites on society.  Consequently, he rationalizes that the best thing to do would be to fire the teachers, close the schools, and home-school everyone.  In claiming that research on mental illness is junk science, he cites dubious sources to support his claims, and there is certainly a wealth of that available—many from sources that would not be published in reputable peer-reviewed journals, and some are apparently self-published.

This is not only ignorance, it is insulting to every person who has a mental illness, their parents, and the un-numbered scores of diligent, caring educators who are trying to make a better world by teaching the next generation.

But this kind of anti-intellectual propaganda can lead to tragedy in at least two ways: first, and most directly, if someone reads his error-skewed teachings and believes them and fails to get a child the help he or she desperately needs to become a functional member of society, has he not become tantamount to an accessory to murder?  No, no weapon will have been used to stop a beating heart.  But a life’s potential will be squandered for no more than a page of lies.  That life is wasted as surely as if it were ended in violence.

Second, by perpetuating blatant lies and half-truths about mental health and claiming to speak as a preacher of the gospel, he does the gospel a grave disservice: if he is perpetuating lies about mental illness (and there are libraries of information that say he is), is he telling the truth about God?  How many people who may have been searching for spiritual truth have turned away because of such belligerent falsehoods?  We may never know. 

Why am I so affected by this?  Why can’t I just brush it aside and consider the ignorance of the source?  Because I am the father of a child with autism.  No, he is not affected by the “Rain Man” savant variety, nor is he the kind of asocial person who sits and stares at lights and engages in self-stimulatory behavior like constant rocking.  But he has persistent developmental delays, difficulty processing various kinds of information, fine motor deficits, outbursts and meltdowns when he becomes overstimulated by his environment….the list goes on and on.

To my own shame, I was in denial about his condition for far too long.  I refused to believe that he had any issues.  But a mother notices things more than an easily distractible father.  I didn’t want to believe that my son would be anything less than a high achieving child with a limitless future.  I caused my wife undue emotional pain during that time of denial.  I have long since come to my senses and cannot apologize enough for my lack of sensitivity.

For a preacher in my own faith tradition to point a finger at me and tell me that my son’s autism is the result of sin or sinful choices on my part (or his) is deeply insulting.  But more than this, his comments and allegations and sweeping generalizations about mental illness are indicative of willfully embracing ignorance, and seeking out those who will tell the lies to support his willful error.  To believe a lie is one thing.  To perpetuate it at all—let alone perpetuate it in the guise of religion—is unconscionable.  Interest and opinion are free for all to hold.  But using your religious platform to spread lies is abominable.