Inklings of Truth


Give Us Barabbas!

By Audrey Stallsmith

Although I should probably be writing-like everybody else-about The Da Vinci Code, I haven't seen the movie. And I find all that controversy about a work of fiction laughable. It's nice to know, however, that it isn't only we on the religious right who are taken in by ludicrous conspiracy theories!

Since I haven't had time to research a proper article this month, I'll just prattle on about a couple other fictions that I find more interesting. The Robe and Barabbas are both movies set in the post-resurrection period, that I recently saw for the first time.

Both opt for a distant view of Christ, never showing His face. A logical choice since neither of the main characters is familiar with Jesus before His crucifixion. That execution will, however, haunt both of them for the rest of their lives.

I find Barabbas the more disturbing of the two movies, but also the more convincing. The actors in The Robe strike too many poses. Granted, they are pretty and well-calculated poses. But they also make the viewer want to kick the characters and advise them to get on with things! Also, the hero's guilt-induced "madness" seems to come and go rather conveniently.

As an upper class Roman tribune present at the crucifixion, Marcellus Gallio harps on his guilt in Jesus' death. Since he is portrayed as more an "officer-and-gentleman" type, however, there's an implication that Marcellus was already somewhat "noble" even before his conversion.

Barabbas, on the other hand, is an unmistakably guilty character. Although it would have been tempting to make him a misunderstood Robin Hood, the movie opts for the harder course. This anti-hero is just what you would expect a thief and murderer to be: selfish, pleasure seeking, almost brutish. When informing Barabbas that the populace has chosen him over a miracle-working prophet, a Roman officer snaps ironically, "I have no comment." Perhaps he recognizes the depths to which human nature has sunk, when it would prefer a killer to the uncomfortable truth about itself.

Although definitely not a sensitive type, the pardoned criminal is made uneasy by the crucifixion. His pride stung by the obvious wish of so many that he had died instead, he's also afraid that he is going to be cursed for something about which he had no choice.

Also, Barabbas is too unused to goodness to understand it, and tries to talk the disciples into admitting that the resurrection is a hoax. He even encounters a specter-like Lazarus, but the viewer gets the strong impression that it isn't Lazarus who is the walking dead man. When his recently converted girlfriend is stoned to death, however, a disillusioned Barabbas returns to his old murdering ways.

Arrested again--fittingly enough--while pelting a couple Pharisees with rocks, he becomes a problem for Pilate. Because the governor supposedly can't have a once-pardoned criminal executed, he sentences Barabbas to slave labor in a mine instead. And, seeing the killer literally standing knee-deep in bubbling sulfur in the constant darkness of the mine, we can hardly miss the implication of hell itself.

Although this film doesn't directly mention madness, Barabbas' gloating, "You can't kill me!" rant at Pilate comes pretty close. Afterwards, the thief seems to sink into a lengthy depression, apparently making no attempt to escape during twenty years of imprisonment. All he has left to brag of is his physical survival.

When he finally commits an unselfish act, saving the life of a Christian slave during a cave-in, "hell" spits him out. Brought up to the light again, Barabbas naturally finds it painful. But he eventually allows himself to be converted, at least to the point of permitting a cross to be scratched on his identity medallion.

Because others also find his long survival extraordinary, Barabbas-along with his Christian friend-is drafted into service as a gladiator. He abandons that friend, however, when they are both threatened with execution because of their faith. Barabbas holds, probably quite truthfully, that he had only ever tried to believe.

So he once again manages to save his own life, and even succeeds in killing the man who executed his friend. But Barabbas no longer seems to derive any satisfaction from violence or physical survival. When returning his friend's body to the Christians in the catacombs, he becomes lost. His increasing spiritual awakening is betrayed by his screams at the One who has haunted him for so many years. "Where are you? I can't find you!"

Barabbas finally, desperately, abandons self-preservation. He tries to ally himself with the believers by aiding what he thinks is their attempt to burn down Rome. Although wrong about that, he is finally and irrevocably joined with them in martyrdom.

Unlike The Robe, where the hero dies gallantly accompanied by a beautiful maiden, even Barabbas' ultimate try at doing the right thing turns out to be a blundering one. And that, I think, is why it's easier for us to identify with him than with the gentleman in the other movie. We're all too aware of our own cowardice and stupidity, and of the fact that we need help to even begin to approach nobility.

Like The Da Vinci Code, Barabbas is fiction. Scripture actually tells us very little about this character. But, whereas some argue that the Code uses fiction to try to drag down truth, the Barrabas movie attempts to grope its way up from disillusionment.

Its jaundiced portrayal of human nature isn't exactly inspiring, but is much nearer to the truth than our modern positive thinking. Fortunately we aren't required to have faith in ourselves. That's the truly uplifting conclusion to which Barabbas comes. And it's why this movie might be categorized, according to a title that one author used to describe good fiction, as "the lie that tells the truth."