It wouldn't normally occur to me to pull this book off a shelf, and I would have missed out greatly if it hadn't been loaned to me. I don't read 'Christian fiction,' but the review SugarMama provided when she offered me the book made me take the chance.
Calling this book 'Christian fiction' is like calling Mahalia Jackson 'Contemporary Christian Music' - unfair, dismissive and misleading. The Robe is a classic written in 1942 by Lloyd C. Douglas. Taking a historical approach, it tells the story of the Roman tribune who gambled for, and won, Jesus' robe at the crucifixion. It follows the impact of that event on the tribune, and traces the roots of the young Christian religion. It's a finely wrought and moving personal story of duty, love, struggle, and wonder.
I don't know how different my reading of the book would have been if I wasn't a Christian with a whole lot of familiarity with the gospels and the new testament record of the early church. I cheered when Simon Peter entered the story and sighed when Stephanos was introduced, knowing how his story arc would end. However, no matter what I am reading I always try to read like a writer - with attention to plot, structure, pacing, language, character, etc. The Robe has all of those things and also offers, as the writer of the preface states, a sense of the 'mystery and wonder' of Christ.
Without that 'mystery and wonder,' the story is still powerful on many levels. The character development of the main players - tribune Marcellus Gallio, his love interest Diana, and his Greek slave Demitrius - is moving and appropriate for both their youth and their relative stations in life. Character growth is so often forced into a story or completely missing - it was refreshing to have it handled skillfully. Marcellus' skepticism is especially finely handled. A Roman Tribune is a man of reason and evidence; he's the perfect person to investigate the stories of Jesus.
The story moves smoothly between Rome, Athens, Damascus and Jerusalem. The historical detail - from quivering, aged, senile Tiberius and rabid Caligula to the information on how a robe was woven differently in Galilee than in Jerusalem elevated the book far beyond a simple story. The language is rich - it's not often I find myself reaching for my dictionary while I'm reading, and this book had me doing so repeatedly.
This is the point where I normally say whether I'd recommend a book or not; I absolutely do recommend The Robe, but I do so with an awareness that where you stand in relation to Jesus will, I assume, greatly influence your reading of this book. I'd love to know if any of my atheist/agnostic friends have read it and what they think. As I've said, it's a well written book - rich, engaging, and a page turner. I think everyone can enjoy it from whatever perspective they approach it.
And yes, The Robe was made into an epic movie in 1953 in the style of The Ten Commandments and Moses. It stars Richard Burton in the part of Marcellus, and I'm pretty sure it'll be worth watching. A little cheesy and over-the-top, no doubt, but interesting.
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