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A shattered confidence

What our society missed in the 1950s

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Gather ’round, children, and I’ll tell you of a happy, stable land where moms generally stayed home to raise their kids and dads faithfully went to work every day to support their families. School students respected their teachers, sat quietly, and kept within weight limits appropriate to their age. Suicide rates were low. Church attendance was high.

After home-cooked meals around the table, families often adjourned to the living room to watch other ­families (Cleavers, Andersons, and Nelsons) solve their problems within 30-minute episodes. Americans were secure in the knowledge that their country, having emerged on top after a devastating world war, was the greatest, the fairest, the happiest nation on earth, and possibly even in all of world history.

It didn’t last, because it couldn’t.

Nostalgia for the 1950s has bloomed and faded as those who lived it pass on. Of course, the decade was no golden age—communism was a real threat, and racism was an ugly blight on the social fabric of the United States. But neither was it the straitjacket of conformism that later generations imagined. Ross Douthat, in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, describes the ’50s as “an era of intellectual confidence, artistic vitality, pews filled to bursting, and a widespread faith that Christianity and contemporary liberal democracy were natural partners.” One indication of that confident faith might be the popularity of Bible stories on the big screen.

From its beginning, Hollywood had a taste for sweeping religious sagas. Cecil B. DeMille brought his Episcopal, theatrical background to the big screen with The Sign of the Cross and Samson and Delilah, culmi­nating in 1956 with The Ten Commandments. In 1951 Quo Vadis resuscitated the flagging fortunes of MGM, and Ben Hur rounded out the decade with a record number of Academy Awards. All the way into the 1960s, Biblical epics like King of Kings, The Story of Ruth, and The Greatest Story Ever Told played to audiences who came for the spectacle and tolerated the message.

The messages were tolerable, playing to the largest possible audience. The Ten Commandments could be seen as a story about the inborn human quest for freedom. Quo Vadis (quoting from publicity materials) “would carry a message of beauty and inspiration to the people of the earth” through a drama of “love and faith, courage and terror, lust and luxury, tyranny and the triumph of freedom even in death.” Leaving the theater after an experience of sunbeams and choral climaxes, believers and nonbelievers alike felt equally inspired.

Many of these movies employed true artistry and moving scenes, but what they and the self-confidence of the 1950s missed, according to Douthat, was “the intuition, nearly universal among human beings, that the true nature of the world will always remain just beyond our grasp.” Christianity spoke to that intuition in the very person of Christ, whom no screen treatment or novel could capture. The down-to-earth Jesus of Dallas Jenkins’ The Chosen series comes closer than the white-clad, shining figure of other films. But there remains something wild and uncapturable about Him, and about the Way He established, to which believers and unbelievers alike must eventually submit.

An unpopular war, youth rebellion, and drug culture hammered the complacency of the 1950s. Biblical epics from King David in 1985 to Noah in 2014 took a higher-critical approach and usually failed at the box office. “Religion” itself is a failure, if the growing trend of young people claiming no particular creed is to be believed. They are taught to believe in themselves and shape their own identity, with no clue that human nature remains “just beyond our grasp.”

A cloth-wrapped baby in a feeding trough and a cloth-wrapped body in a tomb form the axis of a profound mystery that screen treatments and novels can only suggest. Nations rise and fall, eras come and go, but this ungraspable Person remains, still able and willing to grasp us.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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