H. B. Warner is perhaps best known for playing the drinking druggist Mr. Gower in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but 19 years earlier he was cast by the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille to play Jesus in the silent film “King of Kings.” DeMille bound Warner to a contract that prohibited him from taking any roles for five years that might undermine his “holy” image in “King of Kings.” He wanted to avoid publicity that might negatively impact the film.
Warner was barred from playing cards, going to ballgames, swimming, and riding in a convertible. During filming, DeMille had him transported in a car with blinds drawn. On his way from the car to the set, he was obliged to wear a black veil. He was not allowed to eat with the other cast members.
If DeMille was hoping to impart an aura of holiness to Warner, he was unsuccessful. The pressure to be Christlike without the vision of the beauty and desirability of such a life, drove Warner over the edge. During production, he relapsed into his addiction to alcohol. It was the only way he knew to deal with all the stress.
Cecil B. DeMille seemed to think that holiness was defined by the things a person does not do. The early 20th century mystic Evelyn Underhill corrected such notions when she wrote, “The real mark of … that more lovely, more abundant life … is not an abstraction from this world, but a return to it; There is nothing high-minded about Christian holiness. It is most at home in the slum, the street, the hospital ward.”
Holiness – the very word has lapsed into disuse in contemporary culture – has often been misunderstood, even by those who think themselves holy. Real holiness is, in Underhill’s words, “that more lovely, more abundant, life.” Counterfeit holiness is unattractive and sterile.
Real holiness, again in Underhill’s words, involves a return to the world. Rather than seeking to escape the world, the genuinely holy person is God’s agent of love in the world. Rather than distancing oneself from others, the holy person is welcoming. Rather than being proud, which is the chief mark of counterfeit holiness, the holy person is humble.
A critically important, yet frequently overlooked, biblical passage that illuminates what “that more lovely, more abundant, life” is like is found in Leviticus 19. Many people, some who are earnest Christians, are entirely unaware of this passage, which elucidates the divine command to be holy. Were they to read it closely, they would come away with a different – and more positive – conception of holiness.
Leviticus 19 reveals what real holiness looks like in the real world. It does this by illustrating what it means to be God’s people in everyday situations, for example: in families; at work; in relationships with the opposite sex; and with immigrants. These examples reveal how relevant holiness is to everyday life.
Christopher J. H. Wright nicely summarizes the reach of holiness as it is portrayed in Leviticus 19. He notes that holiness transforms and beautifies family life (vv. 3, 32). It impacts a person’s finances, especially through generosity (vv. 9, 10). It demands economic justice (v. 13). It shows compassion for people with disabilities (v. 14). These are all contemporary concerns. Who would have thought that an antiquated concept like holiness could be so up to date?
There is more. Holiness entails judicial integrity on a societal level (vv. 12, 15). It calls people to show concern and compassion to their neighbors (vv. 16-18). It insists on sexual integrity (vv. 20-22, 29). It treats ethnic minorities with equality before the law, then goes beyond that by showing them practical kindness and compassion (vv. 33-34). It requires honesty in business transactions (vv. 35-36).
This is not what life looks like in most communities, but it is what life would look like if people were holy – that is, if they lived like they belonged to God. Of course, Christians claim they do belong to God. Therefore, this is how their individual lives, and life in their churches, ought to look.
(First published by Gannett.)