Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


July 13, 2015

Several years ago, the movie Argo won the Academy award as the best movie of the year. I enjoyed the movie in that it was a good drama, one that held its audience in proper suspense even as it provided some good humour and banter on the side.

But I struggled with several aspects of the film. First, as a Canadian, I was somewhat offended by the way that the vital role Canadians played in the escape of the U.S. hostages from Iran in 1979 was downplayed to the point of simply being written out of the story. The movie would have been more honest had it advertised itself as "based on a true story" rather than presenting itself as a true story.

But that was more of an irritation than anything serious. Art has the right to exaggerate forms to highlight an essence. I don't begrudge a filmmaker his film.

What bothered me was how, again, as is so frequently the case in Hollywood movies and popular literature, we were shown a hero under the canopy of that adolescent idealization. By going it alone, the hero singularly saves the world; alone is the "messiah" and his or her self-isolation, coupled with a certain arrogance presented as human superiority.

What's wrong with that classic hero as he is normally portrayed in so many of our movies? What's wrong is that the great ancient myths and a good number of anthropologists, philosophers and psychologists tell us that this kind of hero is not the mature archetype of the true warrior or prophet.

The mature saviour, prophet or warrior is not the hero, but the knight. The hero operates off his own agenda; the knight is under someone else's agenda. The knight lays their sword at the foot of the king or queen. The knight, like Jesus, "does nothing on his own."

The powerful idealization we throw onto our heroes and heroines is, like love in adolescence, so powerful a drug that it is hard to see that something much fuller and more mature lies beyond it.

The obsessive love that Romeo and Juliet die for is powerful, but a mature couple, holding hands after 50 years of marriage, is the real paradigm for love.


The lonely, isolated, unapologetic hero grips the imagination in a way that the more fully mature man or woman does not. One can see this in any number of characters played by Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as the hero of Argo who overruled even the president's orders in saving Iranian hostages.

The Nobel-prizing winning philosopher Albert Camus in his book The Plague presents us with what should be an example of a most noble hero. His hero is a certain Dr. Rieux who, because he is an atheist, struggles with the question of meaning: If there is no God, then where can there be meaning? What difference does any virtue or generosity ultimately make?


Rieux answers that question for himself by finding meaning in selflessly giving himself over, at the risk of his own life, to fighting the plague. What could be nobler than that? Few things fire the romantic imagination as does this kind of moral rebellion. So, what could be more noble than the hero in the movie Argo going it alone in taking on the regime in Iran?

Charles Taylor has a certain answer to this. Commenting on Camus' hero, Dr. Rieux, Taylor asks: "Is this the ultimate measure of excellence? If we think of ethical virtue as the realization of lone individuals, this may seem to be the case. But suppose the highest good consists of communion, mutual giving and receiving, as in the paradigm of the eschatological banquet.

"The heroism of gratuitous giving has no place for reciprocity. If you return anything to me, then my gift was not totally gratuitous; and besides, in the extreme case, I disappear with my gift and no communion between us is possible."


"This unilateral heroism is self-enclosed. It touches the outermost limit of what we can attain when moved by the sense of our own dignity.

"But is that what life is about? Christian faith proposes a quite different view."

It does: We see this in Jesus. He comes into this world precisely as a saviour, to vanquish the powers of darkness, violence, injustice, Satan and death. But notice how, almost as mantra, he keeps saying: "I do nothing on my own. I am perfectly obedient to my Father."

Jesus was never a hero, a Lone Ranger doing his own thing while barely concealing a smug superiority. He was the paradigm of the knight, the humble foot soldier who always lays his sword at the foot of the king.