“The proclaimers of Christianity
who begin right off with orthodoxy
actually do not have much influence
and only on a few.”
~ Søren Kierkegaard
My wife and I really wanted to like the new Ben-Hur movie, we really did. And we were willing to make allowances for the extremely high bar set by the 1959 version, which is, let’s admit, a remarkable cinematic feat start to finish. Hardly a cheesy moment in the entire thing, and the special effects hold up after 50+ years – try it out on your own kids and you’ll see.
After seeing the trailer for the new Ben-Hur, I was even willing to overlook the presence of Morgan Freeman. Sure he’s a great actor, and his sheik get-up seemed pretty snazzy, but I knew he’d be a distraction because, for me, he’ll always be frozen in celluloid time: Morgan Freeman=Red in Shawshank Redemption. Not even his role as God in Evan Almighty and Bruce Almighty could shake that.
I even tried to ignore the pre-release hype which was, well, hyped, although I couldn’t help wincing a bit at a radio spot featuring praise from some mega-church pastor I’d never heard of. My thought bubble at the time: “If the marketing guys in Hollywood had to resort to blurbs from celebrity preachers, then something is definitely amiss.” Nevertheless, I was willing to suspend judgement until I saw it for myself.
Then it hit the theaters, and all pre-release buzz was effectively killed. Ben-Hur collapsed at the box office, and so when Nancy and I decided to go anyway just days after the opening weekend, we expected a lighter crowd – but not that light. Aside from one other couple and a guy sitting by himself with a huge tub of popcorn, we were the only ones in the joint. “This can’t be good,” I muttered to Nancy. She shrugged and settled into her seat, determined to enjoy our outing. The lights dimmed, the PSAs shunned us about our cell phones, and we were off.
Hoo, boy, what a disappointment, and that’s a reaction shared by many if you go by the Tomatometer movie review aggregator. They rate the new Ben-Hur at 28%, which is down in the cellar with this summer’s apparently forgettable Ice Age reboot (12% – a flick-bullet I managed to dodge despite the clamors of my Sid-loving kids), and an embarrassment when you consider the commanding 88% attached to the Charlton Heston classic. Our theater jaunt wasn’t a total waste however. Timur Bekmambetov’s newfangled Ben-Hur was, I’ll grant you, mildly diverting. The performances were adequate (including Red’s), the galley scenes appropriately wrenching, and the chariot race, pretty decent.
But, look, cheesiness abounds, and not even the much ballyhooed expansion of the Messiah’s role could save this clunker. There’s only a couple scenes featuring Jesus in the Ben-Hur saga, but they’re key – so much so that Lew Wallace sub-titled his original 1880 novel, “A Tale of the Christ.” But in the latest movie iteration, the second Person of the Trinity is a hipster beefcake who spouts platitudes – almost as if he’d just come from a Bernie Sanders rally and was trying to entice our votes. The most telling moment was the scene when the enchained and dehydrated Ben-Hur begs for water and the Roman guard objects. The Savior glibly talks of loving your enemies and avoiding violence, and when he confronts the interfering guard the latter is paralyzed – as if Jesus used the Force on him or something. “These aren’t the galley slaves you’re looking for,” he might’ve said with a wave of the hand.
In the 1959 version, you never see the Lord’s face nor hear him speak. Even so, director William Wyler was still able to conjure up an air of majesty and mystery in that brief water scene – a palpable sense that this obscure carpenter was somehow set apart and different in an unprecedented way. Heston’s Ben-Hur gasps, “God help me!” and Jesus supplies the drink. The guard steps up to intervene, but then backs away in consternation. The Roman’s face reveals that he doesn’t know how to deal with this Son of Man, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1.23). There’s no preachy one-liners, no awkwardness. Just a powerful depiction of an incarnate divine presence and its ripple effects on a hungering humanity.
It’s an example of what Søren Kierkegaard called “indirect communication,” an oblique approach to deliberation which the Danish philosopher relied on to shake people out of their religious slumber. “The point of indirect communication,” writes William McDonald of Kierkegaard’s approach, “is to position the reader to relate to the truth with appropriate passion, rather than to communicate the truth as such.” I’m guessing the Hollywood execs who took on the new Ben-Hur thought that dropping all pretense of subtlety and having the Son of God speak for himself would somehow appease the Christian movie-going public. Maybe it did at some level, and I suspect plenty of Sunday schools will be purchasing the DVD when it comes out. But the direct Jesus approach detracted from the new film’s overall artistry and appeal, and it’s certainly not going to help reach a broader audience.
In a post-Christian society such as ours, better to have an indirect Christ in the movies, or, better still, no full-monty Christ at all. George Hunter has observed, following Kierkegaard’s lead, that “storytelling and other appeals to the imagination are effective, even essential” in a culture inured to explicit Gospel themes. Consequently, instead of banking on preachy blockbusters that end up busting – especially tepid remakes – we might want to consider the kind of indirect narratives about faith that have proven successful in the past. Think of Chariots of Fire about Olympian and missionary Eric Liddell, or Babette’s Feast, a superb treatment of Isak Dinesen’s moving novella about a heavenly banquet. Or how about The Mission, a drama about enslavement and liberation, or Romero, the true story of El Salvador’s martyred archbishop.
So, filmmaking powers-that-be, enough with the sententious retreads, which movie consumers, Christian and otherwise, consistently jettison anyway. How about taking a chance on some fresh material with indirect Gospel content? If I had millions to burn, I’d be underwriting a screen adaptation of A Canticle for Leibowitz, for instance, or John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. How about any story by Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy? Just trying to help you out here.
But listen, Hollywood, one last thing: If you must do remakes, especially religious remakes, try older films with indirect potential that actually require re-making. I mean, whose idea was it to redo Ben-Hur in the first place? You were just asking for trouble – anybody could’ve told you that – and there are so many other movies in dire need of updating. Kristin Lavransdatter is an obvious contender in that regard, but I particularly want to draw your attention to Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Franco Zeffirelli’s groovy take on St. Francis. It happens to be one of my favorite films, but my wife makes fun of me. “It’s such a hippie Francis,” she says. “And the trippy Donovan soundtrack only makes it worse.”
OK, I’ll grant her all that, but I still like it, for it was instrumental in drawing me as a young Catholic convert to the poor man of Assisi. Francis, a mini-incarnation of Christ, became my first role model for holy striving, and his story is timeless – an indirect Christian narrative if there ever was one.
Hey – here’s a thought! We have a popular pontiff who adopted Francis as his namesake, and he has a penchant for indirect communication himself. Could there be a more opportune moment for a Brother Sun, Sister Moon redux?
Where do I sign up to invest?