Tag Archives: St. Francis of Assisi

Ben-Hur 2016: Of Film, Faith, and Indirect Communication

28 Aug


“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=RedShawshank-Redemption-still 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.

ben_hur_1In 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 thibro sunng: 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?

Required Reading

17 Jul


They may have only those books
which are necessary for their religious exercises.
~ The Rule of St. Francis (1221)

I’m just beginning the earliest stages of formation in the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS), and I had an orientation meeting with Sr. Agnes Marie recently. She walked me and Ray, a fellow newbie, through the process – the different stages of formation, from Inquiry to Candidacy to Profession – and gave us some books. A pile of books, really: A formation manual, a volume of prayers and rituals, and a book entitled, To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscans. I’d also dusted off my old Breviary and brought it along – the OFS community prays the Divine Office together when they meet – and had tracked down my copy of the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources as well.

A whole shelf-full of tomes – to follow the poor man of Assisi? Don’t get me wrong: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too many books – which you’d see right away if you visited our home. Still, it seemed ironic that I’d so much stuff would be required to walk in the way of one who required so little.

It reminds me of a scene in The Mission (1986) – do you know that film? Directed by Roland Joffé, it’s a moving tale of courage and conversion that takes place in the jungles of 18th-century Paraguay. There, the Jesuits have established elaborate mission centers (“Reductions”) where the indigenous Guaraní have the opportunity to learn about Christ and become acclimated to European cultural ways.

To our modern ears, that sounds uncomfortably like Western paternalism and imperial conquest, but there’s more to the story – and it’s based on historical events. The real Jesuit Reductions were certainly oriented to evangelization, but they were also a hedge against oppression. At the time, there was no consensus in Europe regarding slavery, and that extended to the colonies. Thus, the Guaraní and other tribal groups were at risk of enslavement depending on where they dwelled: The Portuguese permitted the practice in their territories, but it was forbidden in Spanish colonies – which is where the Jesuits located their Reductions.

At one point, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a reformed mercenary and slave trader, seeks reconciliation with the Guaraní he’d been persecuting as well as with God. After a profound redemption, Mendoza asks Fr. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) how he can demonstrate his gratitude. Mind you, Fr. Gabriel is a Jesuit priest, someone well familiar with libraries and intense study, so you’d expect at least a couple books in response – maybe a treatise on forgiveness and then a copy of The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius.

But, no. The Jesuit pushes a small Bible across the table to Mendoza, and says, “Read this.” As the scene progresses, you hear a voiceover of De Niro reading St. Paul’s “Love” passage in I Corinthians 13 (from a modified King James Version):

Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

São_Miguel_das_Missões_(Brazil)At the same time, on the screen, De Niro’s character interacts with the Guaraní – conversing with them, laughing and smiling with them. It’s stirring depiction of redemptive love in action.

There’s lots more to be said about this film (by all means, see it if you haven’t!), but the message of this particular scene is clear: The essence of the Faith is found in Sacred Scripture – it’s the one indispensable book. “Ignorance of the Scriptures,” wrote St. Jerome, “is ignorance of Christ” (DV #25), and there’s no doubt that St. Francis would’ve concurred – his own revolutionary conversion was precipitated by hearing the Gospel proclaimed to him afresh.

What’s true for Francis is true for his followers. In a 1956 address, Pope Pius XII called the Secular Franciscans a “school of Christian perfection,” which makes so much sense. We want to become saints ourselves, and the Secular Franciscan Order is like an ongoing seminar in which we study and imitate the way of sanctification that Francis himself followed. And, like any school, this one has required reading – actually, a single text. Here’s how the authors of To Live as Francis Lived put it:

The textbook of that school is the Gospel, the inspired faith-vision written down by the Church in the New Testament. This is primary. Any additions such as the Rule and Constitution are merely attempts to make some practical suggestions about carrying out the gospel in the circumstances of the twenty-first century.

There’s a stark parallel to this in The Imitation of Christ with regards to those who prefer pilgrimages to prayer. Thomas à Kempis editorializes that those who constantly flit around shrines and holy places might be missing out on what will truly benefit their souls:

Often in looking at those memorials men are moved by curiosity and novelty, and very little fruit of amendment is borne away, especially when there is so much careless trifling and so little true contrition. But here in the Sacrament of the Altar, Thou art present altogether, My God, the Man Christ Jesus; where also abundant fruit of eternal life is given to every one soever that receiveth Thee worthily and devoutly.

Why exhaust ourselves making pilgrimages if we’re not already attending to the Real Presence awaiting us in the churches right where we live? Similarly, there’s no point in reading erudite studies on Christology and thick books of theological reflection if we’re not first putting in our time with meeting Him in the written Word itself.

There’s no question that Sr. Agnes knows this – and lives it! Giving us baby Franciscans a pile of books wasn’t meant to frame the formation process as a course of study – by no means! The history and theology, bylaws and ceremony are important, but only supplemental. What is truly needful is an openness to the Holy Spirit and an eagerness for Christ – whom we encounter in Word and Sacrament. St. Francis himself pointed the way, and that Way is laid out for us in Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels. They’re our essential reference, and they’re entitled to a reserved spot on the top of our “to-read” stacks.

Custody of the Holy Land

6 May


“Alongside the history of salvation
there exists a geography of salvation.”
~ Pope Paul VI

Read more…


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