Arts & Culture

The New ‘Ben-Hur’: How Christian Is it?

Here we go again. Read More

By / July 26, 2016

Well, here we are again with another adaptation of Ben-Hur (full title of the 1880 novel: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ). The film is scheduled for release soon, on August 19th (that’s Tu B’Av this year! How sweet!), and the marketing team still can’t quite pick an angle. After all, here’s the main trailer with the most views:

Chariot races! Morgan Freeman! Vengeance! Romance! Wait, was that Jesus for a fraction of a second?

Well, let’s look at another, less-viewed trailer:

BOOM! An opening quote from Jeremiah! Redemption! Jesus carpenter-ing! Jerusalem! Jesus helping our hero! Evil Rome! Jesus being super ready to die on the cross! Christian rock music playing in the background! Morgan Freeman again (OK, who wouldn’t emphasize that he’s in their movie?)!

Well, that’s a bit different.

The famous 1959 Ben-Hur is a masterpiece, in an epic, Charlton Heston, religious Christian tale sort of way. You really couldn’t make it today; it’s extremely long, heavy-handed, and (despite its Jewish director) is about as white Gentile as a jello mold. So how will this film measure up?

Reasons the remake may improve on the 1959 film:

  • Actually casting non-white actors and/or some Jewish actors (The titular protagonist is Jack Huston, of partial Jewish descent, and the women in Ben-Hur’s family are Jewish actors Sofia Black D’Elia and Ayelet Zurer, the latter of whom is Israeli. The 1959 film did have one Israeli actor.)
  • Exploring themes of Roman oppression of colonized peoples.
  • Morgan Freeman is in it. This bears repeating.
  • The guy who plays Jesus is a hunk (remember the coworker Laura Linney was secretly in love with in Love Actually?).
Here he is, helping our hero.

Here he is, helping our hero.

Reasons to be wary:

  • There’s the risk of portraying the Jewish zealots who try to wage violence against the Roman Empire as being misguided and counter to Jesus’s message of loving your enemies. Think Jesus Christ Superstar.
  • If there is any Christian “rock” like in that second trailer actually played during the film it’s going to ruin the whole movie. Ugh, that was bad.
  • Roma Downey is one of the producers. We don’t need a Touched by an Angel prequel.
  • The creative team keeps insisting that Jesus plays a more prominent role in this film, and that he will match “expectations” of “the faithful.” Listen, Jesus played a plenty central role in the ’50s; it was a mark of religious respect to not depict him directly, or too-often. Are they saying this film is going to be more Christian than the Heston version, by having Jesus get all bloody onscreen à la Mel Gibson’s work?  They have their work cut out for them.

Finally, I can’t decide if it’s a pro or con that the Pope personally blessed the man playing Jesus for the production. Neato.

Listen, are Christians allowed to depict their theology on film? Of course! And that narrative is based in a time and place with a Jewish culture and characters; depicting non-Christians can’t be off-limits. But there’s a way to do that with respect for the narrative of the Jews— you know, the people who actually lived there, and of whom the overwhelming majority were not on board the Jesus train. Besides, those who were were still Jews, since Christianity divorced from Judaism decades (at least) after Jesus’s death.

This is, ya know, basic history. But maybe it’s not too late to gently alert Christian filmmakers, if not for the Ben-Hur team as it’s in post-production, then future tellers of Christian Biblically-inspired tales. You need to have an awareness for the fact that the characters you’re depicting are a current, real-life minority, and onscreen representation matters. We don’t need to see ancient Jews saved from their mean, old religion with a grouchy God.

Speaking of Jewish representation, in every incarnation of this story, Ben-Hur is a “Judaean prince.” I don’t think that was actually a thing (are they referring to nesi’im?). Someone please tell me if there were Jewish “princes” during this point of the Roman occupation.

Until the film’s release, all I can really think of is the titular project in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, and I wonder, “Does the depiction of Christ cut the mustard?”:

Image: Scene from Ben-Hur. Via YouTube.