What's Wrong With Christian Pop Culture (Part Fourteen)
Recently I read the genuinely heartfelt reminiscence of a Christian who came to know Jesus by watching the Charlton Heston version of Ben-Hur while in college.
I'm a huge fan of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur myself (and the silent era one, too).
But I want to make an observation about the structure of the story (including the original novel, which I have read).
Jesus appears as a character in it, and Ben-Hur is turned from his violent, vindictive path because of both indirect and direct intercession from Christ, and I am absolutely certain it had a profound positive spiritual effect on many others beside the Christian whose account I was reading, but...
...you could replace Jesus with a Shaolin monk or a Hindu yogi and for the vast majority of audiences it would make no difference.
Ben-Hur gets framed, Ben-Hur gets treated nicely by a mystical figure, Ben-Hur spends the rest of the story working his way back for revenge, Ben-Hur gets his revenge but cleanly since he doesn't deliberately harm the bad guy but rather the bad guy hoists himself on his own petard, Ben-Hur is about to go off and (depending on which version of the story) participate in more violence or get all mopey, but then an old family friend tells him about how wonderful the mystical guy is, and Ben-Hur takes his sick mom and sister to get healed by the mystical guy only the mystical guy is being cruelly abused but this time Ben-Hur treats the mystical guy nicely and as a thank you the mystical guy heals his mother and sister. The end.
That’s the version screenwriter June Mathis distilled down for the 1925 version, and to be frank, it improves greatly of Wallace’s original novel, which plot-wise is a big meandering mess. (The 1959 version uses Mathis’ scenario as a template and improves on it greatly, not that Mathis’ versions wasn’t good enough already.)
As I said, in any version of Ben-Hur you can swap out Jesus for a Shaolin monk or an Apache shaman or Gandalf or E.T. and the bulk of the audience won't care: They're there to see Ben-Hur get the bejeebers kicked outta him then come crawling back for revenge by getting involved in a huge sea battle and an awesome chariot race.
Lew Wallace wrote the novel for people who were already steeped in cultural Christianity, who were aware of the symbols and basic message, and who were prepared to accept it.
But when that movie played in Mumbai or Tokyo or Nairobi or Singapore, they were just eating up the spectacle (and it is really well done spectacle, both versions cited above).
And for the bulk of people in historically Christian cultures like London or Paris or Atlanta or Podunk, they might get the Christian allusions in the film, but they couldn't care less about that.
They just want to see that sea battle and that chariot race.
Therein lies a problem for much Christian media.
It lacks a sense of balance.
It’s either a (poorly) illustrated Sunday school lesson, or it’s a standard issue mainstream movie with a “come to Jesus” moment tacked on the make folks happy.
It’s almost never about what it means to follow the teachings of Christ.
Both the 1925 and 1959 versions of Ben-Hur are rollicking entertainment, and contain nothing at odds with Christ’s message (other than pretty arbitrarily tying things up in a nice neat tidy bow at the end).
© Buzz Dixon