“Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ” 1959 & 2016

Having gone to see the 2016 version this last weekend and then watching the 1959 version two days later (to confirm/deny what we thought was different), I have to say that it’s hard not to write an old man’s review. However, since there is no way that wouldn’t be a spoiler at some level I hesitated.

Then I saw a Facebook post that asked us to name our favorite ‘Jesus’ actor. My answer was ‘whoever portrayed Jesus in the 1959 version of Ben-Hur’. I couldn’t recall the actor’s name. I since looked it up and it was an actor named Claude Heater and it was an ‘uncredited’ role, whatever that meant at the time. I wouldn’t be surprised of other Facebook readers wondered if I was operating with a full deck upstairs, especially if they knew that Jesus’ face is never seen in the 1959 film. One review I read had this to say about the different portrayals of Jesus:

“Where Wyler (1959 Director) drew haunting power from keeping Jesus a faceless and voiceless figure, like a rumor of deliverance shadowing the hero’s moral struggle, here we get walking, talking son-of-God face time, and the effect is oddly diminishing, turning Jesus into a religious-movie animatronic, spouting greatest-hits scripture.”

Although that might sound a bit harsh, I tend to agree. The Jesus of the 1959 film never said a word, but other characters repeated teachings they had heard with reverence and awe, as if no one had ever taught that way before. They marveled at Jesus’ teachings. The 2016 Jesus has a face and actually speaks, ‘spouting greatest-hits scripture’ and in one scene sounds a bit like Rick Warren, telling Judah Ben-Hur “God has a plan for you.”

At first it didn’t seem too awfully important to me, but then I realized something. That same difference is I think symptomatic of the church as a whole! Having been brought up in a Christian environment, schooled in the Lutheran Catechism (where we learned about a great big God), and having attended many a Sunday morning service where majestic hymns were played and sung, in which sermons were delivered that spoke of man’s great sin and God’s great mercy, and where people wore their ‘Sunday best’ out of respect for whose ‘house’ we were in, it’s easy for me to see the difference. Those whose church experience has been theologically vacuous contemporary choruses, all about ‘me’ purpose driven, seeker friendly, man centered sermons delivered by jeans/rumpled khaki clad preachers with their shirts hanging out have been seriously deprived.

The result is a generation or two of ‘children of a lesser God’ and a Jesus who inspires very little reverence or awe and who never comes across as the redeemer who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the ‘great exchange’, taking all of our sin and giving us his righteousness. A Jesus who died just so we could be happy and obtain our best lives now could never inspire reverence and awe.

Such is the state of most of the church today. That might mean that most of today’s young evangelicals will give the 2016 ‘Ben-Hur’ rave reviews while some of us older folks will expel a heavy sigh or two.

By the way, I also bought the original novel. Folks just don’t write like that anymore!

15 responses to ““Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ” 1959 & 2016

  1. Great review, Dan.

    You didn’t spoil anything for me because I hadn’t planned on seeing it. I rarely go to see movies these days and I usually only watch anything new if my “kids” buy one on DVD. I’ve seen a marvel movie or two. I am not a prophet but I could have thrown some type of general fictitious review together without seen the movie but that wouldn’t be honest. I’m sure many might have a view that the race in the arena was better in the new movie because of special effects. I don’t have to see it to know that it can’t get better than the one in the 1959 film. Your review rids me of any curiosity I may have had.
    It is nice to know they had a Jesus although I think you are on to something about how the Jesus in the 1959 version can’t be beat. I think you already know that I was brought up in the same type of church you were. I was raised in the LCMS and my wife and I both taught in LCMS schools in the 1980’s. I think your short description of that denomination back when we were kids is excellent.
    My son (21) just left for college and we see him almost every weekend. He is a Ben Hur fan and we watched the 1959 version about a month ago and I was surprised when he said he wanted to see the new one. I think he was surprised that I was surprised that he wanted to see it. That’s age for you. ( I like the term “old man’s review.”) I’m not going to say anything to him but I betcha he’ll be disappointed if he fits it into his school schedule.
    Your assessment of the “church” in 2016 is, sadly, something I completely agree with.


    • I’m thoroughly enjoying the novel also. Found it at Barnes and noble. Also learned a lot about the author Lew Wallace that was really interesting. There’s a ‘faith’ story behind the novel.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cool. Sounds like a good read. It also sounds like the original novel reflects the real person of Christ as the original movie seemed to. I’m in the middle of a couple of books, but I’ll have to put that one on my list for future reading!


    • An article specifically about Hillsong and the destruction of Christianity described it perfectly: “Youth today have been conditioned to “experience” church, rather than accept the biblical model of church, which is, primarily, to equip the saints to make disciples. While biblically-modeled worship is and should be an integral part of a church service, Hillsong has transformed the traditional worship service into a mind-numbing session of entertainment that contains little, if any, expository preaching, Gospel proclamation, or biblical truth.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • That is a very good explanation of what goes on in many churches for sure. I have seen a few of Hillsong’s “shows.” It is no wonder our youth lack wisdom and have little knowledge of simple Bible truths.

        I was just checking to see how many churches Hillsong now has and I ran across this. It was news to me and it just goes to show how these empty teachings are growing. I checked more than one source and found that Hillsong is partnering with TBN to have their own TV channel. The second link below is the actual schedule of the Hillsong channel and the quote below isn’t lying. It looks like this thing started in June.

        “If there are any lingering doubts about exactly WHAT Hillsong Churches are all about, this should put them to rest: Consider the new “Hillsong Channel” [TV], and look at the programs they carry! The Word Faith heresy is represented by such luminaries as Joyce Meyer, James Robison, Joel Osteen, Joseph Prince, John Gray and Jentzen Franklin. Other aberrants include TD Jakes, Steven Furtick and contemplative promoter Max Lucado. There is not one true Biblical teaching program on the entire channel, which is now carried globally via Satellite! For a limited time, Hillsong Channel is “free” for now, but soon will be proprietary pay-2-view. Follow the money!”



        You may already have known about this Dan, but I didn’t. Now this mind-numbing entertainment can be seen across the world along with heretical teachings. My friends in Australia hadn’t mentioned this to me. I guess it’s just another day for Hillsong.
        As far as the number of churches, I didn’t bother to count as that may change today because the are popping up all over the world as you probably well know.
        TBN and Matthew Crouch continue to push more of God’s judgment upon the monstrosity his father and mother created. It is weighed in the balances and found wanting and in God’s time frame it has a short shelf life. It must be near or close to the bottom shelf, too.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I knew a lot of what you shared, and I ended up reading of the Hillsong takeover of a Calvary Chapel church. The ‘transition’ is much the same as with ‘seeker friendly’ and ‘purpose driven model take overs. There were too many similarities to count. Things start to slowly change and things gradually just go away. Theology rich hymns, organs, and even pianos. Expository preaching for sure is replaced by personal stories, movie based sermon series’ void of all doctrinal content, or self centered sermons a out our best lives now, or how to have special personal encounters and visits from God. I have seen it happen in the Chapel Where I teach a Bible study based on books of the,Bible. When the new head chaplain arrived, the class even disappeared from the bulletin. At one time the various chaplains Preached from one of the passages read from the liturgy. What replaced the liturgical readings were passages used to prop up ‘special encounters’ with God and ‘spiritual formation’. And yes,certain Catholic mystics were also held in high regard. All that in what once was the ‘traditional’ Protestant service. Now the ‘seeker friendly’ chapel has more actual teaching from the Bible.

          Liked by 2 people

          • To me, Calvary Chapel seemed like it was on the decline as Chuck Smith got older. I know there are still good pastors in some of those pulpits and I listen to one almost weekly but I think a person would have to check out the individual church leadership of a Calvary Chapel Church before making any type of judgment.

            I remember when you were having difficulty with the leadership of the Chapel and you were staying because those attending your Bible study were faithful. I don’t remember the part about spiritual formation and Catholic mystics. That is very bad news. It sounds like the leadership has changed again since there is now more teaching from the Bible. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

              • Gotcha. So, you are surrounded by challenges. You’ve got a good ministry there then to others who probably need a voice of stability and truth. I wish you the best and, as always,

                God’s blessings…

                Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll take the 1959 version of Ben Hur. At least the 2nd Commandment isn’t being broken by the director. Many say that they aren’t bowing to any image of “Jesus” in worship but I say you and I do (yes, I do, sadly, but repentantly) when we picture the “Jesus” in our minds while praying. What does God say about the two movies? 🙂

    God bless and Maranatha! \o/

    Liked by 1 person

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