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!