Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Bible Goes Hollywood

This last weekend my family and I enjoyed a wonderful visit with my son and his wife in the big city.  As often seems to happen with me on such anticipated and happy occasions, a pall sat over my conscience.  Like the Rabbi of antiquity who broke the glass at the wedding to temper everyone's enthusiasm, I once again dampened my own celebration.

What happened was I had posted what I thought a pleasant comment on one of my favorite blog sites. The comment was apparently not liked.  Why, I will probably never know.  I felt like Yuri Zhivago after his brother, Evgrav, whom he greatly respected, told Yuri that his poetry was "not liked."

Now, the last thing I want to do is alienate myself from anyone.  Even though hard feelings are bound to crop up between people, I really try hard not to be the cause of such altercations. Consequently, my otherwise enjoyable weekend was tainted by the guilt I had created enmity with someone who doesn't know me, but whom I greatly admire.  There was nothing I could do about it until I returned home, so I simply had to carry it around like a bad penny.  Sure, I would forget about it, but it only took reaching into my pocket and feeling the nasty coin for it to come all back, again.

I thought I would take this opportunity to explain my ill-fated comment.  Perhaps the offended blogger will read this and better understand where I was coming from--but I doubt it.

The blogger was reviewing the new History Channel mini-series, The Bible.  He was basically making the point that even though the production is cheesy and sensationalizes the various Biblical accounts into distortions of the truth, he nevertheless favored the series.  He did so because it introduces the Bible to a large audience who are--sadly--ignorant of the Bible, and promotes fruitful discussions.  I haven't seen the series beyond the trailers, but his review rings true with the opinion of others I have spoken with who have seen it.

I agreed with the blogger, and went on to say this is why i appreciate Ben Hur so much, because it so effectively captures the power of faith and the mercy, love, and forgiveness of God.  Furthermore, Ben Hur accomplishes this while vividly portraying the complexities of the human condition.

My point, which I failed to make, is whenever Hollywood tries to bring the Bible to the screen in a direct fashion (e.g., The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, or the new mini-series), it ends up being cheesy.  The problem is the Bible describes reality that is so real it cannot be faked without losing a lot in the translation.  For example, how does one ever hope to accurately portray Jesus?   The Bible tells us His appearance was unremarkable--nothing physically attractive about Him to attract anyone.  Yet, the movies inevitably portray Jesus with a beautiful actor having blue eyes and long black hair.  Apparently the contrast of eye and hair color is supposed to invoke in us a sense of Jesus' goodness and power.  Unfortunately, we usually walk away from such films thinking it all a bit cheesy.  The goodness of Jesus is something too real, too foreign to our experience, to be faked effectively.

Lew Wallace understood this.  It is why he insisted whenever his story of Ben Hur is dramatized, the face of Jesus not be shown.  Indeed, if I remember correctly,  Jesus was originally portrayed in the stage productions of Ben Hur as a light.  In the 1959 film adaptation, the viewer never sees Jesus' face, nor does he or she hear Jesus' voice.  Yet, probably more than any other production, the goodness of Jesus--His authority, forgiveness, and love--effectively comes across without being cheesy.  In addition to this, from what I understand, the screen play writers worked to downplay the Gospel message.  And I'm convinced this is why Ben Hur comes off without being cheesy and, ironically, communicates the Gospel more effectively than most other productions determined to preach it explicitly.  Good grief, the resurrection of Jesus and its meaning the kingdom of God has come and Jesus is King is subtly but powerfully rendered at the end of Ben Hur by a shepherd leading his flock with the empty crosses in the background--brilliant!

I apologized to my favorite blogger for my irrelevant--or whatever complaint--comment.  Hopefully, things have been rectified between us, as Jesus calls us to do.  In any event, I encourage you to see the new mini-series, but also to take three hours out of your busy schedule to sit down and watch Ben Hur.  You won't be disappointed because it is Hollywood's best effort in bringing the Bible to the screen.  Not only that, but the exquisite cinematography, acting, writing, music, special effects, and direction all add together to make Ben Hur arguably the best movie Hollywood has ever made.



Jon Kokko said...

I sometimes panic at the thought of being misunderstood and, the largest the audience, the greater the probability. I thus try to find the balance of "let thy words be few" (Ecc 5:2) with the fire to speak (Jer 20:9). It'll probably take a lifetime to find that balance! Sometimes though, our love for one another is defined by the obstacles we are willing to overcome in order to be more like Christ.