21 April 2014

Ben-Hur and Noah: A Tale of Two Movies

Does it matter that I haven't seen Darren Aronofsky's Noah? I'll let my readers judge but at least I have seen Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ within the past few days (comments here). Other than drawing on the Bible for their themes, what could a 1925 black and white silent film have in common with a 2014 production featuring the latest in computer-generated images?

For starters, both are tales and tall ones at that. Both are fictive elaborations on the biblical text that tell stories designed to get folks from their respective eras to lay down some cold cash. Indeed, if one is looking for fidelity to the biblical text, Noah is probably the better of the two films (but more about that later). While more members of audiences in 1925 would have identified themselves as Christians than in 2014, in the case of neither movie was the primary goal other than commercial success. In his Noah, however, Aronofsky also tried for something more than commercial success, which suggests that it won't be the blockbuster that was Ben-Hur.

Jewish film insiders brought both films to fruition for non-Jewish audiences. Directors Fred Niblo and Darren Aronofsky were Jews and one shouldn't forget that it was Louis B. Mayer who was the driving force behind Ben-Hur.

Both starred leading men of their days although Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur was at the outset of his career as an "exotic" example of beefcake while Russell Crowe as Noah has been at the top of his game for some time. Crowe's straight sexual orientation is another distinction.

Each film is circumspect with regard to its portrayal of the Deity. From concerns about the Second Commandment, Ben-Hur took pains not to show any more of Jesus than his hand as it reached out to effect healing. (A concern that has long since lapsed from the consciousness of most Christians.)  Noah substituted visionary dreams for God's direct discourse as recorded in the Bible. Perhaps Aronofsky was also concerned to guard God's transcendence or maybe it was simply to avoid picking someone to do God's voiceover.

Many Christians identified as Evangelicals have strongly criticized Noah for a variety of reasons, most of which center around its elaborations on Noah's character, motivations, and actions. I wonder if Evangelicals in the 1920s were as exorcised by Ben-Hur? At least Aronofsky's variations from the Bible don't undercut the Gospel. Ben-Hur, on the other hand, ends with Jesus' crucifixion and an identification of the message of "the Christ" as one pacific forgiveness as exemplified by a really nice guy who sadly died. (But still a great example!) Early twentieth-century American theological liberalism as it best worst.

I doubt that I'll see Noah so I'd appreciate relevant comments from those who have. And, as I mentioned yesterday, I delighted to watch Ben-Hur while listening to the live performance of Stewart Copeland's wonderful score. In neither case, however, should anyone confuse a commercial cinematic production with the text of the Word of God as proclaimed by the Church. Artistic and commercial efforts need not be tethered to the message of God's word. They have their own truth to tell and audiences should not feel betrayed when the artist's vision is something other than the Holy Spirit's.

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