Our Big Picture Problem

Cultures show their substance by what they make easier and what they make more difficult. A true, illustrative story:

Me: “Hey, Siri, find me a Catholic Mass to go to.”

My phone: “I don’t know how to respond to that.”

Me: “Okay then, take me to a strip club.”

My phone: “Which strip club? Tap the one you want.”

Not for nothing are they called “smart” rather than “wise” phones. The images, stories, and toys floating through our pop culture facilitate some opinions, questions, and actions, even as they hinder others. Mass culture does not do the sacred well.

Whether politically or personally, difficult human deeds are aided by big-picture beliefs validating our daily chores and heroic sacrifices. Even denying that there is a meaningful big picture assumes there is one.

“There is hardly any human action,” Alexis de Tocqueville notes, “that does not originate in some very general idea men have conceived of the Deity, of his relation to mankind, of the nature of their own souls, and of their duties to their fellow creatures. Nor can anything prevent these ideas from being the common spring from which all the rest emanates.”

These very general ideas—or questions about them—permanently shape and haunt human life, publicly and privately, and ideas aren’t all equal.

Because these big-picture beliefs can support—or fail to support—our liberty and our good use of it, cultural images of the sacred exert political and personal power. Admiring religion and classic Hollywood from an ironic distance, the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016) shows both the importance and the folly of pop projections of the sacred.

A rabbi, a priest, a patriarch, and a minister walk into a 1950s Hollywood studio to meet with Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a top studio executive who is soliciting their advice for making a classy religious epic that “will not offend any reasonable American.” An observant Catholic, our hero Mannix explains that because “great masses of humanity” rely on movies not just for entertainment but also for information and uplift, his studio wants to put “the story of the Christ” on screen. “It’s a swell story,” he adds.

The Coen brothers have created a movie within the movie, “Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ,” that parodies Ben-Hur (from which it takes its title and subtitle) and other mid-century religious epics. It echoes the message of these epics: that Judeo-Christianity grounds our liberty and our rejection of pagan tyrannies, with their forced idolatry and brutal disrespect for the human person.

If our liberty really is buttressed by religious beliefs, freely held and freely expressed, and our minds formed more than ever by pop-cultural images, the health of our republic might require those beliefs to be reinforced by those images. But that’s tough work. So tough that perhaps it shouldn’t be attempted—Christianizing Hollywood more likely Hollywoodizes Christianity.

The Coen brothers three times remind us of the Jewish injunction against graven images—for example, in the credits, “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the Godhead.” The ancient philosophers mocked people for making gods in their own image. Rejecting idol-worship, Hebrew scripture cleverly reverses this, claiming God has created us in His image. By repudiating our penchant for worshipping ourselves (or any worldly thing), this subtle inversion elevates human beings by humbling us—with radical moral and political consequences.

When a starlet curses, “Jesus Christ on a scooter!” the Coens lampoon what we get when 1950s pop culture visualizes the divine. The Hebrew God’s prohibition on graven images (not that He needs a reason) makes good sense given our twin tendencies to cast the divine in our own image and to confuse images for reality. As Mannix says with an earnestness at once touching and comical: “The Bible, of course, is terrific. But for millions of people, pictures will be their reference point for the story.” There’s the rub.

These things seem to go in streaks, and so this year’s movies include not only Hail, Caesar! but MGM’s third version of Ben-Hur. Massively popular for decades, the 1880 American novel became one of the biggest and best silent films with Fred Niblo’s 1925 adaptation, and the second most-Oscared film in William Wyler’s 1959 version.

The epic follows Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur as he loses all his worldly goods and gains them back with interest. Bookended by the nativity and the crucifixion but mostly a revenge tale, the story culminates in a riveting chariot race followed by Judah’s metanoia and renunciation of vengeance. All good, the films are sometimes schmaltzy, sometimes thrilling, marred by melodrama and dramatic pauses, and mostly to be appreciated as cultural artifacts.

The new Ben-Hur, though dropping the nativity, the messiah-question, and the subtitle “A Tale of the Christ,” shows more of Jesus than the older films do. Recalling Exodus 33:21, when God shows Moses his back, the 1925 and 1959 versions deny us the sight of the Nazarene’s face, presenting him through his hands, his back, his body with the cross. We discern his face only through a sort of mirror effect—from our seeing the faces gazing, moved and puzzled, at it.

Relying upon the Gospels, the novel and both earlier films decline to author new lines for Jesus. The 2016 movie introduces Jesus butting into a marital conversation with Yoda-like words of wisdom: “There is freedom elsewhere”; adding, later: “Hate, anger, fear, those are lies they use to turn you against each other.” The very modern Judah Ben-Hur—agnostic, realistic, apathetic about his own noble status—responds to the stranger’s interruption, “Love your enemies? That’s very progressive.” The new version casts Jesus in our image—a Progressive humanitarian bereft of theological baggage. Love certainly is central to Christianity but, as T.S. Eliot says, “the implication of teaching only part of Christianity is that that is the only part which matters.”

That the God of Abraham is “no respecter of persons,” but judges impartially, accepting those anywhere who fear Him (Acts 10:34), translates, socially, into an imperative to respect everyone. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation emphatically underlines this imperative. That each person, of whatever nation or station, has, as a creature of the one God, a transcendent purpose to be respected does not form the key religious doctrine of Christianity (see the Apostle’s Creed). It has, though, crucially served American democracy, lending some metaphysical backing for individual rights. The Coen brothers’ fake Golgotha scene expresses this better in two minutes than the new Ben-Hur does in two hours.

A turning point of the earlier versions occurs when Ben-Hur and the Roman consul Quintus Arrius, slave and slave-master, recognize in one another a common nobility of character. “It’s a strange, stubborn faith you keep, to believe that existence has a purpose,” an intrigued Arrius remarks to Judah at the beginning of their life-changing friendship. Niblo’s and Wyler’s versions portray some Romans as noble, and both honor Rome’s excellence, however imperfect. “Where there is greatness,” Pilate tells Judah, “error is also great.” Still, both fault Rome for its forced idolatry and its ill-treatment of human beings.

The new Ben-Hur lacks clarity about the link between these two failings. It also erases the nobility of Arrius (whom Judah kills rather than saves), deprives the Romans of their upper-class British accents, and implausibly saddles cosmopolitan Rome with a coarse xenophobia—we slaughtered other peoples, the Roman soldier Messala confesses, “merely because they were different.” Rejecting armed resistance makes more sense in the older versions, as they display Rome’s complexity, its noble capacity, its flawed greatness and not only its flaws.

The political message of all three remains: Civilizations can be transformed, albeit slowly, more by ideas than by force. Because this is true, the movie should have had better ideas in it. Ben-Hur was never theologically thick. But as our theological grounding wears increasingly thin, one wonders whether our humanitarianism becomes more convenient and less reliable. Portraying as “lies” all fear and anger, the gnostic sage of 2016’s Ben-Hur declares that “love is our true nature.” Could such an ungrounded, oracular optimism ever fuel noble or courageous responses to evil?

As I said, it’s difficult work, presenting Christianity in 2016 while following Eddie Mannix’s rule to “not offend any reasonable American.” Broadway’s current hit and winner of nine Tony Awards, The Book of Mormon, takes the easier road. Fun and witty, the play peaks in two back-to-back numbers. Parodying “Hakuna Matata” by accentuating the negative, “Hasa Diga Eebowia” is a song that tells God to . . . I can’t say it. (Warning: Explicit Lyrics). Then, the wholesome “Turn It Off” celebrates the “nifty little Mormon trick” of putting out bad feelings “like a light switch.”

Mormonism, as a young faith with an “All-American” prophet for which biblical times is 1823 and the Holy Land is upstate New York, provides low-hanging fruit for comedians mocking religion. Of course it’s funny, but Broadway audiences laugh too cheaply at a Mormon kid trying not to be so gay. It’s implied that religion suppresses all thoughts discomfiting and, like Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” “makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.”

Though the authors—Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, joined by Robert Lopez—lack respect for religious belief, their critique gives way to an incongruously positive ending. The Book of Mormon winds up affirming religion as idiotic but noble lies—for the smart set, noble metaphors—useful for inducing healthy behavior. Parker, Stone, and Lopez forget that, in order for such a trick to work, a religion must offer a belief-worthy system of truth-claims actually supporting human dignity. The Book of Mormon portrays all religion as a heap of stupid but socially salutary myths. In this cultural context, the new Ben-Hur can be forgiven its political and theological weakness.

The classic religious epics of 20th century Hollywood teach the political significance of particular Judeo-Christian claims. The best of the genre, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), wears its political theory on its sleeve. DeMille personally introduces the movie:

The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today. Our intention was not to create a story but to be worthy of the divinely inspired story created three thousand years ago, the five books of Moses.

A quintessential piece of American political theology, the film roots our 19th century rejection of racial slavery and our 20th century affirmation of ethnic and religious ecumenism in Hebraic revelation. DeMille’s film also challenges the favorite fault of individualistic American freedom. The newly liberated Hebrews, descending into the idolatry of hedonism, shout: “We will not live by your commandments. We are free!” Moses (Charlton Heston) retorts, “There is no freedom without the law!”

The Ten Commandments does its best to protect the gravity of its subject. Still, in this Hollywood spectacle, we watch Moses kill Vincent Price and marry Yvonne de Carlo, more famous as the mom in “The Munsters.” Edward G. Robinson can’t shake his gangster aura even as a self-hating Jew in ancient Egypt. Anne Baxter plays a beguiling Mrs. Pharaoh, as though reprising her career-defining ingénue-with-a-punch in All About Eve (1950). In one scene, we watch Mrs. Pharaoh and Mrs. Munster kvetching that Sinai ruined Moses as a lover: “He has forgotten both of us. You lost him when he went to seek his God. I lost him when he found his God.” As Moses becomes more a man apart, with Heston’s dress, diction, and coif adjusted to convey sacredness, the film trades gravity for grandiosity.

Which brings us back to Hail, Caesar! People, and democracy, may need images of their faith to sustain them in tough work, but the Coens’ kitschy approach helps us see the humor—and the danger—in it. Ross Douthat calls it “the best Catholic movie of the decade,” and Mark Judge thinks, “the message could not be clearer: we all have a divine purpose.” Both are close.

The film intimates how particular articles of faith transformed Western civilization and undergird our politics’ respect for persons. The film portrays how faith supports people as they nobly do their jobs, day in and day out and also in those moments calling for cowboy heroics. The film shows a culture that made it easier to be good. But the film also argues that all this relies on simplification. As a “fixer” serving the studio, Mannix follows orders from “Mr. Schenk” (as in, “skank”) and suppresses scandals (out-of-wedlock pregnancy, homosexuality, manslaughter) to create a Hollywood image in which people will, foolishly, believe.

Filmmaker Whit Stillman commented, “Films made under the code were far better than those made before or since.” Sure, but . . . it’s complicated. The studio system and the Hays Code, which prevailed in Hollywood between the 1930s and 1960s, made it easier for movies to be good. They would have avoided a lot of bad since then, but would also have hindered some greatness, like Hail, Caesar! itself. It is a movie for those who love old movies but who can no longer believe in the system or its code. The moral of the film: “Would that it were so simple.”

Smarter, but none the wiser for it, our culture makes it harder to believe in those simplifying big pictures facilitating good behavior.

Almost esoterically, the Coens repeatedly and mischievously refer to Isaiah 40:31: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up on wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.” Through the workaholic, penance-addict Eddie Mannix, trying anew each day to quit smoking and troubleshoot human folly, Hail, Caesar! asserts this as a psychological fact. As to whether the faith that enables this perseverance (and that reinforces our civilization’s respect for the human person) is worthy of belief, the Coens turn around and respond, like the rabbi of their creation, “Eh, I haven’t an opinion.”

Our big pictures may all be questionable, but thankfully some pictures make it easier for us to ask the big questions.