May 12, 2014

Ben-Hur's powers of conversion

Moving pictures have the power to move people. That is the belief underneath evangelicals' engagements with film. Cinema is seen as a uniquely powerful proselytization tool: people watch; people laugh and cry and are emotionally engaged; people are changed when they watch movies.

It's not clear that movies actually move people as much as evangelicals and the evangelical film industry imagines, though.

One significant survey of viewers of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, for example, found that about 31 percent of American adults saw the film, but only 9 percent of viewers felt like they prayed more after watching. And only about .0001 percent said they made a confession of faith in Jesus after watching his cinematic torture and death.

The film was promoted by evangelical celebrities as an opportunity for evangelism. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren called the film the greatest evangelizing opportunity in 2000 years. When the credits rolled, however, not a lot of evangelism happened. Measured by how much it moved people to faith, the record-breaking film was a dud. Tim Challies, who pastors a church in Toronto and reviews books for the conservative evangelical magazine World, recently wrote that "For all the good the movie did, we may as well have just written checks to Mel Gibson and skipped the movie."

But that's not to say the movie had no impact. It's not to say that movies don't convert people.

The history of evangelicals' and cinema suggests film is, in fact, a force for conversion. Just not necessarily the way it's usually imagined. Movies may not convert many moviegoers into evangelicals, but they do move lots of evangelicals to belief in movies.

The history of adaptations of Ben-Hur is filled with examples of this.

The 1880 novel, written by Civil War general Lew Wallace as part of his own conversion to Christianity, has been adapted numerous times, throughout cinema's history. And throughout cinema's history, the "Tale of the Christ," as the original subtitle had it, profoundly moved people. Not to Christ, necessarily, but certainly to belief in the power of cinema.

This starts in the pre-history of moving pictures. The 1880s saw the development of magic lantern pictures -- essentially slide shows that were the precursors to the Nickelodeons, which were the precursors to silent films. The foremost artist of this short-lived industry was Joseph Boggs Beale. Beale, by some accounts, pioneered about "about 75% of what we now think of as the techniques that make up the 'art of the movies.'" The Magic Lantern Society says Beale "almost single-handedly" created "the early projected entertainment that was manufactured in America."

One of the picture shows he produced was Ben Hur.

The magic lantern show Ben Hur was shown
in Protestant churches across America. 
Beale's magic lantern show of Ben Hur is historically notable in how powerful it was. Late 19th century audiences were moved by the pictures Beale made, and completely emotionally engaged by his version of this story. Period reports say audiences cheered during the famous chariot race. When Jesus appears in the story to give the titular hero a drink of water, the "awed and electrified" viewers fell into a "palpable hush," according to historian Terry Lindvall.

That effect did not go unnoticed by the clergy.

Beale -- himself a devout Protestant -- found ministers were at first "prejudiced in introducing lanterns into their churches, thinking that some of the solemnity due on such occasion would be lost." Yet, after they saw his work, including Ben Hur and other religiously themed pictures, and after they saw the work of other early artists adapting Christian material to picture-narratives, they embraced the new technology. Protestant churches, along with fraternal organizations, were a main venue for magic lantern pictures.

When motion pictures were developed, a few years later, lots of American Christians were already convinced of the power of cinema. Christians who went to see the 1907 adaptation of Ben Hur -- which is notable, historically, for establishing that film adaptations can legally violate a book's copyright -- saw this as compatible with or even an extension of their faith.

At least part of the reason religious leaders supported motion pictures was concern about what children were doing with their Sundays. Morally sound movies made for morally sound Sunday entertainment; the popular alternatives were suspect, at best.

The nascent film industry pushed this argument against religious reformers who wanted blue laws to keep theaters closed on Sundays. An editorial cartoon from Moving Picture World in 1916 pictured "Sunday Without the Moving Pictures" as youth lounging in front of a saloon, playing dice. Sunday with movies, by contrast, was pictured as well-dressed people buying tickets for "Ben Hur," as well as "Life of Moses" and "Scenes in China."

It wasn't just the faithful that could be reached with powerful pictures, though.

The technology was seen as a tool to reach the unreached. As the Christian Advocate declared in 1919, when the then-largest-ever screen was being built for the Methodist Episcopal Centenary in Columbus, Ohio, "The moving picture has been converted into a missionary advocate."

There are examples from throughout the 1920s of churches using films to attract people. In 1921, Moving Picture Age positively reported about a promotional campaign in one Midwestern town that gave children who attended Sunday school free passes to church-approved films. Sunday School attendance went up by nearly 40 percent. A few years later, a free-film night at a Presbyterian church in Nebraska was so popular that it had to be moved to a local theater, rented for the purposewhen weekly attendance passed 5,000.

Terry Lindvall writes that picture shows fit with the evangelical ethos of Charles Finney, who called for "new men, new methods" to spread the gospel. Religious films found a very receptive audience even among the churches that have been seen as being suspicious of modern technology, because this modern technology looked like a powerful means of proselytization.

The evangelist Billy Sunday saw that.

The 1925 film Ben-Hur was advertised 
as 'The film every Christian should see.'
He wasn't one to accommodate contemporary mores or current fashions, but he was quickly converted to the power of moving pictures. Sunday personally associated with Cecil B. DeMille and the actress Mary Pickford, and was regularly quoted in movie advertisements of the 1920s. Sunday endorsed one of D.W. Griffith's films, The Two Orphans, calling it a "sermon of the highest value." He was, if anything, even more enthusiastic about the Klaw & Erlanger theatrical production of "Ben Hur," which MGM purchased and turned into the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur.

Sunday declared the show a powerful tool for evangelism. Ad copy quoted "the Reverend Billy Sunday" as saying:
Ben Hur, with its galloping horse in the chariot race, typical of the life of man, its slaves, its lepers, and its beautiful 'light' that irradiates the world, is like a plow digging deep into men's thoughts and stirring their consciences. I should like nothing better than that to talk to 50,000 men and women just after they had seen 'Ben Hur.'
Whether or not evangelists talked to men and women leaving theaters in 1925, the silent film was certainly a spectacle that impressed itself into people's minds. MGM had life-sized Roman ships built for a sea battle scene, and filmed them crashing into each other on the open Mediterranean. One ship caught fire during filming, and burned uncontrollably, spreading to a second ship while costumed actors jumped overboard and the cameras continued to roll. The chariot race was recorded by 42 cameras on 200,000 feet of film, which captured a disastrous pile up that injured multiple horses.

This Ben-Hur spectacle lead to a religious point, too.

The film climaxes with a revivalist-style declaration that Jesus is God. In a scene that isn't in the novel, an insurgent army is disbanded with the newfound faith in Jesus. "The new King," says one character, explaining the crucifixion to a gathering of armed men, "was the Son of God, a Man of Peace. His Kingdom is in your hearts."

Did this convert anyone? Maybe, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence of that.

Certainly William Wyler, an assistant director on the 1925 film and the director of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston, didn't convert to Christianity. A German-born Jew who strongly supported the state of Israel, Wyler was more interested in presenting the story as an anti-fascist parable than in emphasizing the story's Christian content, according to film historians. Martin M. Winkler writes that Wyler's version of the story reimagined the Romans as Nazis, driven by deep anti-semitism and fanatical totalitarian fantasies. The Christianity of the story was somewhat incidental, from his perspective.

Wyler's daughter says that's not completely true. "My father used to joke," she said, "it took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ."

The belief in making "a really good movie" carried through, though. It's there in the '25 film and the '59 film too. The latter film was hailed as a great cinematic work and is today considered one of the greatest films ever made. It won 11 Oscars, including one for the director and one for Heston, who leveraged his image in the film and in other big Bible epics for his later career as a spokesman for culturally marginalized Christianity.

Tim LaHaye was one of those converted by the film. LaHaye, co-author of the bestselling Left Behind series, was a 33-year-old pastor of a San Diego Baptist church when the film was released. He thought it was magnificent -- his word. He saw it four times.

In a forward for a 2003 reprinting of the novel, LaHaye wrote that Ben-Hur was what convinced him of the power of fiction for spreading the gospel. It was the model and inspiration for the Left Behind series. An inveterate culture warrior, LaHaye held the film up as a model in a speech to Christians working in Hollywood. He challenged them to be "unashamedly Christian" and make movies like Ben-Hur, "that type of entertainment with a message."

The 1959 Ben-Hur could, he said, reaffirm for them the belief that moving pictures move people.

The 2010s have seen a resurgence of the evangelical films, made by the sorts of people converted to film by Ben-Hur. On Easter Sunday this year there were three evangelical films in the box office, which had brought in between $28 and $60 million in ticket sales, respectively.

As Mark Burnett, who co-produced one of those films, told the Christian Post, these movies are made with evangelical intent. He said, "I feel like our job as Christians in Hollywood is to put Jesus on more people's lips through the secular media." And yet, as the anecdotal evidence is collected, it's hard to tell if moviegoers are being made into evangelicals in significant numbers. But that's not to say the films are not having an emotional effect. Burnett's wife and co-producer of a recent film of the life of Christ, Roma Downey, reported that "Everybody is profoundly moved by the film . . .  I've seen letters from grown men who said they'd never cried at a movie before, but this movie opened their hearts and brought tears."

Downey and Burnett are tremendously encouraged by this, though it's hard to tell if it means as much as they think it does.

One thing it does mean, though, is that Burnett and Downey have gotten the green light to make more religiously themed films. It's no accident that one of their recently green-lit projects is a remake of a certain 1880 novel and 1907, 1925, and 1959 film: Ben-Hur.

The press release announcing the MGM and Paramount re-make, scheduled for 2016, declared that this will be "one of the most important Christian works of fiction ever" and a story that goes to the "nature of faith."

If the history of the cinematic adaptations of Ben-Hur is anything to go on, that's right. It's just that the faith that people are most often moved to is the faith that movies move people. People watch; people laugh and cry and are emotionally engaged; people are changed. They walk out of theaters holding firm to the dogma underlying evangelicals' engagement with cinema, which is must fundamentally a faith in film.