Helen and I recently watched one of our favorite movies, Chariots of Fire. If you’re a fan and want to know more about the life of Eric Liddell after the events of the movie read you’ll enjoy this article:
When I posted that I was reading Death of a Red Heroine , I stated that I would have the review up “in a week or so,” I really meant “in a year or so.” That’s just further evidence why I’m the world’s lamest blogger.
Death of a Red Heroine is the debut novel by Qiu Xiaolong, a native a of Shanghai, but currently living in St. Louis. The story is set in Shanghai in 1990, where Detective Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau is confronted with a murder case that will be difficult to solve particularly because of its political ramifications. In fact, the novel is as much a novel of politics in China as much as it is a detective or mystery novel. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal named it as one of the top 5 political novels of all time.
In the novel, Detective Cao, himself a product of Party patronage, must navigate among various factions, including aging senior party members who are attempting preserve the gains of the revolution in the face of economic reform and culture influence from the West, cautious survivors of the Cultural Revolution of the sixties, and an emerging entrepreneurial class. The mystery aspect of the novel is not what this story is about: we pretty much know who committed the murder well before the end. The question is, will Cao be able to get the case prosecuted when there are powerful forces who are threatened by what the crime will reveal about both the victim and the perpetrator?
Death of a Red Heroine is full of the flavor of life in a rapidly transforming China, both figuratively and literally, since a running theme through the novel is is Chinese cuisine. We first meet Cao as he prepares a dinner party for his close friends and at the end we see Cao watching a street peddler frying dumplings, with plenty of meals and snacks in between.
As of this writing, Qiu has written ten novels in the Inspector Cao series, and I definitely plan to read at least the second installment.
As Crouch puts it: “All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands. … In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands. In the memorable phrase of the psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.”
Let us observe this. There are few things so little believed and realized as the corruption of human nature. Men imagine that if they saw a perfect person, they would love and admire him. They flatter themselves that it is the inconsistency of professing Christians which they dislike, and not their religion. They forget that when a really perfect man was on earth, in the person of the Son of God, He was hated and put to death. That single fact goes far to prove the truth of [Jonathan] Edwards’ remark – “unconverted men would kill God, if they could get at Him.”J.C. Ryle
I keep chuckling over this (in “Please, God, Stop Chelsea Clinton from Whatever She Is Doing”):
What comes across with Chelsea, for lack of a gentler word, is self-regard of an unusual intensity. And the effect is stronger on paper. Unkind as it is to say, reading anything by Chelsea Clinton—tweets, interviews, books—is best compared to taking in spoonfuls of plain oatmeal that, periodically, conceal a toenail clipping.
Take the introduction to It’s Your World (Get Informed! Get Inspired! Get Going!). It’s harmless, you think. “My mom wouldn’t let me have sugary cereal growing up (more on that later),” writes Chelsea, “so I improvised, adding far more honey than likely would have been in any honeyed cereals.” That’s the oatmeal—and then comes the toenail:
I wrote a letter to President Reagan when I was five to voice my opposition to his visit to the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, because Nazis were buried there. I didn’t think an American president should honor a group of soldiers that included Nazis. President Reagan still went, but at least I had tried in my own small way.
Ah, yes, that reminds me of when I was four and I wrote to Senator John Warner about grain tariffs, arguing that trade barriers unfairly decreased consumer choice.
Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggests that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.
Winifred Gallagher, quoted in Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.
Warning: there are spoilers ahead.
The new Ben-Hur film was released in theaters this weekend, and the few reviews I read in advance were not encouraging (e.g., Yankee Gospel Girl’s Seven Things I Hate About the New Ben-Hur Movie). But given that the 1959 Ben-Hur is my favorite film, and one which I have thoroughly mined for sermon illustrations, I felt I needed to see it for myself. So Helen and I reserved our seats for Sunday’s first showing (I like being able to reserve seats, because I am OCD-like in my pickiness about where I sit). We don’t care for 3-D versions, so we chose the equally expensive RPX™ edition. As it turned out, there was no need to reserve our seats in advance, for the theater might have had 20 to 30 viewers, although I didn’t actually count. I’ll state upfront that I did not dislike the new Ben-Hur as much as Yankee Gospel Girl did and I disagree with a few of her criticisms. But I think she got a number of them right.
For example, I don’t disapprove of casting Morgan Freeman as Ilderim, and I think some people addressing Ilderim as “African” to be entirely plausible. And I don’t see why making Messala an adopted Gentile orphan is any more implausible than a fully Roman young Messala being Judah Ben-Hur’s best friend growing up.
I do agree that this Ben-Hur does not do a good job of portraying Jewish culture and religion. For example, the scenes of family life in the 1959 version shows the family reclining at meal, and we see glimpses of the family’s prayer life and piety. The only expressions of the Jewish faith in the new version that stood out to me is the mother, Naomi, disapproving of young Messala’s idol worship, and her disapproval of the budding romance between the daughter, Tirzah, and Messala. I would add the role the Zealots play in the Jewish opposition to Rome, but even then the religious motivation is not emphasized. More serious, however, is Judah Ben-Hur’s apparent lack of religious devotion. In the 1959 version, Ben-Hur declares his faith in the God of Israel and belief in Israel’s destiny on a number of occasions. In the 2016 version Ben-Hur appears to be something of a skeptic, and faith in God does not appear to be a significant factor in his resilience and perseverance.
I haven’t read the novel Ben-Hur, so I’m not in a position to say which version is truer to the book. But I’m not surprised that a remake of Ben-Hur would alter the story in significant ways from the 1959 version. The film makers no doubt wanted to put their own stamp on the story, and you need to justify remaking a film that is widely considered to be a classic. Yankee Gospel Girl notes that audiences don’t have a tolerance for long films anymore. Where the 1959 film ran 3 hours and 32 minutes, the 2016 version runs 2 hours and 4 minutes. Something’s gotta give. But the plot is not simply abridged, there is an expansion at the beginning of movie which shows us something of the relationship of Judah and Messala when they were younger. In addition we see Messala’s dissatisfaction with his status as an outsider in society and particularly his awareness that he will never be considered a full member of Ben-Hur’s family. As a result, he believes he must make his own mark in the world and then return as his own man. To do this he chooses to pursue advancement in the Roman army. Although he is ambitious, he is not needlessly cruel, and he believes that military force is not the only, or even the best means of bringing peace to the conquered territories of the Roman Empire. But there are pressures to perform in the face of rebellion, as well as doubts about Messala’s loyalty to Rome. And after a Zealot takes advantage of Ben-Hur’s allowing him to stay in his home and attacks Pontius Pilate from the walls of the compound, Messala does not withstand the pressure and sentences Judah to the galleys and his family to death.
Also as Yankee Gospel Girl points out, this version removes the part of the story where Ben-Hur rescues the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius, which is followed by Arrius’ adopting Judah Ben-Hur as his son. In the 1959 version, this development is the key to seeing God’s providential guiding of Judah Ben-Hur’s life, using Messala’s sentencing Ben-Hur to the galleys as the ironic means of bringing about Messala’s downfall. In the new version, Judah Ben-Hur’s path to the chariot race confrontation with Messala is not worked out nearly as well. Not only that, but it deprives me of one of my favorite sermon illustrations, that of using Arrius’ adoption Ben-Hur as an example of adoption in the Roman world, in order to give insight of how Christians would have understood their adoption as children of God.
But even worse is the diminished role of Jesus Christ compared to the 1959 version. Even though the 1959 version is sub-titled, “A Tale of the Christ” Jesus is not extensively portrayed, and he does not speak much. But it is clear from the opening of the movie with the nativity scene, as well as Balthasar appearing at the beginning and then at intervals during the story in his search for the Messiah, that Judah’s destiny is one of coming to faith in Christ. Although Jesus appears a few times, and has more lines in the new version, there is no sense that Ben-Hur must come to faith in Christ to resolve his spiritual anguish.
Finally the endings of the two versions are very different, with Messala surviving and being reconciled to Judah. Given the expanded backstory of Messala’s involvement with the Ben-Hur family, and the ending where they are all reconciled and reunited, it appears that primary purpose of Judah Ben-Hur’s “come to Jesus” moment is that it causes him to regret his estrangement from, and hatred for Messala, and enables them to become brothers once again. The need for reconciliation with God is at best secondary.
This Ben-Hur is not a great film, but since I was not expecting the film to live up to the 1959 version, I was able to enjoy it. And there are some good things to be said. Some scenes, like the naval battle and the chariot race are well done. Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, and Toby Kebbell as Messala, are good enough. But they’re no Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. So if you haven’t seen the 1959 version, do yourself a favor and buy the Blu-Ray disc.
HT: Dane Ortlund at Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology:
God hath ordered his elect, take the whole body and bulk of them, to fall into all sorts of sins, one or other of them; so as there is no sort, kind or degree of sin, no way of sinning, manner of sinning, or aggravation of sin, but in some or other it shall be pardoned, and he doth it to magnify his grace in Christ, in whom he gathers them. —The Works of Thomas Goodwin, 1:156, commenting on Ephesians 1:10