"Reel Religion"

Hallelujah! A new poster exhibit at the Museum of Biblical Art looks at the Holy Book's influence on Hollywood. To rejoice in its glory, we asked religion and film experts to weigh in on three of the featured flicks.


Paul Tabor, director of exhibitions at the Museum of Biblical Art: “The figure of Judah Ben-Hur is a completely fictitious character; even so, his life is composed in such a way that it’s parallel to the suffering— and the new life that comes after suffering—that you see in the life of Jesus. You never really see the person of Christ in the movie; it’s an indication of how marginal the influence of Biblical text is to these 'sword-and-sandal’ epics.”

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: “Charlton Heston was amazing, but half-naked men being bronzed in groups lend an unnecessary connotation. The chariot scenes were definitely the most memorable. Jesus appears too elusive and too obscure, but perhaps that was their intention—that a deity in the flesh cannot be accurately portrayed.”

Joshua Rothkopf, TONY senior Film writer: “These days, post-Gladiator, even the chariot race feels a little tired. Ben-Hur is, first and foremost, a spectacle. It will always figure as an early example of today’s modern blockbuster; there were even marketing tie-ins, like Ben-His and Ben-Hers towels. The real religion here is box office.”

The Ten Commandments

Tabor: “Cecil B. DeMille was greatly influenced by Gustave Dor’s illustrated Bible—the scene of the parting of the Red Sea is a remarkable replication of Dor’s illustration, which dates back to 1865. It’s fascinating to see how DeMille was taken with it, and how exact the reproduction was.”

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League: The Ten Commandments represents Hollywood at its best: It was an accurate and respectful account of a magnificent religious moment. Regrettably, over the past several decades, Hollywood has found more reason to bash religion than to celebrate it.”

Rothkopf: “Tipping my hat to a joke from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is it okay if I watch only the first five commandments? The film made a bazillion dollars, but I wince at the idea of anyone getting religious ideas from a project involving Yul Brynner.”

The Robe

Tabor: “It’s a story about the Roman soldier who wins the robe that Jesus Christ wore on his crucifixion day; then, witnessing the crucifixion, he is converted and becomes a follower of Christ. It deals really specifically with three days: Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.”

Rothkopf: “This happens to be the first movie released in CinemaScope, the extra-wide aspect ratio. Martin Scorsese talks about the huge impact The Robe had on him as a kid. I do think size matters when selling religion—even if you pray to other widescreen idols, like Cate Blanchett.”

Ken Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists: “Religion is no more real than reel is real. But this may bring to the public’s eye the flagrant use of yet another art form to sell the hype of religion. Religionists are using more sophisticated media, but they’re recycling the same old lies and fantasies.”

CHECK IT OUT! “Reel Religion: A Century of the Bible and Film”: Museum of Biblical Art, 1865 Broadway at 61st St (212-408-1500, mobia.org). Tue--Wed, Fri--Sun 10am--6pm; Thu 10am--8pm. $7, seniors and students $4, members and children under 12 free. Feb 6--May 17.

Holy Oscar!
Best God: Ed Harris’s omnipotent TV producer in The Truman Show or Ned Beatty’s all-knowing exec in Network.
Best Jesus: Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ or Graham Chapman’s mistaken messiah in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Best Satan: Trey Parker’s Beelzebub in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
Best Miracle: When the U.S. hockey team beats the Russians in Miracle.—Joshua Rothkopf