The man who knew God face to face
I opened my Sunday bulletin at church yesterday and found that we were to sing something called “This is God’s Wondrous World”. As the music began to play I immediately recognized the hymn as a politically correct version of the classic “ This is my Father’s World”. Some years ago, certain zealous Methodists went through the hymn book and boiled it pure of every lyric which might equate to the paternal or fraternal. “God our Father, Christ our Brother” was taken out of “Ode to Joy”. The old Christmas Carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” dropped the line “Born to raise the sons of earth.” And one of my personal favorites, “Faith of Our Fathers” became “Faith of the Martyrs”. For some reason, I had never noticed that “This is my Father’s World” had been changed. I guess I missed the Sundays where it has been sung. I was somewhat gratified to notice that the majority of the congregation still sang the old lyrics, although the hymnal commanded them otherwise. It will not be too many years before the original lyrics will be forgotten, which is, of course, the whole idea.
I thought about this Sunday as I puzzled over the life of Charlton Heston, the actor who died this weekend at the age of 84. Heston lived, and made movies in a world that was very much paternal. There was no doubt that Heston’s God, whether Heston approached him as Moses, Judah Ben Hur, or President of the National Rifle Association, was male.Heston gloried in playing the suffering man who did his duty, to God and his people. And he was good at it. While his portrayal of Moses seems “over the top” today, it was an outstanding performance in its time. Today, an actor would play Moses with more care to the detail of the bible. But Cecil B, De mille was not going to cast a Moses with a speech impediment or a stammer as the bible infers. He needed a vigorous and manly voice to demand of Pharaoh to “let the people go”. And so , he got Heston.There he was, in Cinemascope, his beard and robes flowing in the strong winds, raising his staff both literally and figuratively to part the Red Sea and drown Pharaoh’s charioteers. A man’s man in a man’s world. A man who, like Moses himself “knew God face to face.”
At some point along the way, Heston changed phallic symbols, replacing the staff of God with the long barreled rifle. The man who had pleaded for Congress to pass Lyndon Johnson’s anti-gun legislation became the best known advocate of private ownership of the means of death. I suppose that when you have drowned thousands of Egyptians, you are a little calloused to the occasional death by gun shot. I hated seeing Heston with that group. I especially hated seeing him, as he did, hold a rifle high above his head and proclaim that they could “take it away from me when the pry my cold , hard fingers off of the trigger.” The news this weekend did not report as to whether this was necessary. Although, since Mr. Heston had suffered from Alzheimer’s for some years, one doubts that this was the case. By the time I ran into Heston, at the British Museum in 1984, he was no longer universally loved. Then again, as between the two of us, he, at least, was universally known.
My first knowledge of Heston was as Ben Hur. So popular was that movie, that in February of 1960, the Houston Live stock Show and Rodeo, held annually at the Sam Houston Coliseum, replaced the traditional Chuck Wagon race with a Chariot race. It was spectacular. Not a spectacular as getting to see my hero Hugh O’Brien play Wyatt Earp at the same show, but pretty damn spectacular. Judah Ben Hur was a hero to every young boy in the neighborhood because he was larger than life, because he was Heston. Of course, at the time we were unaware of the homosexual overtones that the screenwriter later claimed to have put into the script. I find it odd that Ben Hur has not become a gay icon in America but perhaps Mr. Heston’s closeness to conservative political causes kept this from happening.
At any rate, now when I think of Heston, it is as Moses. I have written a lot about Moses in the past. He is a wonderful character. Of all the prophets who ever lived, he was best at keeping God in check when the Lord would go off of the deep end and want to kill every man, woman and child for some perceived insult. Moses knew God “face to face” and could stand up to God “nose to nose”. And sometimes, it was God who would blink. God got the last laugh of course, God always does. Moses was not allowed to cross over the Jordan to the land he had lead his people to. But he saw the land, all of it, and he lived 120 years (if some translations of the Bible are to be believed) without loss of sexual vigor. I’m sure that that was some consolation for not getting to go into Israel.
Heston did not make 120. But 84 Is not too bad. He lived a life which saw much of what he stood for slip slowly away. Perhaps the long fog of Alzheimer’s was a blessing in some ways. But he never gave up. He fought the fight, although some of us doubt it was “the good fight”, he fought it none the less. You don’t have to like a man to admire him for certain things. In most ways he was not my kind of actor, and towards the end, he was not my kind of man, but he lived life with the vigor of the characters he played. Would that we all did that.