I had the chance to go see the new “Ben Hur” movie this past weekend. I think it is fair to say that I’m a huge fan of Ben Hur in many forms. I read the novel (at least) annually. I watch the Charlton Heston version of the film several times a year. It is one of the most utterly compelling plots I know of. It’s a tale of betrayal and revenge that turns into much more than that. (Be sure to see the Links at the end for several more of my posts about the book and other movie.) Here, I will look at this particular retelling of the story of Ben Hur and the worldview themes found therein. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.
Gods and Faith
A contrast of faiths is found throughout the movie, yet it isn’t just a two-sided picture. We see Messala’s devotion to Roman gods early on in the film, as he prays to those gods for the safety of his adopted brother, Judah Ben Hur (in this version, Messala was orphaned and adopted by the House of Hur). Judah’s mother chastises him, saying that they serve a different God under her household. At a later point, the Hurs are celebrating a Jewish festival, and Messala acts somewhat left out. Judah Ben Hur asks him about this and comments that wine knows no specific god (implying that Messala can at least enjoy himself with the festal wine). Judah is indeed portrayed as something of a skeptic throughout much of the film, and that’s where we see some of the most subtle but intriguing aspects of the journey of faith found here.
Judah’s journey includes doubts about God, and he even speaks these in one of his encounters with Jesus. He asks Jesus how, if God has a plan that includes us, we are any better than slaves. Jesus replies in a way that is reminiscent of so many of his responses in the Bible, nodding to Esther, a former slave who at this point is Judah’s wife, and saying “ask her.” Cynically, this could be interpreted as a non-answer, but it also shows a similarity in fashion to the way Jesus often answered such questions that were posed not as genuine questions but as challenges. He turned the question inward and forced him to confront his own life.
Judah’s ultimate turning point comes after his defeat of Messala through a chariot race in the circus. He stands before the crucified savior and he hears Jesus utter the words, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Judah breaks down and weeps, coming to a full realization that those words are not just empty: they are for him and about him. It is at the cross that Judah comes to a realization of his own inadequacy and need for forgiveness, and, yes, true faith.
After the cross, the Hur family is healed by the water that mingles with the blood of Christ, just as in the earlier film version. This water washing away the dead flesh of leprosy is a perfect allegory for baptism, which saves through the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5). To see the water wash away the physical ailment here is a great allegory for baptism.
Women in Ben Hur
The film does a pretty phenomenal job portraying women. First, there are women in the garden with Jesus when the Romans come to take him away. I think this almost certainly would have been the case, given how many women were close followers and later proclaimers of Christ. It was good to see the filmmakers decided not to skip over them. Second, the character of Esther was just as the image I shared here describes her- a defender, a confidant, and a believer. She remains faithful throughout the movie, despite having a few flaws.
Perhaps the central theme in the movie is forgiveness. Indeed, they took some liberty with the plot to highlight this theme more effectively, leaving Messala alive and vengeful towards the end, only to forgive Judah as Judah forgives him. It is a beautiful scene, though it feels a tad rushed. The book doesn’t have this scene, though it also highlights forgiveness. Once again, it is clear that this is a Christian theme shown through the film.
“Ben Hur” is different from the Charlton Heston version of the story in several key ways, and diverges radically from the book on a few key points. That said, it is one of the most Christian messages I have seen recently in any movie. It has many wonderful portrayals of worldview found therein, and it does so in a much more intriguing way than almost any other film I know of recently.
Ben Hur- The Great Christian Epic– I look at the 1959 epic film from a worldview perspective. How does the movie reflect the deeply Christian worldview of the book?
What About Those Who Haven’t Heard? – Part 1 of a case study on religious pluralism from Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur”– I examine two of the most popular answers to the question about those who have not heard about Jesus (and their eternal fate) from the book.
Religious Pluralism- A case study from “Ben Hur” by Lew Wallace– The post introducing this entire series on “Ben Hur.” It has links to all the posts in the series.
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