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.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
There was a time when Hollywood battled for which studio could churn out the best epic, the greatest film, the most splendor upon the big screen. “Ben Hur” was a film which towered above all the rest. It won 11 academy awards, a feat matched only by two other movies (“Titanic” and “The Return of the King”), but it was also the only one of those three to win for acting (Best Actor: Charlton Heston as Ben Hur and Hugh Griffith won Best Support Actor).
Although best remembered for its famous chariot race scene, the film’s themes continue to echo with our own times. At the heart of “Ben Hur” is a struggle between ways of viewing the world set alongside an epic story which relates that struggle to the cosmic struggle for redemption and salvation of the people of God. There will be SPOILERS for the film in what follows.
It is important to note that “Ben Hur” is based upon the novel of the same name by Lew Wallace. Wallace, a general during the Civil War, was disturbed by a conversation he had with a prominent skeptic of the time, Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll’s challenge against the historicity of Christianity gave Wallace a great desire to search the historical acconts around the time of Christ and compose Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, his literary apologetic for Christianity (“Introduction,” Tim LaHaye, cited below). The book is itself a masterpiece and well worth reading. It gives an excellent background for understanding some of the themes of the film.
A Battle of Worldviews
The question of worldview is explored throughout the film. What is it that makes hte people of the Roman colony of Judea so obstinate? They seek after Messiahs, after a different savior each day of the week. One conversation poignantly illustrates the heart of this conflict:
Sextus, a centurion in charge of the Roman garrison asks Messala, who has come to relieve him, “How do you fight an idea?”
Messala responds “You ask how to fight an idea? Well, I’ll tell you how: with another idea.”
Messala realizes that at the heart of the people’s will is their worldview. Their hope is in the destruction of Rome. They long for a Messiah who will lead them to a successful revolt to throw off the Romans. Yet Messala desires to fight this hope with his own worldview: that of the power of humankind. Rome is power, and for him, the Emperor is that power deified.
Vengeance. It’s a theme which seems initially to drive the movie. Messala betrays his friend, Judah Ben Hur, towards the beginning of the film. The Hur family is thrown into prison to languish there, and Judah is sent to the galleys to row as a slave. Judah swears to Messala that he will take revenge upon him upon his return. In a deeply ironic voice, Messala responds, “Return?” The life of a galley slave is not expected to be long.
But Judah does return. He rescues the Roman Quintus Arius who is in charge of his ship and is eventually adopted into the Arius family. He returns to Judea as the son of a consul, with all the power and privilege his rank implies. After learning of a way to take revenge upon Messala without the possible legal ramifications–by besting him in the circus maximus in a chariot race and leaving Messala destitute from debt–Judah succeeds in the arena.
The climax of the quest for vengeance can be found in the scene in which Judah Ben Hur confronts Messala for the first time since seeming to come back from the dead. He slams his seal–the seal of the Consul QUintus Arius–into a document and stares Messala down. Now, Judah is in the superior position. He is the one whose victory is inevitable. From this point on, his vengeance seems assured.
However, after Ben Hur’s epic defeat of Messala in the chariot race, which leaves Messala not only broke but also leaves his body broken, it turns out that revenge is not as sweet as it may seem. Messala informs Judah “the race goes on”–his family is still alive, but they are lepers, left to flounder on the edges of society as unclean, cursed wretches.
It is not revenge which pays. It may give some kind of satisfaction for the briefest moment, but Judah learns its satisfaction is only fleeting. His glory must be found elsewhere, and it is not a glory he can bring himself.
Judah is devastated by his discovery that his mother and sister are lepers. He realizes there is nothing he can do to save them, and it seems Messala’s own plan has achieved victory after all. Judah, moved by compassion, takes up his mother and sister in his arms despite their protests, almost guaranteeing that he, too, will contract the terrible disease.
He and Esther, a servant of his former household, take his family through the streets of Jerusalem. The latest Messiah, Jesus, is set to be crucified, and a crowd gathers there to watch. As Jesus dies, his blood runs through the rainwater as it spreads out symbolically to the world. When it touches the Hur family, they are cleansed of their diseases, washed utterly by the blood of Christ. In a stunning twist, it is not the hero who brings about victory, but rather the Messiah who has only been seen briefly throughout the film at pivotal moments. It is Jesus to whom all glory is given, not to Judah Ben Hur.
We have seen that Messala hoped in a human who took upon deity for himself. But the film (and indeed Wallace’s earlier book) show that this hope is misplaced. The God-man that humans should look to is not the conqueror; he is not god because he has human power; instead, the God-man Jesus Christ took on flesh in order to save, to humble himself and become obedient to death on the cross. It is a subversive tale. It is a story of redemption and salvation. It is an idea against which the powers of humanity and the devil muster all their strength to attempt to overthrow, but the idea lives on. It is the idea which cannot be overcome, cannot be outshined.
“Ben Hur” is my favorite movie of all time. The epic clearly portrays the truth that is above all truths: we are powerless, but God is powerful. Judah Ben Hur is unable to save that which he loves and must ultimately rely upon another, who saves them through the washing of his blood. Ben Hur’s story is our own in many ways. We continually struggle against the powers of the world and we often have motivations which are, at best, questionable. But ultimately, we find that when we rely upon ourselves, we are unsuccessful. Only when we rely upon God do we find success.
Tim LaHaye, “Introduction” in Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Signet Classic Edition: 2003).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.