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Lew Wallace

This tag is associated with 4 posts

“Ben Hur” – Gods, Faith, Baptism, and Forgiveness

ben-hur-2016I 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.

Baptism

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.

benhur-esther

Certainly one of the most interesting characters in the film.

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.

Forgiveness

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.

Conclusion

“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.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

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.

SDG.

——

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.

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What about those who haven’t heard? – Part 1 of a Case Study on Religious Pluralism from Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur”

ben-hur

A beautiful cover for an edition of Ben Hur- I was unable to locate the exact copyright information.


Ben Hur 
is one of my all-time favorite novels. There are many issues related to worldview raised throughout the novel. I have started a series which outlines some of the ways it interacts with

Selection from the Book

Each post in this series will begin with a segment from the book itself. Here, we jump into a scene in which one of the wise men is telling the story of how he came to be in a desert, meeting up with the others. He is Greek. I have abridged the segment to focus on the areas in which this series is most interested, namely, the ways God interacts with humanity.

“I am Gaspar, son of Cleanthes the Athenian…

…”It happens that two of our [Greece’s] philosophers, the very greatest of the many [reference to Plato and Aristotle, presumably], teach, one the doctrine of a Soul in every man, and its Immortality; the other the doctrine of One God, infinitely just. From the multitude of subjects about which the schools were disputing, I separated them, as alone worth the labor of solution; for I thought there was a relation between God and the soul as yet unknown…

“In the northern part of my country–in Thessaly… there is a mountain famous as the home of the gods… Olympus is its name. Thither I betook myself. I found a cave [nearby]… there I dwelt, giving myself up to meditation–no, I gave myself up to waiting for what every breath was a prayer–for revelation. Believing in God, invisible yet supreme, I also believed it possible so to yearn for him with all my soul that he would take compassion and give me answer.

“…One day I saw a man flung overboard from a ship sailing by. He swam ashore. I received and took care of him. He was a Jew, learned in the history and laws of his people; and from him I came to know that the God of my prayers did indeed exist; and had been for ages their lawmaker, ruler, and king. What was that but the Revelation I dreamed of? My faith had not been fruitless; God answered me!”

“As he does all who cry to him with such faith,” said the [Hindu].

“But, alas!” the Egyptian added, “how few are there wise enough to know when he answers them!”

“That was not all,” the Greek continued. “The man so sent to me told me more. He said the prophets who, in the ages which followed the first revelation, walked and talked with God, declared he would come again…

“It is true… the man told me that as God and the revelation of which he spoke had been for the Jews alone, so it would be again… ‘Had he nothing for the rest of the world?’ I asked. ‘No,’ was the answer, given in a proud voice–‘No, we are his chosen people.’ The answer did not crush my hope. Why should such a God limit his love and benefaction to one land, and, as it were, to one family? …When the Jew was gone, and I was alone again, I chastened my soul with a new prayer–that I might be permitted to see the King when he was come, and worship him. One night I sat by the door of my cave trying to get nearer the mysteries of my existence, knowing which is to know God; suddenly, on the sea below me, or rather in the darkness that covered its face, I saw a star begin to burn; slowly it arose and drew nigh, and stood over the hill and above my door, so that its light shone full upon me. I fell down, and slept, and in my dream I heard a voice say:

“‘O Gaspar! Thy faith hath conquered! Blessed art thou! With two others, come from the uttermost parts of the earth, thou shalt see Him that is promised, and be a witness for him, and the occasion of testimony in his behalf. In the morning arise, and go meet them, and keep trust in the Spirit that shall guide thee.’

“And in the morning I awoke with the Spirit as a light within me surpassing that of the sun…”

This passage can be found in Ben Hur, Book I, Chapter III. It may be read in its entirety online here (it is public domain due to expired copyright).

An illustration from the Ben Hur novel. I was unable to find a specific copyright.

An illustration from the Ben Hur novel. I was unable to find a specific copyright.

Notes on Religion from the Selection

Christians have proposed many different answers to one of the most pressing questions, itself having been pondered for centuries: “What about those who have never heard?” The question is regarding salvation–can those who have never heard be saved? But it isn’t only that. It might be nuanced in many ways. For example, are there any who have not heard what is required to be saved who would respond if they did hear it? Though the answer initially may seem obvious, it must be thought over carefully before one simply says yes or no.

In this passage from Lew Wallace, we find not one, but two separate answers to this question combined into one account. The answers are: direct divine revelation, and sending a witness. (I have dubbed them this, but the titles summarize common proposals–see below.)

Sending a Witness

One of the answers Christians have given to the question of those who have not heard and their salvific status is pretty straightforward: there simply are none who have not heard. The claim seems rather extraordinary, for, after all, entire swathes of humanity never had contact with any Christian missionary for vast periods of time. Yet, this answer to the question suggests that God sends a witness to anyone who would respond. Thus, if there is someone in a place where Christianity had not yet reached who would have responded to a missionary, God somehow sets it up such that that person hears from someone about Christ.

In the example from Ben Hur above, we see that the Greek was looking for the divine–hoping for a response. Thus, through providential act, a Jew washed up on shore to instruct him about the truth.

It seems this solution to the problem of religious pluralism and those who have not heard is unsatisfactory. There are many reasons for this. First, it supports a rather dim view of other cultures through a system that is ultimately culturally imperialist. Second, it seems to stretch credulity, for it would follow from this position that either there have only been very few outside of the parts of the world where Christianity is dominant who would have responded to the Gospel anyway (see previous point) or that there are innumerable instances of shipwrecks washing missionaries on shore in far off places all over the world to wherever someone might respond to the Gospel. Either of these seems unsatisfactory.

However, it is possible that the “Sending a Witness” answer could be part of an answer to the questions posed here. It just does not seem capable of carrying all the weight on its own.

Direct Divine Revelation

Like the previous answer, the “direct divine revelation” solution to the problem of religious pluralism and specifically those who have not heard is one which ultimately results in the answer: None have not heard. For, if someone would respond to the Gospel, God simply reveals Christ through direct revelation. In the selection above, we see that a dream reveals the Holy Spirit to Gaspar.

This answer to the questions raised above is perhaps more satisfactory than the previous one, but difficulties remain. The primary one is that although several firsthand instances of this type of thing happening are found, they do not seem to be as ubiquitous as they might need to be in order to adequately account for all those who have not heard. Again, this may be part of a larger multi-level response, but I don’t think it can stand on its own.

Conclusion

Wallace provides here an overview of two of the traditional answers to the question of those who have not heard about Jesus Christ. Neither solution seems entirely satisfactory, though either or both might be integrated into a holistic view of witnessing and missions. We will explore other aspects of Wallace’s exploration of religious pluralism

Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I think that John Sanders’ book, No Other Name is perhaps the best work I have read for providing background into the different proposed solutions for the question of those who have not heard about Christ. It would be a good read for those wishing to explore the topic further.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

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.

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?

SDG.

——

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.

Religious Pluralism- A case study from “Ben Hur” by Lew Wallace- Series Introduction

ben-hur-novel

Ben Hur is one of the most influential novels of all time, selling millions in the 19th and 20th centuries and noted as admired by several U.S. Presidents, among others. Reactions to the novel are varied–an interesting thing to examine of itself (some critics saying that it would only appeal to the “unlettered” person, while the general and broad appeal of the novel speaks against that same notion). Its enduring popularity can be attested to by the fact that it continues to be adapted to film.

I’m going to write a series of posts exploring religious pluralism through the lens of the novel, Ben Hur.

Method

The opening scene of the book  describes the wise men–those who would later visit Christ–meeting up in the desert. In this scene, each wise man–from a different part of the ancient world–shares his own story of how he became a believer.

Each post will start with a selection from this scene. Then, I will analyze what was said therein from a theological and apologetic viewpoint. The goal will be to examine what is said therein to see its value for Christians today in interfaith dialogue.

 

Links

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.

Links for the series will be posted here. This post will serve as the home page for the series.

Ben Hur- The Great Christian Epic

ben_hurThere 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.

Background

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.

ben-hur-16Revenge

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.

Redemption

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.

Conclusion

“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.

Sources

Tim LaHaye, “Introduction” in Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Signet Classic Edition: 2003).

Ben Hur.

SDG.

——

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.

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