Ben-Hur: Gods, Faith, Baptism, and Forgiveness
by J.W. Wartick
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…
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