Ben Hur, Classic

(Picture by Metro Goldwyn Mayer)

I was about twelve when John MacNee Sr. took four of us boys to see the epic movie Ben Hur. It had a huge impact - scenes of Palestine, naval battles in slave galleys, chariot races, festivals at Rome, scenes of Jesus' Galilean ministry, leper colonies and Easter week.

Judah Ben Hur was an angry and vengeful man. Betrayed by a boyhood friend into slavery, years at sea fighting Rome's enemies, freedom granted by the very man who put him at the oars, training in a charioteer's stable and ultimate victory in the ring and restoration to home and Jerusalem. But only three things motivated him - staying alive, enjoying the sweet death of his enemy Massala and finding his displaced mother and sister. Judah was in Jerusalem during the trial and execution of the prophet Jesus of Nazareth. His experience was life-changing. (See the video strip posted in this blog.)

What seeds were planted by this trip to the movies? The power of forgiveness, the compassion of Christ, the matchless work of the cross. Of the four young viewers, John Jr. went on to become a lawyer and a diplomat, Peter an Anglican rector and canon, David a writer for the C.B.C. and myself, well...

The origin of the story is fascinating. Major General Lew Wallace of the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War distinguished himself only moderately, then returned in civilian life to the practice of law, and stints as Governor of the New Mexico Territory and Diplomatic Minister to the Ottomon Empire. He became interested in writing. At the time he began the novel, "Ben Hur, A story of the Christ" (1880) he would not have called himself a man of faith, but something happened...

The following account is taken from a Masters program paper submitted in the Department of History at Miami University (2005), Oxford, Ohio:

Curiously, Wallace remembered, “To lift me out of my indifference, one would think only strong affirmations of things regarded holiest would do,” such as could be found in the written and spoken words of pastors and theologians.21 Yet it was not the testimony of the faithful that shook Wallace out of his indifference; rather it was the speech of the “Great Infidel,” Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll. Ingersoll was infamous for traveling the country delivering lectures on the merits of unbelief. Wallace was well aware of Ingersoll’s reputation, but he was also personally acquainted with him. Both men served at Shiloh, and they were also active in the Republican Party. In 1876, a soldiers’ reunion and the Republican National Convention simultaneously converged in Indianapolis and allowed for an encounter that would challenge Wallace’s religious apathy.

Wallace boarded the evening Indianapolis bound train in Crawfordsville. He made his
way down the aisle and was passing the stateroom when he heard a knock on the window. Wallace opened the stateroom door to discover Ingersoll inside, eager for conversation. Wallace consented to provide the conversation if he could dictate the subject. Ingersoll acquiesced. Wallace began by asking if there is a God. Ingersoll, as expected, answered that he did not know and asked Wallace if he did. Wallace continued, asking if there was a devil, heaven, hell, and hereafter. Ingersoll supplied the same response to each inquiry, “I do not know, do you?” After establishing the topics of conversation, Wallace allowed Ingersoll to begin. Wallace remembered, “I sat spellbound, listening to a medley of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation of believers in God, Christ, and Heaven, the like of which I had never heard.”22Two hours later the train rolled into Indianapolis’ Central Station where Wallace and Ingersoll parted company. Wallace declined soliciting a streetcar to bear him to his brother’s residence on the northeast side of town; Ingersoll’s statements had made him feel like walking.23

“Trudging on in the dark, alone except as one’s thoughts may be company,” Wallace recalled, “I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.”24 He considered it ironic that “outright denials of all human knowledge of God, Christ, Heaven, and the Hereafter” would stir him out of indifference.25
Wallace’s “reading had covered nearly every other subject” except religion.26 He
admitted reading the great sermons of the day, but “always for the surpassing charm of their rhetoric” and not for their spiritual message.27

by Shaun Chandler Lighty


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