Bigger than Ben-Hur?

Bigger than Ben-Hur?

Ben-Hur has been remade and will be in cinemas from August 25.

Such an announcement may confirm your worst fears or largest gripes against Hollywood. Can’t Hollywood come up with new ideas or, at least, leave classic movies alone?

Like me, you might be struggling to understand why we needed a new version of the 1959 epic that won 11 Oscar and made chariot racing part of cinematic folklore.

But check out the fine print… 2016’s Ben-Hur is the third major production of author Lew Wallace’s source novel, first published in 1880. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is the full title of Wallace’s creative tale about Judah Ben-Hur. A make-believe Jewish bloke, Ben-Hur’s dramatic life of doublecross, slavery, revenge and redemption takes place at the same time as Jesus’s life.

Yes, Wallace deliberately contrasted Judah Ben-Hur with the Son of God.

That fine print on the novel’s original title — A Tale of the Christ — does get overlooked or forgotten. Perhaps, with the new version of Ben-Hur at cinemas this month, it’s time we paid more attention to the Big Story driving Ben-hur’s big story.

Also, there’s another incredible yet little-mentioned part of the Ben-Hur tale: Wallace wrote the novel as his own personal pursuit of God and Jesus.

Wallace hadn’t been terribly interested in Christianity before he had a conversation on a train in 1876. America’s most famous 19th Century atheist, Robert Ingersoll, engaged Wallace in a lengthy discussion about Christianity. Ingersoll knew a lot about the Bible and theology. Wallace did not. He was greatly disturbed by and ashamed at an atheist’s grasp on such important matters. Wallace decided to learn more, “if only for the gratification there might be in having convictions of one kind or another”, he remarked.

His way of learning more was, well, novel. He decided his Christianity quest would take the form of writing a novel about the life of Jesus. The process of researching and investigating Jesus appealed to him, as a literary and personal expedition. However, he was respectful enough to not invent a new story for Jesus.

In his memoir, Wallace admitted that “the Christian world would not tolerate a novel with Jesus Christ its hero”, because it might be taken as irreverence or lies. “I would be religiously careful that every word He uttered should be a literal quotation from one of [the gospels],” explained Wallace about why every word Jesus says in Ben-Hur is directly taken from the Bible’s King James translation.

Film fans and literature lovers often forget that Ben-Hur’s famous story has always contained something much bigger within it. While cinema history can’t forget the chariot scenes and Charlton Heston going up against the Roman Empire (long before Russell Crowe followed a very, very, very similar plot in Gladiator), what we all can fail to remember is… Jesus.

But Wallace didn’t. His experience of exploring Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection – from the perspective of a fictional Jewish man – helped him to find a saving relationship with Jesus. “Long before I was through with my book, I became a believer in God and Christ.”

Let’s pray that Ben-Hur, the 2016 version, might assist in inspiring such belief in viewers around the world.

Ben McEachen

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