In the early 1990’s I taught history part time at a junior college. In the post Civil War time frame the book listed some of the outstanding achievements occurring in America at that time. The transcontinental railroad, the telephone, light bulb, oil technology and so forth. It also listed notable art and literary works. I was pleasantly surprised the history book the college chose for me to teach out of discussed one of my favorite stories: the book, Ben Hur. I have tried to read the book but did not finish it. It’s a difficult read and I’m not an avid reader. However, I love the story and the movie. The book was written by Lew Wallace in the late 19th century to illustrate how God works in individuals’ lives. I absolutely loved sharing with my classes what this story was about.
Lew Wallace had fought in the Civil War as a general, but disliked all the horrors he witnessed. Shortly before the war in 1854, Charles Darwin had published The Origin of the Species. There were many campfire discussions about the nature of God; did He exist and if so, just how active is He in one’s life. Did he create the world as we know it, set things in motion and then watch from a distance? Benjamin Franklin is known to have believed in a Supreme Being, but he is also known to have believed it is presumptuous to think the God of the universe would take much interest in our small existence within the vastness of the universe. In the difficulties and struggles of war many ask such soul searching questions. A number reached the conclusion that there may indeed be a God, but it was difficult for them to believe the Creator would actually care for them on an individual basis.
General Wallace was not a Christian while he served in uniform. It was after the war that he became a believer. He was an avid reader and chose to write a novel as a response to the question and debate about the extent of God’s intervention in our individual lives. It took him years to pen the famous novel Ben Hur. After the war, Lew Wallace served as Governor of New Mexico, where he was respected as a devout Christian. He soon thereafter served as an American ambassador in the Middle East and lived among Turks, Arabians, Eastern Orthodox believers, followers of Mohammed, and Jews. His travels helped give a good understanding of life in the Middle East and weave it into a story of adventure with a strong message.
In the novel, Ben Hur is a devout Jew who finds he and his family falsely accused of a crime and all are harshly treated thereafter. He is condemned to die in the galleys, yet, he never gives up on the hope that God has a purpose for his life. Most reading this have seen the movie. If you have not, I have not given away anything to diminish your enjoyment of watching it. I encourage you to watch it. The 1959 version of the movie won 11 academy awards and I believe deservedly so.
This year I read a biography by Ray Boomhower called The Sword and the Pen, A Life of Lew Wallace. I enjoyed every minute of reading the book. I’m not much into hero worship, but General Wallace in my mind led an exceptional life that has gone on to bless many others including the Union he fought to preserve. It was not until I read the book that I now know he was the Union General that helped keep the Confederate forces under Jubal Early from capturing Washington D.C. in the summer of 1864. The rebel forces had made a quick end around through the Shenandoah Valley in the hopes of relieving the pressure of Grant’s forces on Richmond. The rebels came closer than many realize, and although the war was winding down, losing the Union capital may have encouraged England or France to intervene with the South. I think the North still would have won the war no matter who intervened. Anyone who has the courage to serve in uniform as Lew Wallace did and then go on to write such an exceptional literary work gains my highest respect. It took decades for Wallace to write Ben Hur and it was not very well received at first. Eventually after about ten years the public began to buy the book in volume.
Ben Hur offers a message of hope. A message that says there is a God that does know your suffering and can be active in your life. Not a distant God that created the universe, set parameters in motion, and then watches the outcome. On the contraty, the message of Ben Hur is that God can be involved in people’s lives in personal and intimate ways. It is the same encouragement you and I receive when we reflect on the story of Easter.
The movie The Ten Commandments is shown every Easter. It is not one of my favorite movies and I have only seen it about three times. On the other hand, my favorite movie, and one that I choose to watch every Easter is Ben Hur. It has become a family tradition with my kids. They are adults now but expect the movie to be shown at our house sometime over the Easter weekend.
I first saw the film shortly after its release in 1959. I was six years old. After church we went out to eat, which was a treat for a large family in those days. Then the six of us took in an afternoon movie. The theaters were huge back then. Sometimes I would sit in the balcony with my older brothers while my younger brother sat with mom and dad. I thought that it was an adventure to sit in the balcony. It seemed like a very long movie, and I mostly remember the chariot race. I think I may have gotten a “slow poke” (thick caramel on a stick) to eat. They take forever to finish, as you know. My lousy teeth are testament to the amount of candy I ate as a kid.
I saw the movie again in 1964 and this time I remember the ship battle. The third time I saw it at the theater was about 1970. They used to recycle the classic movies in those days. I had just gotten my driver’s license and my younger brother was with me. After four difficult, unrewarding, harsh years of playing Texas football, the scene of the sweaty souls forced to row in the galley stuck in my mind. My football experience was miserable in the 1960’s. In those days very little water was given to drink, and the way coaches trained you was to taunt you. To this day when I find myself in stressful situations I often think of the galley scene in Ben Hur. When the Roman commander whips Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, for no apparent reason. The Roman commander then says,
“You have the will to strike back, but the good sense not to. That’s good. There is hate in your eyes. Hate keeps a man alive. We keep you alive to row this ship, so row well, and live Judah Ben Hur.”
That scene has haunted me my entire life. I have very few good remembrances of coaches. I’m also sure they would not recall a small, second string, expendable commodity like me. I think a lot of coaches have a positive influence on young people’s lives, it’s just that that was not my experience. Atheletics for me was all work and very little fun for years, especially four years of miserable Texas football.
My parents were also domineering, offering little affirmation but lots of criticism. This was followed by a number of hard to please commanders during my years in uniform with the military. Whatever your circumstances, if you have not experienced what you perceive to be injustice, or for that matter gone through periods of unanswered prayer in your life, then I envy you. Perhaps you have wrestled with why your child or loved one has a certain disability or illness. Maybe you have experienced a deep sense of loneliness, wondering why you don’t have a spouse. For me, in these times of questioning, it is almost as if Satan taunts me and says “row well and live.”
You would think over forty years later it would all be forgotten. I also realize many others in life have experienced things that would make any of my life’s struggles seem minor. Yet, admittedly, these experiences either haunt me or seem important in my mind. On the other hand, my sweet wife of 35 years and the graciousness of the gospel of Christ have reminded me there is still love in the world, and during those recurring times in life when I feel abandoned to the galleys, a voice whispers in my ear,
“I have not forgotten you, nor will I forsake you. The circumstances may seem hopeless but I will bring you out of the galleys even when it is difficult for you to imagine how.”
The following passages are encouraging to me:
Isaiah chapter43, verse 2:
“When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.”
Hebrews chapter 13 verse 5:
For God has said, “I will never fail you,I will never forsake you.” That is why we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will not be afraid, what can mere mortals do to me.”
I’m in middle life now and the difficulties just keep on coming. I still have many, many unanswered prayers. Perhaps that is why I will always like what I percieve to be the underlying theme of Ben Hur, a message of hope. I also believe that is the message of Easter: hope. That is also the renewed feeling I get each year when I watch Ben Hur.