Monday, August 25, 2014

Lessons from Ben-Hur

"What manner of man is he?"

Before reading the novel, whenever I heard the title Ben-Hur, I pictured a chariot race, a mental image only reinforced by the beautiful artwork on the cover of my Mom's copy, which she had leant to me.  A chariot race is indeed featured prominently in the narrative and, while it may be the climax of the plot, it isn't the point of it.  

I was taken aback when, upon opening the book, I realized I had the title wrong.  It isn't titled: Ben-Hur; the full title of the book is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

My perplexity grew as I read the first few pages where, instead of Romans and chariots, I was introduced to Wise Men and camels.

This book was not what I had anticipated!

It is indeed a book about a Jew named Judah Ben-Hur and the substance of the plot is devoted to his life events.  As an adolescent, Ben-Hur has a following out with a childhood friend named Messala, who happens to be a Roman freshly returned from a few years immersed in the Eternal City and in its pagan philosophy and depraved culture.  Arrogance, satire, and derision fill his words and demeanor.

" is nothing, war everything.  It is so in Rome.  Marriage is the first step to divorce.  Virtue is a tradesman's jewel...The world is going the same way; so, as to our future, down Eros, up Mars!  I am going to be a soldier; and you, O my Judah, I pity you; what can you be?"

Their enmity is sealed when, after Ben-Hur accidentally injures a Roman governor, Messala condemns him an assassin and aides the Roman soldiers in indicting Ben-Hur and capturing his mother and sister.  Ben-Hur is enslaved as a rower in the Roman galleys, torn from his family and tormented by the mystery of his family's fate--were they even still alive?

Then follows three years of endless toil and long-suffering.

There is only one moment of light and love for Ben-Hur in those three years.  While being dragged along en route to the galleys, his hands bound and tied around the horses's neck, Ben-Hur has a short reprieve as the Roman soldiers stop at a small town named Nazareth for a drink of water.  A young boy offers Ben-Hur a drink.

"...looking up, he saw a face he never forgot--the face of a boy about his own age, shaded by locks of yellowish bright chestnut hair; a face lighted by dark-blue eyes, at the time so soft, so appealing, so full of love and holy purpose, that they had all the power of command and will.  The spirit of the Jew, hardened though it was by days and nights of suffering, and so embittered by the wrong that the dreams of revenge took in all the world, melted under the stranger's look, and became as a child's...And so, for the first time, Judah and the son of Mary met and parted."

It is not the last time that Christ and Ben-Hur meet.

Ben-Hur, in saving the life of Quintus Arrius, the commander of his ship, is granted freedom and adoption by the Roman duumvir.  He sets out to accomplish his two goals: revenge upon Messala and justice for his mother and sister.  The first involves a chariot race, the second a journey back to Jerusalem.

Yet, interwoven with Ben-Hur's narrative is the simultaneous unfolding of Christ's life.  Among Ben-Hur's associates is a man named Balthasar, one of the Wise Men.  He shares with those around him the story of the Nativity and assures them that the King has arrived and must soon be manifested.  

In this kingship, Ben-Hur finds the realization of his hopes and dreams.  A King of Israel would crush Roman domination and pride!  A King of Israel would establish justice and peace!  For what other purpose had God given Ben-Hur his freedom?  What other use should his great wealth, inherited from Arrius, be used for?  Why else should he have been given such great strength, earned at the oars of the galley, but to lead men in the greatest military battle to date?  

"He had dealt punishment, not wrong, to Messala.  By permission of the Lord, he had triumphed; and he derived faith from the circumstance--faith the source of all rational strength, especially strength in peril.  Nor did the influence stop there.  The new life was made appear to him a mission just begun, and holy as the King to come was holy, and certain as the coming of the King was certain--a mission in which force was lawful if only because it was unavoidable."

Ben-Hur is present when John the Baptist proclaims Jesus the Lamb of God and then follows Him along His three year ministry, witnessing the miracles and preaching.  He is there when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the Passion draws near.

Still, Ben-Hur awaits a sign to call forth the four legions of Galilean men he has trained and prepared for war.  Even as Christ is led away after Judas's betrayal, Judah calls out to him, "Tell me, I pray thee, if I bring rescue, wilt thou accept it?"  But Belthasar reiterates that the Messiah has come for another purpose--a greater purpose.

"Consider first the excellence of the existence which was reserved for us after death, and give heed to the feelings and impulses the thought is sure to awaken in you--heed them, I say, because they are your own Soul astir, doing what it can to urge you in the right way.  Consider next that the after-life has become so obscured as to justify calling it a lost life.  If you find it, rejoice, O son of Hur--rejoice as I do, though in beggary of words.  For then, besides the great gift which is to be saved to us,  you will have found the need of a Savior so infinitely greater than the need of a king; and he we are going to meet will not longer hold place in your hope a warrior with a sword or a monarch with a crown."

Ben-Hur's story is the story of the Christ.  Both follow a parallel course of betrayal, suffering, and redemption.  It is through Christ's story that Ben-Hur comes to understand his own.  

Lew Wallace, the author, does an impeccable job of interlacing these two stories--one fiction, one fact.  I was thoroughly impressed with how Ben-Hur became connected with Our Lord and how he related to the events of the Gospel.  One particularly interesting twist occurred during the scene on the Mount of Olives, when Christ is arrested after Judas's betraying kiss.  Ben-Hur follows Christ, calling if he should bring rescue, and the mob closes in on Ben-Hur.  He narrowly escapes, the clothes being ripped off his back, and flees away naked--thus is the individual referenced in the Gospel of Mark:

"Now a young man followed him [Christ] wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body.  They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked" (Mark 14: 51-52).

I truly enjoyed reading about Christ from Ben-Hur's perspective and it was a helpful reminder of the historicity of Our Lord's manifestation.  Christ became incarnate in time--a particular historical context.  The Jews of that time certainly had expectations of the Messiah, influenced by their oppression under the hands of the Romans.  

Throughout, Ben-Hur struggled with the nature of Jesus.  What manner of man is this?  It is the question each one of us must ask ourselves as well.

In a beautiful juxtaposition, Ben-Hur is presented at the foot of the cross, offering Christ a drink of water.  Ben-Hur was the recipient of the same kindness from Christ years before, during his time of great suffering, innocent though he was.  

At times, I felt the narrative lagged, perhaps due to the incredible historicity of Wallace's writing.  There were extensive details regarding geography, dress, culture, and architecture.  I might venture as far as to say some heavy editing could have made the plot more suspenseful and gripping.  However, that might just be my 21st-century mind impatient with Wallace's Civil War-era writing.

Overall, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ offered an engaging, poignant, and powerful tale--a reminder of how we can unite our sufferings with those of Christ and find in Him the living water that wells up to eternal life.

"If you continue in your belief as to his character--that he is to be a king as Herod was--of course you will keep on until you meet a man clothed in purple and with a sceptre.  On the other hand, he I look for will be one poor, humble, undistinguished--a man in appearance as other men; and the sign by which I will know him will be never so simple.  He will offer to show me and all mankind the way to the eternal life; the beautiful pure Life of the Soul."

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