Ben-Hur and the Impact of an Encounter with Christ

For thousands of years, artists and writers have used their talents to bring to others the experience of the human condition encountering the transcendent. In particular, they have sought to depict in paint and stone, words and music, live theater and film, the mystery of faith in Jesus Christ – the events of his ministry, Passion, Resurrection and more. Responding to people’s lively desires as much as their own inspiration, they have also imagined what it would have been like to personally meet Jesus in those days and come to realize who he really is.

This led to numerous dramatic stories and artworks set in biblical times that attempt to portray the history of that era and the effect of being in the presence of Christ. One such story is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), the best-selling American novel of the 19th century that was written by Lew Wallace in the aftermath of the bloody American Civil War.

Now comes a new telling of this classic story of vengeance and forgiveness, alienation and reconciliation, and the impact of even a brief personal encounter with Jesus and his love. Opening this weekend in theaters across the country, Ben-Hur puts us face-to-face with the excitement of how being touched by Jesus in the midst of all our troubles and travails can change hearts and make our lives new again. The movie is co-produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the same team who made the feature film Son of God and the television mini-series The Bible, which saw record-breaking ratings.

Ben-Hur (2016) transports you back to the days of the Roman Empire and all its failings and glory to tell the riveting tale of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and his once close and brother-like friend, a Roman named Messala. This new major motion picture is not intended to be a remake of the epic 1959 version starring Charlton Heston. Instead, the film presents this soul-searching story in a fresh light which engages in a range of human passions in such a way that we recognize ourselves in the characters and are inspired by the redemptive power of Christ’s mercy.

Throughout history, Christians have made use of the elements of popular culture to spread the message of the Gospel. In the early days of the Church, it was Greek and Roman art, architecture and philosophy. Today in the New Evangelization, those cultural elements include movies, television programs, podcasts, blogs and the ever-expanding universe of social media.

Mainstream films like Ben-Hur (2016) provide a wonderful occasion for us to both deepen our personal faith and also to begin to evangelize others in an engaging way by prompting reflection and discussion about the moral themes of the story and how, as with Judah and his family, Jesus can bring hope and healing to people. As part of that effort, selected religious leaders across the country, myself included, have offered short video commentaries on various scenes in the film, which I invite you to view. The archdiocese’s Father William Byrne has provided “A Catholic Take on Ben-Hur” as well. My reflections and those of Father Byrne may be seen here and here.

For the first people who encountered Jesus Christ, life was never the same. The same is true for us today. The ongoing Christian adventure continues.