The new Ben-Hur movie from Paramount Pictures opened over the weekend and the reviews have been, well, not all that great. It’s not surprising really, after an enormous promotional lead-up setting expectations high, that folks (especially the non-Christian cadre) have been quick to criticize the big-budget epic laced with a feel-good Christian message. And while critically, I may have a few quibbles with parts of the story (the rushed ending, most especially), I also found the movie to be quite beautiful and meaningful to me as a person of faith. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it has something to do with me watching it not as a film critic, but as one ready to receive a spiritual experience from the heart.
It never occurred to me that I’d come away from the movie with such an expansive feeling of a time and place. Everything about the film – from the cinematography to the acting, to the epic battle scenes, to the tender and passionate relationships between siblings and mentors, lovers and healers, invited me into a deeper experience of what it must have been like to be a Jew living in Jerusalem in the time of the Roman occupation. To have everything you know and love threatened and trampled on. To have a beloved sibling whose views clashed with yours; to feel betrayed by someone so close. To be a slave in the galley of a Roman military ship, your only existence to be a muscle for the Roman army. To be at your lowest point and encounter a loving presence – a local carpenter, no less — who goes out of his way to stop and give you a drink of water in your time of greatest need. To sit at the foot of the cross, with hatred and revenge raging in your heart, and witness Jesus’ final words and breaths.
Ben-Hur became something like a guided biblical meditation for me; that spiritual practice where you allow yourself to enter into the story with all of your senses – even becoming one of the characters, perhaps – and imagine what it must have been like, felt like; how you might have responded. The movie was alive for me in that way. The characters were rich and real for me, the place evocative of smells and sounds and tastes. The relationships messy, and fraught, and complex. And when Jesus (played so beautifully by Rodrigo Santoro) entered the scene, I felt as if I were Judah — broken, shackled, on the ground — and a deep tenderness welled up in me for what it must have been like to encounter someone so “other,” so fully “love.” I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be one of the first people to encounter Jesus and his mesmerizing, unusual presence and healing ministry. This film took me closer than anything I have ever seen.
Of course, the film also treats you to epic sea battles with awesome underwater crashes and an exciting, edge-of-your-seat, 11-minute long feverish chariot race. Lavish scenes at Judah’s wealthy estate situate you at a Jewish family dinner, and scenes of the countryside invite you to feel the wind whipping through your hair as you ride your horse, free and without a care in the world. The costumes, sets, and scenery left me all the richer for what the place felt, looked, an smelled like, not to mention what the Jewish-Roman culture clash must have felt like.
But it was that felt sense of place — and what it offered this particular pilgrim — that has stayed with me the most. I thoroughly enjoyed being taken back to the specific time in history in which Jesus was wandering the hillsides, touching people with his extraordinary kindness, healing, and words of forgiveness and life.
So give Ben-Hur a chance. But don’t go in with the eyes of critic. Go in with the eyes of the heart, with the eyes a pilgrim, of a time-traveler, and notice what comes up for you. What do you see, hear, feel? How do you respond? What is stirred in your heart? And finally, what invitation does the film offer you for your life today?