A question for those of you who are quarantined or largely self-isolated: Have you learned anything significant yet?
We’re still in the early stages of a new, more circumscribed daily life, but I suspect millions of you already have been struck by how blessed we have been to have had the freedom to come and go as we wish.
Liberty is indeed precious. We tend to take it for granted, but now that it has been curtailed, whether by external order or internal choice, I suspect we Americans will exit the pandemic mode with a renewed zeal for and appreciation of the central importance of individual sovereignty for our sense of fulfillment, happiness, and self-realization.
Isolation provides us with the opportunity for introspection and reflection. What is truly important to us? What makes life meaningful? Have we done a satisfactory job of staying in touch with family and friends?
I have enjoyed talking via long distance with more dear ones already this month than in many previous months, and it has been a treat. At the same time, I couldn’t help but detect an underlying sense that many of us already are feeling stir crazy—particularly those who aren’t raising children or working from home at a job. The challenge becomes: How to fill one’s hours with worthwhile activities—activities that amount to more than just killing time.
Each of us will have to find our own answers to that challenge. For some of you, the feeling of time well spent will be the result of reading a book or watching a movie that speaks to your heart and mind. Most books and movies provide little more than mild diversion—pleasant perhaps, but superficial and forgettable.
Every now and then, however, a story told in a book or on film transcends the ordinary, uplifts one’s spirits, impacts one’s life, and—the ultimate achievement—affects our way of looking at the world.
One such movie will be televised this Sunday, Easter. As they tend to do every Easter, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will broadcast the 1959 version of “Ben-Hur.” The broadcast of this nearly four-hour epic, winner of 11 Academy Awards, starts at noon. This classic certainly occupies a place in the pantheon of Top Ten all-time greatest movies. It should prove especially meaningful during this year of the CCP virus, even if you have seen it before.
Most people think of “Ben-Hur” as a classic good guy/bad guy conflict. That is accurate, but falls far short of doing justice to the movie. And what triggered the conflict between the prosperous Jewish citizen, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), and his close childhood friend, the ambitious Roman, Messala (Stephen Boyd)? Politics, of course. How much more contemporary can you get?
“Ben-Hur” is also particularly relevant to today because it’s a story of an innocent family whose happy lives are suddenly and unfairly taken from them. That certainly describes thousands of Americans who have been victimized by the virus.
What I find most interesting is that most Americans have forgotten that there’s another significant character in the story. In fact, that character is mentioned in the full title of the movie, but it seems that 9 out of 10 Americans—even Christian professors who are friends of mine—are unaware that the full title of this classic is “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”
Yes, Jesus of Nazareth enters into the plot, and is seen (though never heard—he has no lines) at several points throughout the movie. The fact that the movie starts with Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem and that the climax of the plot is his crucifixion would seemingly make it impossible for viewers not to recognize his role in this story, yet many miss the connection.
Perhaps this blind spot is due to a couple of factors: First, since TCM usually starts the broadcast at noon, by the time people get home from church, they’ve missed the first half-hour or hour. Second, the famous chariot scene is so memorable that people have come to view it as the climax of the movie instead of the more impactful event that follows, perhaps even tuning out the last half-hour, which is the most glorious segment of the movie.
The history of “Ben-Hur” is worth mentioning. First published as a novel by Lew Wallace, “it outsold every book except the Bible until Gone With the Wind came out,” according to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Despite not being published until 1880, “Ben-Hur”—not “Moby Dick,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” or “The Scarlet Letter”—was “the number one best-selling work of fiction of the 19th century in the United States,” according to an op-ed in the Christian Post.
Wallace himself was a fascinating historical figure—Civil War general, governor of New Mexico, ambassador to Turkey. He was a renaissance man who believed that “the true American” should produce art, music, literature, and invention. True to his own standards, Wallace “made and played his own violins, sketched and painted with skill, and held eight patents,” according to the National Endowment for the Humanities, and he wrote several other books in addition to his masterpiece.
“Ben-Hur” speaks to Christians with its inspiring portrayal of God’s mercy and the promise of redemption and salvation. But the movie can also prompt the non-Christian to contemplate questions such as whether there is a spiritual dimension to life that offers surcease and deliverance from earthly woes and whether love and forgiveness are possible (or necessary?) in this sometimes-grim world of ours.
Regardless of the spiritual dimension, “Ben-Hur” tells a gripping story with the utmost skill and cinematic wizardry. We all will probably be stuck with some dreary down-time during the health crisis, but this Sunday at noon you have the opportunity to enjoy four splendid hours in a mental realm where you will temporarily forget about your isolation.
Whatever you may choose to do, may you find it satisfying and worthwhile.
Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.