The Author and the Atheist | Connecting with Culture
If you were heading to the cinema this weekend 60 years ago, there’s a good chance you would have seen MGM’s latest blockbuster, starring Charlton Heston. This epic film won a record 11 Oscars, and the nail-biting chariot race remains one of the most famous scenes in movie history.
It was, of course, Ben Hur, based on the nineteenth century novel by Lew Wallace. The book begins with a desert encounter between three great sages from the Greek, Hindu, and Egyptian worlds. Each recounted how he had sought for true wisdom through the teachings of his civilisation, but was left unsatisfied.
The Greek had grasped two great insights from his philosophers: the doctrine of the soul and the existence of one God, who is infinitely just. But he could not fathom how the two were connected.
The Hindu Brahmin also sought the link between God and the soul, and after many years of searching discovered what it was: love. Yet as he tried to express love in kindness to others, he broke the sacred rules of caste and was exiled.
The Egyptian’s story built on the other two: convinced that God and the soul were eternal, he realised that there is an ultimate right and wrong, and that heaven is the reward for a virtuous life. He preached this message to his polytheistic race, but they rejected the truth. His conclusion was that God alone could turn the world back to the path of life – by becoming a man!
Thus the three magi met, and followed the star to Jerusalem to seek the new-born King.
This hidden jewel opens the fictional story of Ben Hur. Yet there is another story behind the writing of this novel. On a train journey in 1876, Lew Wallace met the renowned atheist Robert Ingersoll. Although he was a nominal Christian, Wallace had no answers to Ingersoll’s fiery rhetoric; this disturbed him so profoundly that he resolved to find some answers.
His research into the biblical accounts led not only to his own spiritual conversion, but it also provided the source material for Ben Hur – the book which helped revive interest in Christianity across America in the following decades.
Many may still scoff at the nativity story, but honest conversations about the deeper questions of life remain as important as ever. Grappling with difficult challenges produced a jewel in Wallace’s life; may it do the same in ours.
Jonathan is director of the Jubilee Centre, which connects the Bible to issues in public life.