Saturday, August 27, 2011

Neglected classics: Ben Hur by Lew Wallace


Yes, you’ve seen the movie: you sat on the edge of your seat during the gruesome chariot race scene; you teared up when Charlton Heston’s mother and sister were healed; but have you ever read the book?

The story is that Lew Wallace was inspired to write Ben Hur after a train journey in the company of a well-known religious skeptic.  He was so ashamed of his ignorance of his own faith that he resolved to investigate the political, social and historical origins of Christianity.  The result became a best-selling novel whose reign of over fifty years (in the US) was only toppled by Gone With The Wind.

The novel’s centre is a classic revenge plot.  The Jew, Judah Ben Hur, is betrayed by a Roman childhood friend and sentenced to life as a galley slave.  When he finally escapes this fate, he returns to Jerusalem, where he is presumed dead, and embarks on a path of revenge, not just for his family, but for his people.  He is all too ready to embrace a Messiah; he has no need of a saviour…
A thread in the story I particularly enjoyed is a reimagining of the journeys of the Three Wise Men, and in particular, the lifelong quest of Balthasar to make sense of what he witnessed so many years ago.

Whatever your views about current Christian fiction, Ben Hur deserves credit for helping to soften clerical opposition to novels, and the early stage and screen versions tempted many American Christians to their first taste of these other media. 

I made my daughter read Ben Hur when we were homeschooling one semester in Slovenia.  She started off resenting it (and me), but by the end she had to admit to enjoying it.  I’m not claiming it’s a masterpiece of literature.  At times, I found this substantial novel pretty slow going, but at others I was gripped or fascinated.  If you’re interested in the stories of the Bible, you’ll find this an absorbing and refreshing alternative view of events surrounding the gospels.  If you homeschool, this is a great way to teach the history of the period (as I did).  And if you’re a writer of historical fiction, you may learn a thing or two about integrating fictional and real-life events—and a little more about standards of scholarship we could all do to emulate.

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