Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

The Gospel according to Lew
Ben-Hur, a historical novel by former Civil War general Lew Wallace, was published in 1880. The best-selling American novel of the 19th century, it combines a Count of Monte Cristo-esque revenge tale with a retelling of New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. Those who think they are familiar with the story from seeing the award-winning film adaptation will be surprised at how much Wallace focuses on the latter subject matter at the expense of the former. The book opens with an extensive rehash of the story of Christ’s birth, from the meeting of the Magi through the Nativity. Wallace loads his narrative with vivid descriptive details of the clothing, architecture, food, animals, and multicultural peoples of the Middle East. All this ethnographic and archaeological detail adds to the authenticity of the story. This realism is negated, however, by Wallace’s decision to pepper the book with supernatural phenomena, from choirs of angels to the miraculous healing of the sick.

Judah Ben-Hur is the son of a wealthy aristocratic Jewish family in Jerusalem, then part of the Roman Empire. A Roman boy named Messala is his closest childhood friend, but as the two reach manhood their differing races and faiths set them at odds with each other. When the Roman governor of Jerusalem is injured in an accident, Messala deliberately accuses Ben-Hur of an assassination plot. Ben-Hur is condemned to be a galley slave for life, and his mother and sister are taken away, he knows not where. While spending years in chains, he vows that someday he will have his freedom, reunite with his beloved family, and wreak his vengeance upon Messala.

Much like the Count of Monte Cristo, Ben-Hur is the beneficiary of a great deal of unbelievably good fortune and uncanny coincidence in his epic quest for retribution. Wallace attributes his hero’s dumb luck to the will of God. I prefer to think of it as romantic license on the part of the author, which can be forgiven for the sake of a good story. What can’t be forgiven, however, is the plodding pace with which Wallace proceeds through his narrative. The lead up to the climactic chariot race takes forever, and in the end one discovers it wasn’t really worth the wait after all. Ben-Hur’s love interest is a beautiful Egyptian temptress whose sole purpose is to spout interminably long folk tales and creation myths. Throughout the book Ben-Hur and his supporting cast engage in debate after debate about the nature of Christ and what his title of “King of the Jews” really signifies. The way Wallace weaves the life of Christ into Ben-Hur’s story is clever at first, but eventually the book just devolves into a nearly verbatim recitation of the Gospels, a story the reader has likely already heard.

It’s possible to write a historical novel dealing with religious and theological themes in a way that appeals to an audience beyond the devout. Henryk Sienkiewicz proved that with Quo Vadis. Wallace, on the other hand, is clearly preaching to the converted. The fictional story of Ben-Hur is an admirable creation, but it’s opaquely obscured by the heavy-handed application of Christian dogma. It’s hard to even find a moral lesson here, other than simply, “Believe in Christ.” Wallace could have used the story of Ben-Hur to make a powerful statement about forgiveness or redemption; instead, he just paraphrases scenes from the Bible. Thus, the more devoted you are to the Christian faith, the more likely you are to enjoy the book. Readers simply looking for an epic adventure of the ancient world would be better off turning to Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, or Gore Vidal’s Creation.
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