BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST
“It is more beautiful to trust in God. The beautiful in this world is all from his hand, declaring the perfection of taste; he is the author of all form; he clothes the lily, he colours the rose, he distils the dewdrop, he makes the music of nature; in a word, he organized us for this life, and imposed its conditions; and they are such guaranty to me that, trustful as a little child, I leave to him the organization of my Soul, and every arrangement for the life after death. I know he loves me.”
2 Corinthians 10:17-18
But he who boasts, let him boast in the Lord. For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.
The Battle of Shiloh was fought on this day in 1862. It lasted for two days and was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War. Union forces ultimately prevailed but it’s hard to call a winner with staggering mutual casualties. Thirty-four year old General Lew Wallace didn’t die but his reputation did. He led what came to be known as “The Lost Division” because they marched around away from the fighting for most of the battle due to unclear orders from General Grant. Wallace was relieved of his command and he spent the next twenty years under the cloud of a ruined reputation. During this dark, long chapter in his life, he found both Christ and his calling as a writer. His 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a huge success and his reputation was more than restored.
Ben-Hur is considered the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century. The 1959 movie won eleven Academy Awards in 1960 and Wallace’s book’s sales surpassed Gone with the Wind. When it comes to rebuilding reputations, no one surpasses the Lord.
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
D I G D E E P E R
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
BEN-HUR, historical novel by Lewis Wallace, published in 1880 and widely translated. It depicts the oppressive Roman occupation of ancient Palestine and the origins of Christianity.
The Jew Judah Ben-Hur is wrongly accused by his former friend, the Roman Messala, of attempting to kill a Roman official. He is sent to be a slave, and his mother and sister are imprisoned. Years later he returns, wins a chariot race against Messala, and is reunited with his now leprous mother and sister. The mother and sister are cured on the day of the Crucifixion, and the family is converted to Christianity.
BEN-HUR was made into an American dramatic film, released in 1959, that was arguably the best of Hollywood’s biblical epics. In addition to being a huge commercial success, it set a record for most Academy Award wins (11).
The story traces the plight of Judah Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston), a young Jewish prince from an influential family. As the film opens, he is reunited with his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who is now a Roman tribune exerting great control over Jerusalem. The two men enjoy reliving old times, but when Messala asks Ben-Hur to help stem the increasing number of protests by Jews against Roman rule, Ben-Hur declines. The resulting rift boils over when an accident leads to Ben-Hur’s being accused of trying to kill a Roman official. Although Messala knows that Ben-Hur is innocent, he allows him to be convicted of the crime; Ben-Hur’s mother and sister are imprisoned. Ben-Hur is made a slave on a Roman galley, and during a fierce battle, his ship sinks. He manages to save a high-ranking Roman official, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who shows his gratitude by adopting him. Ben-Hur begins competing in deadly chariot races, and he gains fame for his courage and skill. During this time, he searches for his mother and sister and is told that they are dead.
Seeking revenge, Ben-Hur agrees to face Messala in a chariot race. The contest is particularly grueling, but Ben-Hur emerges victorious. Messala, however, is mortally wounded, and with his dying words, he informs Ben-Hur that his beloved mother and sister are actually in a leper colony. During his quest to save his family, Ben-Hur, who has found Jesus Christ to be an inspiration in his life, witnesses the crucifixion. Soon thereafter, both his mother and sister are cured of leprosy. The movie received 12 Oscar nominations and won 11 statuettes, a number that, over the following 50 years, would be equaled only by Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
Wallace, Lewis (“Lew”) (1827–1905). Religious author. The son of a governor of Indiana, Wallace served in the Mexican War before practicing law and serving in the Indiana State Senate. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he re-enlisted, was soon promoted to Major-General, and in 1864 at Monocacy he prevented Confederate General Jubal A. Early from completing his advance on Washington. After the war, he practiced law, was ambassador to Turkey and served as the governor of New Mexico.
Ben Hur (1880), his second novel, was conceived while Wallace was on a train arguing with the famous agnostic Robert Ingersoll about the deity of Christ. Though he wrote six other books, Ben Hur was by far his most popular, selling 300,000 copies in ten years. His credible but romantic depiction of the events surrounding the Gospel narratives appealed to the popular imagination and made him perhaps the best-selling religious author in the America of his day, though he was never a member of any church.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. DAB X; L. Wallace, Lew Wallace: An Autobiography (1906).
Daniel G. Reid et al., Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).