Columnists > Soul Food

Ben-Hur, culture warrior

The story behind the story of an Easter-season classic

Issue: "Gagged by Tolerance," March 22, 1997

It seems that every year one of the television networks broadcasts Ben-Hur during the Easter season. The showing has become a tradition that would have astounded its author, the Civil War general Lew Wallace.

Mr. Wallace didn't set out to write a bestseller. He was a novelist writing a novel about the Middle East. But the story took a turn when Wallace heard his political friend Robert Ingersoll, also a Civil War veteran, explain in 1876 that he wanted to convert the nation to atheism. Mr. Ingersoll was a popular speaker, the Colin Powell of his day. He was articulate, politically influential, and he might have swayed the nation, at least at top leadership levels, because he seemed to offer a respectable, progressive notion that reflected liberal theological trends of the time. Mr. Wallace was disturbed by Mr. Ingersoll's words and ashamed of his own ignorance of Jesus Christ and his lack of conviction on what he knew was a vital issue.

Mr. Wallace decided to be like the Bereans, who examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Mr. Wallace's research into Christ's life was timely. He decided to bring Christ into his novel, but not as the central character. He also wanted to contrast the Jewish and Roman cultures of the time. So he set to work studying Christ's life, reading Josephus, Edward Gibbon, and others.

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His research bore double fruit. It led to his conversion to Christ. "Long before I was through with my book, I became a believer in God and Christ," Mr. Wallace explained. It also led to Ben-Hur, first published in 1880.

The book was used, humanly speaking, to set back the Ingersoll campaign for atheism. It had a strong impact on leading political figures, helping them appreciate the gospel message. According to Irving McKee, a Wallace biographer,"Thousands upon thousands of Americans--male and female, adolescent and senescent, foolish and wise, poor and rich--were reading Ben-Hur, living Ben-Hur, remembering Ben-Hur."

Former President U.S. Grant, who had not read a novel for 10 years, stayed up for 30 hours reading the book. President James Garfield thought the book was so important that he sent Mr. Wallace to Turkey as ambassador, urging him to write more novels to benefit the nation. President Garfield wrote a letter recommending Ben-Hur, and it was included in a special edition of the novel.

God also used the novel in the lives of ordinary folks. George Parrish, a drunkard in the YMCA in Kewanee, Ill., wrote, "It brought Christ home to me as nothing else could." The novel inspired missionaries to their callings. It brought the story of Christ to a huge popular audience. It was the best-selling novel of the century, running ahead of the equally influential Uncle Tom's Cabin.

By 1912, Harper's had sold 1 million copies of Ben-Hur in the United States alone. New editions continue to be published, and it is one of those rare century-old books that never has gone out of print.

The novel became the basis for a stage play, something Mr. Wallace resisted for several years. He finally agreed to a dramatic version, with the stipulation that Jesus' face and figure would not be portrayed.

After the author's death, the book resulted in a 1930s movie, then a new movie starring Charlton Heston in the late 1950s, which popularized the story in an even more dramatic way. The film led many people to read the novel, but it has regrettably drawn some attention away from the excellence of the novel itself. Most people remember Hollywood's spectacular rendition of the chariot race, but the novel's message goes much deeper than a race.

This year, as you watch Ben-Hur and enjoy the glories of Hollywood filmmaking, don't let your appreciation stop there. For the novel's history displays the importance of bringing Christian ideas to a staggering society. It should remind us that culture wars are not primarily won at the ballot box. In fact, what happens in elections often reflects what already is developing in hearts and minds influenced by books like Ben-Hur.

Mr. Pulliam is editor of the Indianapolis News.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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