Mary's Reviews > Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace
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it was amazing

The first thing I want to address is the “speed” of this book. I first read this book in the fall or winter of 1971, and at that time, as a high school senior, I was well-accustomed to reading Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and all those other authors of the Victorian era (and before!) Back then, I read one Shakespeare play every year for high school English literature (with support from my friends and the teacher!), and had even slogged through the assigned portions of Beowulf. That said….in 1971, I was just awestruck…. dumbfounded…. enthralled by the book Ben Hur on so many levels. It was one of the foundational books of my adolescence. I tried to pick the book up again in 2011, 40 years later, and found it to be much harder to “get into.” By this time, I’d seen the 1959 version twice, and had even seen the 1925 version twice. (Incidentally, some critics say the 1925 chariot race is superior to the 1959 version, because of some of the heroic camera shots and stuntmen of the 1920s. Check it out for yourself.)

So I’ve completed Ben Hur again now, with the help of “Audible books.” My point about the “speed” of this book, is that we have all succumbed to the fast pace of Sesame Street. In this fast-moving era, we can no longer tolerate pausing for a moment in the story to feel the breeze, observe the delicate nuances of facial expressions and well-chosen words, smell the gardens, marvel at the stars, understand enough history of a childhood friendship to be able to comprehend the incomprehensible betrayal of that childhood friend, absorb the emotion of innocent women incarcerated in a jail cell known to be infected with leprosy…. and to read long enough to fully be able to empathize with the women who are coping with the long-term symptoms of leprosy as they mentally prepare for death from the disease. I’m ready to go back & pull out my nursing textbooks to brush up on signs/symptoms/treatment of leprosy!

Well, so, I had an uncomfortable feeling that my life has accelerated enough in the last 40 years, that the style of Ben Hur’s author has become probably 4X as difficult for me to read, as it was when I was 17 and well-used to reading classics of the 1700s and 1800s. This makes me feel some shame! No wonder we get Alzheimer’s! I’m well on my way!

OK. Enough of that.
The plot of this book is earthy, emotional, spiritual, exciting…. just watch 1959 and 1925! All the elements of a fast-moving plot squeezed into 90 – 120 minutes!
But I think some of us have ignored the philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions posed and addressed in the book. Some of the Victorian descriptions are begging us to slow down first, and then take time to pick up and ponder the weighty questions of man’s existence, and God’s slow unfolding of His passionate pursuit and redemption of man throughout history.

This is the book that untimately led me to firm faith in Christ. The book I read in 1971: it was a version printed in 1901, given to my Grandpa as a high school graduation gift, illustrated with photographs of actors on a stage in New York City. At the time of this printing, the author/Union general/Governor Lew Wallace was still alive. He insisted that if this book were to be portrayed onstage, that no human was capable of playing the part of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Christ was to be represented as a light shining into the midst of the actors. (This is another indictment of our age. In 1901, even the Broadway producers could be persuaded that Jesus Christ was too holy to be represented by a human actor.)

You undoubtedly know the story from the Paul Newman movie. Slow down your life for a couple of hours every day, and soak in this book. Take time to understand the viewpoints of Ben Hur’s associates…. that baby who had such an unusual birth, attended by one incredibly bright star, a chorus of angels in the sky, a rush of shepherds to the “postpartum-recovery room,” the arrival of mysterious Wise Men from the East…. Was he to be a Savior of the eternal souls of man? Was he to be a victorious King of Israel forever? Was he to be both? And if so, how COULD he be both? And…. was He GOD?!
Take time to feel with Judah Ben Hur the thirst for revenge…. His enemy (his childhood playmate) twisted an accusation to condemn his widowed mother, his sweet little sister, and Ben Hur himself to incarceration, slave labor in a galley ship, and inevitable death…. Of COURSE Judah Ben Hur wanted to overcome that enemy publicly! Maybe even death in a chariot race! And the search for his lost mother and sister that led him to the leper colony outside the city. (Wouldn’t you want to kill the bastard?! He deserved to die for his flippant accusation of the Hur family!)
And the restored fortune of Judah Ben Hur himself…. How to use it for the promised Messiah of Israel? This Jesus is a poor man. He does not lead an army. What better use of a fortune, than to devote it to the heir of King David?! This man who restores sight to blind men, and heals lepers…. Surely this is the man God promised to restore the eternal throne of David. And Judah Ben Hur could be in on the ground floor!

And the two women who were attracted to/by Judah Ben Hur. Which was most exciting? Which was most pure? Which was most beautiful? Which would be the best choice for Ben Hur as a lifelong companion? (See what I mean? This is an EXCITING book! And you need the time to sit back from the action to ponder the fathom-deep philosophical & spiritual questions posed in the midst of this book!) This book was the best-selling novel of the whole 19th century…. it surpassed Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To this day, “Ben Hur” has never been out of print. This is an exceptionally significant book, in terms of literary history.

All I can say now, is that it’s written in a different style than we’re used to. Over the years, we’ve gradually become used to RUN, Sally RUN! (faster, faster, faster!) and have drifted away from an afternoon playing a board game with the family with a pitcher of iced tea on the porch. Just look at the previous reviews…. good movie, but the book is weighted down with descriptions & philosophical questions. I would encourage you to tighten up your belt, squeeze on your thinking cap if you can find it, and wade into this book like you KNOW you can conquer the distance in years. Because….. if I can do it, you can easily do it! Take some time to lay the book down when the questions get too heavy, and just THINK about it for a while. While you’re shoveling snow or mowing grass or driving the kids to soccer. Think about the questions Ben Hur and Simonides and Balthazar are wrestling with. Or think about the injustice Ben Hur’s mother and sister are living and dying with. Because these questions and issues are the same ones we have, while we’re cheering Sally to “Run, Sally, Run. Gee, Sally, can’t you run any FASTER?!”

This book takes fight and determination to read, for those of us born in the 20th century. It isn’t written for a lazy reader of Harlequin romances. It’s written for someone who wants to develop teeth and the digestion to read a book you have to churn a bit. Lew Wallace, who wrote this book, was a general with the Union army during the Civil War…. he witnessed some of the bloodiest battles this nation ever saw, and wrestled with the weightiest spiritual reasons for fighting a war…. the value of a slave’s soul and being. He struggled for most of his life with having been blamed unjustly and unfairly for the direction the battle of Shiloh took. He later served as governor of New Mexico during a time of violence and political corruption…. had to wrestle with justice versus forgiveness. He had negotiated a contract of forgiveness with the outlaw Billy the Kid, and wrestled with “the powers that be” to try to deliver this pardon, even though he was living in a world of politicians. This author was not a shallow man, and when this book was written in 1880, it undoubtedly presented the dilemmas he’d wrestled during this difficult period of American history. I think he presents these stories & concepts in a poetically beautiful manner, and a spiritually cleansing manner. Although the literary style is different from what we’ve become accustomed to, the concepts and questions are cutting edge.

Weight Watchers isn’t easy. Curves isn’t easy. 5K’s aren’t easy. Marathons aren’t easy. You can sit on the couch and watch reruns on Me TV. You can read through a Harlequin romance in a couple of days. Or you can determine to train your mind and spirit, and read one of the BEST BOOKS you’ll ever read. Although it was harder to tackle at age 60 than it was when I was 17, this is still one of the very best books I’ve ever had the privilege to read. I still have my 1901 edition, and it is one of my most highly-treasured heirlooms. But my recorded version of Ben Hur is something I want to burn to CD to share with my kids, grandkids, descendants. It is truly one of the most significant books I’ve EVER read. Or listened to.

Tackle it!
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Reading Progress

November 11, 2013 – Started Reading
November 11, 2013 – Shelved
November 11, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
November 15, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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Joanne Heim Great review! I was about to give up, but will persevere sfter all!

Mary :-D (Can you tell I loved it?!)

Joanne Heim Yes. I finished it because of your review. So glad i did. And thatthe pace picked up!

Marci I sooooo agree with your entire review! I have a first edition that was my great-grandmother's and I read it first in 1967. You and I are almost the same age (I must be a year younger) and I had the very same reaction. I read the same books you did as an adolescent, but this one came first. I still love reading the slow books!

Mary I guess I got a little wordy, Joanne & Marci, and I am so sorry about that. But this is probably the most important book I've ever read.
I need to update my "goodreads." Just finished a bio of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, and it was also phenomenal.
Yes, Marci, I too love the "slow" books. Have been going back to the classics in my "old age" (ha ha), and it never ceases to amaze me how good these books are. Except -- that's why we call them classics!
Loved Ben Hur. Now that I have it on Recorded Books, I've listened to it several times in the car, and find it an extra-good use of time! There are "classics," and there are "CLASSICS!"

Adri Fantastic review with which I have to agree wholeheartedly.

Patrick Just finished reading historical novel (Blaze of Glory) relating the horrendous battles at Shiloh, including the exploits of Gen. Lew Wallace. I was very surprised to learn from author Jeff Shaara's "Afterword" that Wallace went on to be Governor of New Mexico, U.S. Minister to Turkey, and, greatest surprise, author of "Ben-Hur." What an amazing man. And now, thanks to Mary's insightful review, "Ben-Hur" is moved to my "must read" list. Thank you,Mary!

message 8: by Louis (new) - added it

Louis  Arroyo Ben Hur is definitely on my to do list. And I totally agree with your review, somethings are meant to be savored rather than rushed through. Last year I finished War and Peace and it was huge investment of time and energy... and it was worth it. Of course, I don't recommend that anyone slog through a book they absolutely don't like (I did that with Atlas Shrugged), however, I would suggest keep an open mind. Anyway, thank you for the review ... I need to see if I can find a copy of the 1901 edition you mentioned.

message 9: by Sue (new)

Sue Your review is fantastic. I will confess that while I knew this was a movie (and will embarrassingly confess I haven't seen it... yet), I didn't realize it was a book. An ad for the remade movie as well as the time of year prompted me to look it up. Thanks to your review, I'm heading back to Amazon to purchase it and read it!

message 10: by Tiffany (new) - added it

Tiffany Wow this totally makes me want to pick this up now!

message 11: by Andreea (new) - added it

Andreea Covaleov What a great review! I will definitely read the book!
Thank you!

message 12: by Zizi (new) - rated it 5 stars

Zizi Excellent review

message 13: by David (new)

David Gustafson Wonderful review putting this book in its proper time frame. Your capsule bio of Wallace helps bring modern readers up to speed with the thought and language of a bygone America and its Judeo-Christian roots.

Michael Goldfuss Thank you for this review! I had some of the same thoughts. I'm only 22 now but I was able to read this way easier when I was 14 than I am now, and I think that is because of how paced and spontaneous our society has become. Good thoughts!

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