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The American Christ
He was a capitalist. He was an urban reformer. He was a country boy. He was “Comrade Jesus,” a hardworking socialist. He was the world’s first ad man. For a century and a half, novelists have been trying to recapture the “real” Jesus.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
Ben Hur, for all its fame, has many of the faults of its predecessor Julian: its melodramatic Victorian plot is full of unexplained gaps, and the story advances with the help of a series of wildly improbable coincidences and strokes of good fortune. Of these, perhaps the most noteworthy is that the hero, Judah Ben-Hur, has an unrivaled talent for acquiring wealth without working. He survives five years as a Roman galley slave, rescues his admiral in the heat of battle, and receives a fortune as a reward. He then travels to Antioch, where he discovers that the richest man in the world, Simonides, is none other than an old family slave. Moreover, Simonides has made the money not for himself but for his “young master,” and he begs to be allowed to serve as slave to the house of Hur once again, as does his comely daughter Esther (who ends the book as Mrs. Hur).
Wallace mixed high adventure with Christianity by having his chief character act as an alter ego to Jesus. Jesus makes contact with Ben Hur at crucial turning points in the book, once to save the hero from despair as he trudges to the galleys, later to cure Ben Hur’s mother and sister of their hideous leprosy, and finally at the crucifixion, when Ben Hur realizes that Jesus is dying in order that he and all other mortals might live. Between these brief but crucial appearances of Jesus, Ben Hur leads a vigorous and unreflective life. He wins a chariot race against his archenemy Messala, plots the overthrow of Rome by secretly training an army of Jewish malcontents, and almost falls into the clutches of a beautiful but treacherous Egyptian temptress.
While the ostensible theme of the book is that the temptation of worldly affairs is overcome in Christianity, Wallace actually revels in the worldly adventures of Ben Hur. His device for linking the stories of Ben Hur and Jesus together is to have Balthasar, one of the three wise men, appear throughout, giving voice to his religious speculations about the coming Messiah, who will teach a religious lesson that can unite the world. Wallace was not willing to take the chance that anyone might miss his didactic point, and after 250 pages of adventure tales, he paused to remind the reader of his religious purpose: “Our tale begins in point of date not less than fact, to trench close upon the opening of the ministry of the Son of Mary, whom we have seen but once since this same Balthasar left him worshipfully in his mother’s lap in the cave by Bethlehem. Henceforth to the end the mysterious Child will be a subject of continual reference; and slowly though surely the current of events with which we are dealing will bring us nearer and nearer to him, until finally we see a man—we would like, if armed contrariety of opinion would permit it, to add—A MAN WHOM THE WORLD COULD NOT DO WITHOUT....Before His time and since, there have been men indispensable to particular people and periods, but his indispensability was to the whole race, and for all time—a respect in which it is unique, solitary, divine.”
Some Americans of the 1880s still regarded novels as morally corrupting and refused to permit them into their homes. But as the reputation of Ben Hur spread, this book, with its blending of fiction and religious uplift, was admitted to homes previously free of novels. Wallace, in later years, said that the idea of making his novel a vindication of Christianity came to him after a chance encounter on a train with Robert Ingersoll, whose lecture tours in the late nineteenth century delighted freethinkers and scandalized the orthodox. It is remarkable to find that the atheist Ingersoll, no less than his Christian contemporaries, had a great deal to say about Jesus and that, like them, he found a Jesus rather like himself: “For the man Christ I have infinite respect...[and] to that great and serene man I gladly pay...the tribute of my admiration and my tears. He was a reformer in his time. He was regarded as a blasphemer and his life was destroyed by hypocrites, who have in all ages done what they could to trample freedom and manhood out of the human mind. Had I lived at that time, I would have been his friend, and should he come again he will not find a better friend than I will be.” Ingersoll recognized that it was not enough simply to discount the traditional religious interpretation of Jesus. Rather, in a society where Jesus was almost universally honored, he had to show how closely his own views and those of Jesus agreed. He, no less than his Christian rivals, was trying to lay claim to “the real Jesus.”