Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
Toothless Vampires and the Holy Grail
It is often suggested that John Milton's Paradise Lost is a better read than his Paradise Regained. It is easier to describe evil than goodness, easier to record the terrors of Hell than the beauty of Heaven; --so the suggestion goes. It is certainly true of Milton. Paradise Regained is somewhat bland and ponderous by comparison with the spine chilling descriptions that fill Paradise Lost.
Anne Rice has abandoned her literary penchant for hellish worlds in favor of the holy. No more fang-ridden gore from Rice--her 2003 Blood Canticle will be her last in that genre. Now she wants to live long enough to write a history of Jesus. Her latest novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt describes, in first-person monologist style, the life of Jesus as a seven year old boy who makes his way from Egypt to Nazareth via a tumultuous visit to Jerusalem during a brief Jewish uprising against Roman rule in 6 b.c. Right! The dates are all wrong, but more of that later.
The inevitable comparison with Mel Gibson's The Passion has already been made. Rice is particularly sensitive to the Jewish offence caused by The Passion and has tried to do something "different"--portray Jesus as Jewish: Judaism was the pervasive influence on Christianity, she insists.
Confession time: I have never read a single volume of the series of novels by Anne Rice, The Vampire Chronicles! Not one! I have seen them (their lurid covers, that is). It is impossible to avoid them--in the "best seller" sections of bookstores and devoured by passengers on airplanes. Titles like: Vitorrio, the Vampire, and Memnoch the Devil and the very first in this series, Interview with a Vampire--now a movie starring Tom Cruise (which I've also not seen. The devil meets Christian science!). I have to confess that one of these titles, Queen of the Damned, made me wonder if this was autobiographical of one of the best known novelists of the demonic of the past quarter century.
Twenty five novels in as many years!
Her first novel, Interview with a Vampire was written in 1973, the year after the death of her first daughter to leukemia shortly before her sixth birthday. She and her painter-poet husband, Stan Rice (a high-school sweetheart and described by Anne Rice as a "passionate atheist") had developed a serious problem with alcohol as a result of their daughter's decline in health. Stan Rice died in 2002 of a brain tumor. They have a son, Christopher, a New York Times best-selling author and "gay novelist" of such titles as Light Before Day and The Snow Garden (and no, I've not read these either).
The Vampire Chronicles are based on her memories of her childhood city, New Orleans. When she was the Grande Dame of New Orleans, she chose a six-foot coffin driven by a blacked our hearse to transport her through the city flanked by "personal undertakers." She left New Orleans in March to live, alone, in an $8 million mansion in La Jolla, two hours south of Los Angeles, just months before Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of it, though not her $3 million home (which she sold in 2004). She wrote much of her latest novel at night and is now attempting to acclimate to the "light hours" with the help of medication.
In 1998, Anne Rice, who had rejected her childhood Catholicism, asked a friend if she knew of a priest who would hear her confession and "help her back to the church." In a 15-page "Author's Note" at the end of Christ the Lord she explains her return to Catholicism, shaped as it had been with what she calls "flexible Catholics of some sophistication" of the New Orleans variety. What drew her back to God was the "great mystery" of "the survival of the Jews." "I couldn't understand how these people had endured as the great people who they were." She continues: "It was this mystery that drew me back to God. It set into motion the idea that there may in fact be God. And when that happened there grew in me for whatever reason an immense desire to return to the banquet table. In 1998 I went back to the Catholic Church" (p. 308-309).
Then in 2002, following periods of depression when she would read the Bible out loud to her self and her sister, she decided to give up everything to write a biography about Jesus. "I was ready to do violence to my career...Nothing else mattered. I consecrated the book to Christ" (p.309).
Interestingly, in the research that followed, she read Paula Fredriksen's Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews which is an attempt to recreate the Jewish milieu in which the boy Jesus might have lived. The book won the 1999 Jewish National Book Award. Rice explains how she studied the world of New Testament scholarship with its conflicting claims to the identity of Jesus (a liberal, married, father, homosexual). Depending on what she might discover, she contemplated having to compartmentalize her mind "with faith in one part of it, and truth in another." What she discovered is the incoherence, and inelegance of the skeptical argument. She discovered the prejudice of research methodology--something she somewhat naively sates she had not encountered before, or at least, not to the same degree.
John A. T. Robinson's Redating the New Testament which dropped a bombshell in 1975 on the academic world's insistence on late dating of the Gospels influenced her greatly, as did (interestingly enough for our readership) Ken Gentry--a former seminary class-mate of mine. Gentry's Before Jerusalem Fell (largely written to establish a coherent basis for a post-millennial interpretation of the New Testament, insisting that those passages which predict a negative scenario prior to the Second Coming are predictions of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 a.d.). Other names in a long list of acknowledgements include D. A. Carson and Craig Blomberg, Leon Morris and Larry Hurtado. Interestingly, she puts the name of C. H. Dodd right next to Carson's!
But it is N. T. Wright who has had the greatest influence on Rice:
"The scholar who has given me perhaps some of my most important insights and who continues to do so through his enormous output is N. T. Wright. N. T. Wright is one of the most brilliant writers I've ever read, and his generosity in embracing the skeptics and commenting on their arguments is an inspiration. His faith, is immense, and his knowledge vast" (p.318).
It is Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God that she singles out: "In his book The Resurrection of the Son of God he answers solidly the question that has haunted me all my life. Christianity achieved what it did, according to N. T. Wright, because Jesus rose from the dead... I can only recommend without reservation, and go on studying him" (p.318).
There are the questionable grid-lines with which she approaches a life of Jesus as a seven-year old boy: an interpretation of Philippians 2, that Jesus emptied himself "of his Divine awareness in order to suffer as a human being" (p.320); the Eastern rather than the Catholic or Protestant view of Jesus "brothers" and "sisters"--they were Joseph's children by a former marriage, whose mother died before his betrothal to Mary; Catholics have assumed them to be "cousins" and Protestant, who have not held to the doctrine of perpetual virginity, have argued that they were children of Mary and Joseph after the birth of Jesus; and the miracles recorded in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas which recount that the boy Jesus could strike a child dead, bring another to life, and turn clay birds into living creatures.
Rice dates the birth of Jesus in 11 b.c.. That makes it possible for Jesus to be in Jerusalem during the violent uprising that followed in the wake of the death of Herod the Great. The boy Jesus witnesses a considerable amount of Roman brutality on his fleeting visit to the city. Despite Rice's claims to Lukan-like research into the historical background, there is hardly a scholar who places the birth at this time.
The Gospels are almost silent on Jesus' childhood, giving Rice a wide berth to take certain liberties with her story. In the book, Jesus is taught in Alexandria by the Hellenistic philosopher Philo, which in turns allows for her Jesus to be fluent in Greek, something many historians doubt was the case.
Rice's Jesus is conflicted and confused. Heavily protected by Joseph who intervenes to ensure Jesus is not told the reason why they left Jerusalem, or the manner of his birth. Jesus is a dutiful son who gradually comes to terms with what he first only senses--that he is the Son of God. The Gospels are silent about these years, Luke telling us that he "grew and became strong" and "was filled with wisdom" (Luke 2:40). That Jesus was always fully divine and fully human is a fundamental point of Christological orthodoxy, even though the self-consciousness on the part of Jesus as to his divine identity is a matter which Scripture does not elaborate upon with any detail. The problem she faces as an author is the mind of a seven year old is limited terrain to draw material that allures and entices.
Christ the Lord is the first in a series of volumes. Rice already has the next volume mostly written, if we are to believe the hype. Are we to expect The Jesus Chronicles over the next twenty five years? One thing is sure, Rice's Jesus is a reflection of her spirituality--a spirituality that is both contemporary and accommodating. In these days of blogging, the author herself can be found expanding on her views with the public:
Among the entries (a dismissal of the Da Vinci Code and the proponents of the Jesus Seminar, as well as several entries on "gay Christians") are the following:
"I continue to be a Catholic because I profoundly respect the unbroken 2000 year old tradition of teachings, scholarship, and the ongoing revelations of the saints. But I think what is important in this world is that you go with the religion that brings you closest to God. Howard Storm the mystic said this actually. When he was in Heaven with the angels, he asked them: What is the best religion? And they said, 'The one that brings you closest to God.'"
"The dark books reached people who maybe couldn't be reached any other way. They write to me about reading the books in Rehab, or in dark times in their lives; they respond to the moral urgency, the conscience of the books. I'm grateful. Nothing for me is half way; nothing is not without commitment. Christ the Lord will speak to others, others for whom the darker paths were too off putting. Christ the Lord is the Jesus of faith, but Jesus made "real" as we insist on characters being made real today in fiction -- so that we can see the sweat on the brow, smell the dust of the road, grasp what it meant to be in the very middle of that character's mind. Christ is for everyone -- gay, straight, Jew, Christian, athiest, (sic) Buddhist, Hindu. We are the children of God. It's so simple, sublimely simple, this commitment. Make the book; make them believe in Him; make Him real. Nothing can stop me from pursuing this, from seeing it through. It feels good to be that free, no matter how shap (sic) are the knives waiting to cut the book and me to pieces. Doesn't matter. The readers will make up their own minds. Take care and love in Christ, Anne Rice."
All in all then, an interesting read that serves, in the end, an agenda of historical deconstruction. Anne Rice's Jesus is accepting of all, tolerant of everyone--even vampires? There is, thankfully, little scope to elaborate on the inner struggles of a seven year old, but the aleatoric scope for a novelist describing the inner struggles of a pubescent adolescent is troubling. But get ready, it is on its way.
 Fredriksen studied ancient Christianity at Wellesley College, Oxford University, and Princeton University and has taught at Stanford, Berkeley, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and is currently the Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University. A specialist in Christian origins, ancient Jewish/Gentile relations, and late Latin biblical interpretation, she is the author of various studies on Jesus, Paul, and Augustine. Rice's view of Jesus is, of course, a "polar opposite" position of Fredriksen's.
Ann Rice / New York: Knopf, 2005
Review by Derek Thomas