Comes again, another novel on the lost years of Jesus.Sad to report this turkey doesn’t fly.
For decades, Anne Rice has been known as the queen of the Vampire novels. The New Orleans-born writer tapped into a deep mother lode of cultural confusion and arcane spirituality with her vampire character, Lestat. The latter was the hero of numerous gothic novels, which found a huge audience among many people. As well, Rice wrote a few pornographic novels under two different pen names. Then she gave it all up. Beset by crippling illnesses and the death of her husband of 40 years, the lapsed Catholic stunned the popular literary world by turning her attention to the greatest story ever told, that of Jesus.
“I was ready to do violence to my career,” she writes in the afterward of her latest novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. “Nothing else mattered. I consecrated my life to and my work to Christ.”
Rice initially broke with the Catholicism of her youth when she married Stan Rice, who was a passionate atheist. In an extensive interview with CNT, Rice described herself during this period as being “lost in a world without light.” She knew no one at her San Francisco college for whom religion played a significant role in their lives. Looking back on this full immersion in secular pursuits, she says it reflected her quest for meaning in a world without God. “The secular materialist view of life predominated.”
A voracious reader, Rice first found herself researching early Rome for a novel and this led her to early Christianity and Judaism. How had the Jews survived? she wondered. It was this mystery that drew her back to God, and with the help of some “flexible Catholics of some sophistication,” she returned to Catholicism. Focusing on Jesus and the evolution of Christianity, Rice then dove into New Testament scholarship, much of which was contradictory, she admits. Rice, however, did appreciate the Jewish milieu of Jesus as outlined in Paula Frederiksen’s Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
In Christ the Lord, Jesus is a seven-year-old living in Alexandria, Egypt, where the holy family has fled to escape the wrath of the mad King Herod. We follow the precocious lad as the family returns to Jerusalem and the riotous days of Passover. He then finds himself in his hometown of Nazareth, encountering the local Pharisees. The novel follows him over the course of a year attempting to make sense of his life and the strange circumstances of his birth.
Rice comes across as very natural and delightful. Her sincerity is unquestionable. I do not believe for a minute she is attempting to cash in on the post-Gibson fundamentalist boom in popular religiosity. But this novel is fatally flawed in almost every way save the fine historical background material.
Rice begins with the famous incident in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, when Jesus the boy, angry at a playmate, strikes him dead. “Jesus killed Eleazer. Jesus cursed him and he fell down dead, says his older brother James.” It appears that James was also privy to the time that Jesus made sparrows out of clay and they proceeded to fly away.
What are we to make of this? To build a novel on the idea that Jesus is a super human dynamo with God-like power oozing out of him even as a youth, is to trivialize the flights of fancy in the apocryphal Gospels. No scripture scholar takes these events seriously as historical incidents in the hidden life of Jesus. Also, the idea that Jesus lived in Alexandria, while acceptable as a novelistic conceit, is simply a piece of Matthean midrash.
A well-known literary device of antiquity, midrash serves to illustrate a theological point. In this case, one greater than Moses, Jesus the Christ, is also coming out of Egypt. Later in the story, the young Jesus became obsessed with the equally midrashic, celestial gymnastics at the time of his birth. Rice also had Mary saying, “the Holy Spirit would come over me. It said the Holy Child born from me would be the Son of God …” Rice apparently accepted all of this as historical, and in this way turns the gospels into something that they simply are not. She justified this by saying, “Assuming that Jesus did have these magical powers at an early age, I am somehow being true to the declaration of the Council of Chalcedon that Jesus was God and man at all times.”
Again, Rice seemed to wave the prodigious, biblical scholarship, which takes us beyond Chalcedon and Hellenistic thought categories in the understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Nevertheless, the author is adamant. “This is the Jesus I believe in. What was it like to have a virgin mother? I just plunge in. If she saw an angel, maybe people will whisper. Maybe they won’t let him into synagogues. My whole approach is to make literal what we say in the classical story. The challenge was to take it all on. Yes, I believe it.”
This novel does little to further insights into the historical Jesus. It is both clumsy and cartoonish, having more in common with Batman and Spiderman than with the humanity Jesus obviously shared with us. A much more serious attempt at the life of Jesus is Nino Ricci’s overlooked Testament, a novel that is greatly superior to Rice’s own work.
Despite her literalist, literary assumptions, though, she is certainly not conservative in her attitudes toward the church of her homecoming. Having a son who is a gay activist may account for some of her thinking.
“I’m a Catholic through and through and I am very aware that this is an authoritarian religion. There’s not much of a warm welcome to anybody who is a critic. I can only dream that it will change. I keep hoping Pope Benedict will surprise us. I hope before I die I will see women in the priesthood, gays in the mainstream and celibacy being optional for priests. Imagine what it would be like tomorrow if these were to be proclaimed. There would be a huge resurgence of energy and the churches would be full.”
As a person, Anne Rice is impossible to dislike, but those looking for illumination about Jesus in the lost years will have to wait for another writer. In the interim, Ricci’s Testament is worth a read.
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