I have been a fan of Anne Rice since I did an exchange to La Rochelle, France, eight years ago and reluctantly began to read The Vampire Lestat because it was one of the few books in English at the local public library and I needed an English language fix. I was at first put off by the simplistic and colloquial register (I was used to more descriptive and sophisticated prose) but was quickly sucked in by the atmosphere, the sensuality of the writing and the incomparable sense of historical milieu. Anne Rice has a way of writing that engages all the senses and thereby immerses you in the story. Moreover, Rice has an acute historical sense; fascinated by what other times not just looked like but felt like- how did people think and feel then; how and in what terms did they interpret their experiences, etc? She can capture the mentality and mood of a period like few others. And of course vampires are always fun.
It is difficult to read any of Rice's books without realising that she likes to ask and think about the deeper things. Whether it's Louis meditating on his alienation or Lestat disproving to himself the existence of God in a quintessentially Enlightenment-esque manner, issues of philosophy and religion are constantly bubbling under the surface and often poke their way through. So when I heard that Anne Rice had come to faith in Christ and had been reconciled with the Church, I was both surprised and delighted, but not entirely shocked.
Rice's first novel after her coming to faith is "Christ the Lord-Out of Egypt". It has been out for a while and I bought a copy about a year ago, but I only started reading it last month. I finished it just before the weekend, and thought to share some impressions.
Before doing that, however, a preliminary comment or two. In the same volume as the novel itself, Rice includes a short testimony to explain why she has written the book and how she has come to be where she presently is. This is an account which is very moving, and it forever dispelled any doubts that I had that her conversion might have been a publicity stunt or some kind of ephemeral self-realisation thing. She describes beautifully how she came to a point where all the issues she had with Christian beliefs (and there are several, mostly relating to feminism and homosexuality) could be surrendered to Jesus Christ because, even if she didn't know the answers or didn't understand why Christ's Church teaches what it does, He knew and understood- and He loved the people who were affected by these issues and was holding them, as it were, in His Hands. Here is genuine faith. Beautiful.
She also describes interesting points along her journey, such as coming to the realisation that most liberal scholars don't actually like Jesus and that this building a career on writing about someone for whom one's habitual stance is a sneer was utterly unprecedented in any scholarship on other historical persons; or her coming to believe the Gospels and Acts must be dated early because they don't incorporate an account of the Fall of Jerusalem, and that most scholars have not really grappled with why that is.
Now, to come to the novel itself:
1) The first thing one notices about it is that it is written in the first person from Jesus' point of view. I was extremely sceptical about how this would work when I started. How can you get inside the head of the God-man? I was reassured somewhat by Rice's firm statement at the beginning that the novel is written from a firm belief in the Hypostatic Union and is intended to express the reality of that doctrine. But I was still sceptical. Having finished the book, I'm still not sure if it was the best way to do it. But I think, insofar as one could write a novel from the perspective of Our Lord as a child while firmly believing in the Hypostatic Union, and precisely to that extent, Rice has done it. The merits of the approach can be debated, but, accepting it on its own terms, it is largely successful, and at times beautiful and moving. One thing that Rice does as well that I was also initially sceptical about is including miracles from the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, but I can see why she did. She wants to emphasise that Jesus was always true God and true Man, and that the divine nature was always present, rather than being, as it were, dormant until adulthood or Christ's baptism or whatever. One final thing on this note: it is wonderfully refreshing to read a novel (not a theology textbook, but a novel) about Jesus which takes the Incarnation seriously.
2) One of the things that came home to me in a big way while reading this book was how God works in converting individuals and saving them. I suspect sometimes we (or at least some of us) act with a certain implicit assumtion that when God converts someone, they become a new person, totally different from who they were before. The beauty of the reality of conversion is that God has created everyone as a totally unique and unrepeatable individual, and it is that individual that He redeems. Grace builds on nature. God doesn't what to redeem a person so that they turn into something different; He wants to redeem them, with all their baggage, their ways of thinking and feeling, their experiences, their virtues and vices, talents and weaknesses, so that they become what they, as an individual, were always intended to be. To me, Anne Rice bears witness to this, because I loved her writings while she was an atheist, and now that she knows and loves Christ, I can see in this book everything I liked in her writing already, now transformed and put at the service of something higher.
Specifically. The sensuality of her literary style. That ability to immerse you in an experience by imaginatively engaging all the senses, which made her vampire novels so memorable, is perfect for someone trying to express literarily the reality of the Incarnation. Reading this novel takes you beyond an abstract doctrine to something that attempts to approach the immeidate experience of the Incarnation. The feel of places, the small-town atmosphere of Nazareth, the sound of the wind and texture of the grass and the silence as Jesus, even as a boy, seeks solitude to pray, the bustle and crush of pilgrim-crowds at Jerusalem where you stand for minutes without moving forward because of the number of people. One is immersed into Christ's experience, not just intellectual experience but bodily, sensible experience. Then there is the historical milieu. But I shall give that it's own point.
3) Historical milieu. Rice has always been good at capturing a period's feel, and no less so here. Several impressions in this regard were notable for me. Firstly, family. In this novel, Jesus' family is huge. There are aunts, uncles, cousins and random family relations everywhere, both in Egypt and back in Palestine, and unless you make an effort to draw up a family tree while reading the first chapter, you won't be able to remember how everybody is related to everybody else. There is therefore a palpable sense of community, which maintains throughout the novel. The Holy Family here is not a Western, nuclear family. It is a Middle-Eastern family (and certainly gels with my experience of Egyptian families). Everybody supports everybody else; everybody knows everybody else. This has interesting implications, such as the way the Rabbi grills Jesus because everybody remembers that there was something sus about Jesus' conception and birth, or the way Our Lady keeps to herself a lot because she knows what people say about her. Joseph, on more than one occasion, has to defend Jesus' parentage to those outside the family, which of course is never openly questioned but simply implied to be not quite kosher. Joseph himself, by the way, all too often neglected among the saints, dimmed as he is by the overwhelming light of the Saviour and of Our Lady, comes out of this novel a winning portrait of a good man, following and trusting in God despite many odds and near total ignorance of God's purposes for his family. Here is a man willing to trust God in the dark and keep following Him no matter what.
The Jewishness of Jesus is constantly on display. Of particular note is the Temple. The way the Temple is described captured my imagination- this monolith of whiteness visible for miles, the gold pillars, the crowds, the market in the Outer Court, the whiff of incense almost overpowered by the stench of blood, the troops of priests gutting what amount to whole herds of animals, the sheer scale of the place, and how Jewish life is centred on it, so that even while miles away in Nazareth on Yom Kippur, the narrative leaves you with a palpable sense of the significance of the events happening simultaneously in the Temple even though the narrative doesn't actually place you there. Connected with the Jewish element, the practices and the whole culture of the Torah come to life. The sense of the Covenant as both a story telling us who we are and as a way of life is constantly in view. And there are some delightful touches. Like the way, when meeting someone knew, characters in the story rattle off their genealogy to several generations to introduce themselves. Or the way people know all the Psalms by heart (and this is totally taken for granted as completely normal within the flow of the narrative) and start singing them at random moments throughout the story (with the whole Psalm quoted or paraphrased in the text). Or the way Joseph tells the story of Jonah or Tobit like a grandfather telling war stories, with all the colour and vivacity (and audience participation) that implies.
One thing that is undeniable as well is the political upheaval. There is a point in the story which is quite shocking to the reader, when the family have departed from Alexandria, a lively but stable city, and have trekked to Jerusalem from Caesarea after landing there. Jesus sees the Temple for the first time and is awed by it, but as they move into it, it suddenly becomes clear a rebellion is imminent, and it breaks out while they are in the Outer Court of the Temple. There Jesus sees a man killed in front of him by a Roman soldier. They escape Jerusalem intact and travel north to Nazareth, but all around the sense of danger and political instability is palpable. Allegiances are shifting; you can't trust strangers; fires are seen in the distance. At one point, the leader of a rebel group threatens the family for money to support his cause, but Joseph talks him down. When they finally get to Nazareth, Jospeh forbids Jesus or the rest of the children to go onto the roof of the house, because if they did they would be able to see the crosses lining the road to Sepphoris in the distance. It's a worthwhile reminder, I suppose, that not much has changed, and perhaps a subtle admonition not to subconsciously whitewash what we read in the Gospels and Acts or what we assume about their context. It was a pretty gritty place and time.
These are the standout points for me, having just finished the book. At some point in the near future, I will move onto its sequel, "Christ the Lord- The Road to Cana". Overall, though, this book is a thing of literary and spiritual beauty, coming from a deep love and devotion to the Lord. Highly recommended.