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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Anne Rice, Theologian

Recently I listened to the audiobook version of Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice. What?? you say. A book about Jesus by the author of Interview with the Vampire??? Yep, that's the Anne Rice. It seems she has returned to a long-abandoned Catholic faith, and with a vengeance. The book is well-researched and (mostly) historically accurate; I enjoyed it a lot.

The story starts, as you could deduce from the title, in Egypt where Jesus' family has fled from murderous King Herod. Jesus is I believe about eight years old, and a series of events prompt his family to move back to Nazareth. At the beginning of the story Jesus has no idea who He is or what His mission might be; he discovers and realizes it during the course of the story. Which leads to the interesting question that is central to the novel: when did Jesus figure out His true origin? Obviously infants don't have that kind of knowledge, and the Bible says that Christ "made Himself nothing and took on the nature of a servant" (my off-the-cuff paraphrase). So assuming He did not know He was the Messiah all His life, when and how did He find out?

Anne Rice did a TON of historical research for this novel. She read the canonical Bible, noncanonical books, and some that are kind of in between (such as the book of Tobit, a story from which is actually told in one scene; it is considered part of the Scripture in some but not all modern churches, but it was present in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament in common use in Jesus' day). She found some stories from noncanonical works so fascinating that she included them in the novel; part of what prompts Mary and Joseph to move back to Nazareth is the fact that the child Jesus has "accidentally" been performing miracles, such as making a bird out of clay and then bringing it to life and killing a playmate with His words and then raising him from the dead (these events occur in the Gospel of Thomas, and the clay bird incident is also recorded in the Koran). There are some real Catholic influences, too, sometimes at the expense of common sense; Mary is presented as a virgin for her whole life except for Jesus' birth (she and Joseph never have intercourse ever, even after Jesus is born) so an elaborate backstory about the brothers and sisters of Jesus is constructed (James is a half-brother from Joseph's hypothetical previous marriage, and other "brothers and sisters" are actually cousins taken in after their parents' death). The wildest deviation from probable historical accuracy is that in the novel, it actually snows... in Israel... at Christmas (to be fair, it is presented as a miracle). But other than those quibbles, the book does a good job at presenting the way things probably were in that time period, and also does a good job at fleshing out Jesus as a human person. The story is told from His viewpoint, and He tells us what He is thinking and feeling. He tells us when he cries, and when He wants to but does not because He is being brave (remember, in the book he's a little kid). I enjoyed wondering if that was maybe the kinds of things that really went through the child Jesus' mind as He went about his daily life as a kid in the Middle East.

Oddly, I noticed a couple of grammar errors that I found jarring from a book by such a celebrated author... in Chapter 13 there is a sentence that says that something happened to "James and I" (should be "James and me" in that construction), and there is a sentence that says that ladies were "selling vegetables from their gardens that they didn't need" (they don't need the gardens? Then why do they put in so much hard work on them?) But I found the book engrossing, thought-provoking, and very interesting. Give it a chance. I know it sounds weird, but if you remember that it is a fictionalized account it is a fun read.

By the way... if you have reservations about the author's reason for writing or qualifications for presenting the details of life in the Holy Land in that period, I recommend that you read the epilogue first. It gives a lot of detail about Anne's "reconversion" and research before writing the book. If you'd like the Cliff's Notes instead, take a look at this MSNBC article.

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