Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 19, 2009

Growing Into Readiness: Anne Rice’s Jesus Novels

To help you take a few more tentative steps on your own marathon, your “readiness” journey, here’s two recommendations of some really powerful historical fiction I read recently:

Out of Egypt and Road to Cana (from the Christ the Lord series), by Anne Rice.

Anne Rice, you say? Author of Interview With a Vampire and all those other Gothic New Orleans horror/soap opera novels?

Yes. That Anne Rice. Seems she was a closet Roman Catholic all along, sort of wandering in the wilderness for awhile, but returned somewhere around 2005 to a deep religious practice and a theologically sound (mostly) novelization of the not-yet-mature Jesus, one only hinted at in the gospels themselves. The novels are also a personally courageous, respectful, and highly creative exploration of the historical Jesus’ times. Strangely, her portrayal of Jewish factions and Roman tensions 2000 years ago make the national, ethnic and religious conflicts in our modern era somehow seem manageable… like this is “more of the same”, and we’ll get through this round of arguments okay as well. 

Rice’s biggest innovation, in my opinion, was her decision to have Jesus narrate the story himself, in first person. The first novel, Out of Egypt, takes place when Jesus is seven. At times, its portrayal of Mary and Joseph makes them seem almost too heroic (and therefore two-dimensional). But Jesus’ extended family is fascinating, sometimes hilarious, and there are great highs and lows of emotional intensity throughout the book (a feat in itself, since emotion is something that is quite difficult to pull out of the Bible for many contemporary readers). Her young Jesus is a curious, terrific blend of naive child and budding Messiah, complete with well-drawn mystical moments that excited my spirit to consider. [ Note: Rice’s blunt and analytical Afterword, about the esoteric and sometimes frustrating state of academic biblical scholarship these days, is as much worth the effort as the novel itself, as she takes the ivory-tower establishment to task.]

The second book, 2008’s Road to Cana, is even better. It takes place when he is thirty, just a few months prior to what is considered the “official” start of his ministry (the miracle at Cana when he turned water to wine). As with the first book, it was amazing to hear such deep historical scholarship about Jewish family life, culture and religious practice, woven into a genuinely believable and moving portrayal of the Son of God as he steps tentatively into his “inheritance” and duty. Jesus is a sexually tempted man. He gets angry, and sad, and has an older half-brother James he locks horns with regularly. Reading about Jesus within the context of his amazing but sometimes goofy family, and within his community, complete with the politics of the day… it was all just a great way to connect with both the humanity and divinity of Yeshua of Nazareth.

Another reviewer at the Catholic Disputations website captures some of my own feelings well:

My favorite chapter is the temptation in the desert, in which Satan appears as Jesus would look if he accepted the offer of all the nations on earth in exchange for homage. Jesus quite simply pawns him:

“It is the Lord God who rules,” I said, “and He always has. You are nothing, and you have nothing and rule nothing. Not even your minions share with you in your emptiness and in your rage.”That’s satisfying, emotionally and theologically, but their whole conversation is well-imagined and believable.

…Rice’s enthusiasm and talent keep pace with each other, her imagination and her faithfulness to Revelation work together. It may be a little too contemporary to be timeless, but if you can read it, not as an assertion of Gospel truth but as one writer’s meditations on the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, you might find it worthwhile.

Lastly, the fact that I read this work as a Book On CD (from the library) made a huge difference. Longtime professional actor James Naughton as the voice of Jesus really penetrated to the heart of the Jesus character. Thus, in hearing the words of Jesus, literally, Rice’s careful prose was better able to penetrate to my heart as well (and to get past my head… which is sometimes too intellectual and reflective when reading from the printed page).

So… activate your searching soul in a creative way! Listen to Jesus tell his own story, and you may find He has a crucial role to play in your story this year, too.


Responses

  1. I have wondered about these books. Your recommendation makes me take them more seriously.

  2. Happy Easter

  3. I am sorry, but not surprised, to report that Anne has given up on organized religion as of her announcement in July 2010. [Here’s a link to the news item: http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2010/0730/Anne-Rice-says-she-s-done-with-Christianity ]

    She still loves Jesus, but its the rest of us angry, hateful sinners she can’t seem to handle. I certainly understand, but her implied self-righteousness and defensiveness smack of being a bit shallow and self-promoting in nature. She’s certainly accurate in critiquing religionists and academics for rejecting and misunderstanding her, and for being bigoted at times.

    But what purpose does going public with her “exit” serve, other than throwing fuel on an already raging fire? (started by those, especially Catholics, who have had little success in reforming the church from within, and so resort to judgment and condemnation themselves… )
    Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Let (s)he who is without sin cast the first stone?”

    So yeah, Anne’s within her rights, and maybe –as she claims– this is a move dictated by her conscience (she’s choosing who not to have “fellowship” with). But Jesus did not come just to transform individuals… He came to create communities, accountable first to God, but also to each other, in love.

    As Thomas Merton once said: “no man is an island”.

    I’ll still pray for you, Anne. You don’t need to return the gift, but the community of believers will be much poorer and less informed due to your absence. Go with God, nevertheless.


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