She later remarried her husband in a Catholic ceremony at the parish church of her childhood. He had accepted her return to faith. "We didn't argue much about that sort of thing," she said. She had already begun working on her Jesus novel when her husband became ill with a brain tumor in 2002 and died four months later. Research for "Christ the Lord" sustained her, she writes in a personal and revealing author's note that both concludes the book and explains its genesis.

Rice says her return to the Church made writing about Jesus more challenging. "I had to digest my experience and regain my sense that I could do this," she said.

Rice immersed herself in Christian scholarship, and her book draws heavily from many sources, from Josephus to N.T. Wright. But she discards much of modern New Testament scholarship, as she explains in the author's note. Her contempt for what she calls "skeptical scholarship"--including "arguments that insisted most of the Gospels were suspect, for instance, or written too late to be eyewitness accounts"--is obvious throughout the note.

Read an excerpt from "Christ the Lord"
The story of Jesus that she constructs includes some legends about miracles the boy performed. But she makes her tale consistent with the Gospel of Luke, forming an elaborate and imaginative addition based on a few lines describing Jesus' childhood. "I took my cue from Luke," she says. "I saw a great framework there."

Rice's Christ is the young son of Mary who journeys with his family from Alexandria, Egypt, where they fled after his birth, back to Nazareth. He observes the social ostracism of his mother, who people believe conceived her child before marriage. He also witnesses political unrest among Jews and imperial Roman harshness toward their Jewish subjects. Rice paints a picture of a young Christ who is both fully human and fully divine. She elegantly captures his growing awareness of who he is and the times in which he lives.

Rice was unsure of how both her traditional fans and traditional Christians would react to her work. But her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, signaled its confidence in her new turn with its initial print run of 500,000 copies. Rice has been relieved and gratified by early responses to the book. When retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip M. Hannan sent a letter praising her work, "I practically fainted with gratitude," Rice said. One review calls it one of the bolder retellings of the story of Jesus.

As for her fans who are more accustomed to reading about immortal vampires, Rice believes her newest character might not be so different. "Is Christ our Lord not the ultimate supernatural hero," she asks rhetorically in the author's ote, "the ultimate outsider, the ultimate immortal of them all?"

In the end, Rice seems to consider her new book a gift, both to Christians and to non-Christian fans of her previous work. "This is a book I offer to all Christians," she writes, "to the fundamentalists, to the Roman Catholics, to the most liberal Christians in the hope that my embrace of more conservative doctrines will have some coherence for them in the here and now of the book...

"I offer this book to those who know nothing of Jesus Christ in the hope that you will see him in these pages in some form. I offer this novel with love to my readers who've followed me through one strange turn after another in the hope that Jesus will be as real to you as any other character I've ever launched into the world we share."

Rice's future "strange turns" are likely to continue to be inspired by Jesus. "My life is committed to Christ the Lord," she said. "My books will be a reflection of that commitment."

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