There is so much that needs to be said about Anne Rice's new work, "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt." As a work of narrative fiction, it is deeply moving. Her portrayal of a seven-year-old Jesus grappling with the mysterious stories of his birth and the even more mysterious powers he seems to possess manages to animate his humanity in heartbreaking ways. This fictional boy--who lies on his back and looks at the clouds, who misses his friends, who tries to understand the brutal world of Roman and Jewish conflict in which he lives--seems wholly believable as the child Jesus. The woven story is almost too perfect. Such is the writing that it is easily imaginable that young Jesus wished for snow and that it appeared. Yet it is the very revelation of this humanity that magnifies the reality of his future betrayal, torture and crucifixion. At points this makes the book hard to read.
Rice's portrayal of historical Palestine circa the year 20, where she believes the young Jesus to have come of age, is gripping. Lawless hordes rape, pillage and terrorize in the name of bringing freedom to the Jews. Roman soldiers arrive to quell uprisings--killing and crucifying the innocent alongside the guilty--all in the name of efficient peacekeeping. Man, it seems, hasn't changed very much in 2,000 years.
The final 15 pages of the book are the "Author's Note." It is poorly titled. It is really a believer's testimony of conversion. Rice writes about how her earlier works "reflected my guilt and misery in being cut off from God and from salvation, my being lost in a world without light." She writes, "I wrote many novels without my being aware that they reflected my quest for meaning in a world without God." Things changed for her in the early 1990s when, she says, "I stumbled upon a mystery without a solution, a mystery so immense that I gave up trying to find an explanation because the whole mystery defied belief. The mystery was the survival of the Jews... I couldn't understand how these people had endured as the great people who they were. It was this mystery that drew me back to God. It set into motion the idea that there may in fact be God."
Note that she doesn't say, "It set into motion the idea that there may in fact be a God." She says, "there may in fact be God." The last few hundred years of Western thought are the first years in human history where God's existence has been questioned. Up to this point in time it wasn't a question of whether there was a God but which god or goddess or gods were real. And this is Rice's point. She wanted to know whether there was G-d: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jehovah, I AM, God. She found her answer in a seamless story that extended from Adam to Jesus. In her search she found a sort of theological orthodoxy.
This is a conversion story on the level of Augustine--or, perhaps, is a modern literary equivalent of Saul's conversion from persecutor of the early church to Paul, the apostle who met the risen Christ on the road and spent the rest of life proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
Is my comparison too drastic? I don't think so. Anne Rice was a daughter of darkness. She sold 136 million copies of books that explored the darkest realms of the spiritual world. She dressed all in black. She glorified the night and her atheism. But look at pictures of her now. See the smile. Look most of all at the sparkle in the eyes--at the light.
Anne Rice met in Jesus everything she'd been looking for. She writes in the last page of her note, "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 this world we share. After all, is Christ our Lord not the ultimate supernatural hero, the ultimate outsider, the ultimate immortal of them all?"
I predict this book will become the print equivalent of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Great debate will be sparked by Rice's skewering of what passes for New Testament "scholarship" these days as "assumption based upon assumption based upon assumption." Millions who have followed Rice's adventures through the darker realms will follow her now towards Jesus. There will be a lot of controversy there as well. Many of those whose faith has been shaken by "The Da Vinci Code's" fiction will find it bolstered by "Christ the Lord." And then there will be the enthusiastic embrace of believers everywhere who will find in these pages a glimpse of who Jesus might have been.
I hope that Ms. Rice returns home as quickly as possible so she can finish her next volume on Jesus, and the one after that. I know that these are novels, but I sense in them something holy. "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" isn't the Bible, but it is inspired by God.