Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Anne Rice's Christ the Lord

Christ the Lord--- Out of Egypt, Anne Rice (N.Y.: Knopf, 2005)

Anne Rice has, by now become something of a household name through the enormous sales of her novels since her first one appeared in 1974, and so it comes as no surprise that this year saw another Anne Rice novel appear on the market. What is a surprise, bordering on shock, considering that Rice has been the Queen of Vampire novels, is that this novel is and loving and reverent story about Jesus as a child. More specifically it is largely the tale of one year of Jesus’ life, from the ages of 7-8, a period not covered by any of the canonical Gospels. Where then does she get her material? A small amount of the novel is based on some later apocryphal stories from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and certain assumptions (about Mary and Joseph) derived from the Proto-Evangelium of James, but most of the tale derives from Rice’ own fertile imagination as applied to the copious amount of reading she has done about the history and social circumstances and Jewish religious life of the period.
The novel is a tale of average length (301 pages), to which is appended an author’s note in which Rice gets to critique liberal Jesus scholars, amongst others. Rice also tells us the story of her conversion and return to Roman Catholicism, which also entailed a return to investigate questions which had haunted her all her life—how did Christianity actually come about and why did the Roman Empire fall? In 2002, we are told, she says “I put aside everything else and decided to focus entirely on answering the questions that had dogged me all my life. The decision came in July of that year. I had been reading the Bible constantly…and decided that I would give myself utterly to the task of trying to understand Jesus himself and how Christianity emerged. I wanted to write the life of Jesus Christ. I had known that years ago. But now I was ready. Ready to do violence to my career. I wanted to write the book in the first person. Nothing else mattered. I consecrated the book to Christ. I consecrated myself and my work to Christ.” ( p. 309).
Rice informs us that her inspiration came in part from reading Paula Fredricksen’s much praised Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews and she resolved that she wanted to present the real Jewish Jesus, the Jesus enmeshed in the life of pious early Jews who debated things like ritual purity issues, and whose life cycle moved between family and providing for family and pilgrimages up to Jerusalem to strengthen their faith. Yet in some respects Rice’s Jesus is one that Fredricksen would not recognize, as Rice is perfectly clear in her portrayal of Jesus as both divine and human, and most definitely as the only begotten Son of God born of the virgin Mary. Jesus is a very unique and peculiar sort of early Jew as it turns out. The problem is-- as a child he doesn’t really much know it, or understand it. The novel is in essence about the mental journey Jesus makes over the course of a traumatic year which also involved much actual traveling (leaving Egypt, coming to Nazareth, visiting Jerusalem both before and after arriving in Nazareth) as he comes to realize who he is as he pieces together that the “Christmas story” is in fact all about him! One of the key texts, interestingly enough, which helped determine for Anne Rice how she would depict Jesus was the famous ‘kenosis’ text in Phil. 2.5-11—the text about the pre-existent one who stripped or emptied himself of his divine pre-rogatives in order to live fully as a human being. To Rice this in turn meant that Jesus as a child did not naturally think of himself as divine, though he learned early on that he had some specially powers of healing or harming. Jesus throughout this novel must learn his true identity from consulting his family, including his ‘brother’ James, and even an ancient rabbi in the Temple in Jerusalem, in order to piece together the story. Only once he has gotten most of the story in mind does his mother finally sit him down and help him fill in the gaps. Until then Mary and Joseph had told him not to think about or discuss such things. To my surprise, this sort of presentation of the divine incognito in so far as it affected Jesus’ own self-consciousness, turns out to be quite effective. Jesus is presented as precocious of course, and a deeply spiritual and emotional child as well. But Rice deliberately underplays the supernatural element in her attempt to show how the child Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and favor with God and humankind” as Luke put’s it in Lk. 2.52.
There are some historical curiosities to Rice’s presentation even though it is clear that she has read a lot of scholarly work in preparation for writing this novel, and equally clear that she relied in equal parts on conservative Catholic and Protestant scholars. The detailed reading she has done has not however altered her own Catholic belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary and this belief strongly colors her presentation of Mary throughout. To her credit however, Mary does not take center stage in this novel, in fact, she gets a bit less space than Joseph. It is a portrayal that most Protestants could embrace for the most part. The historical curiosities include the starting assumptions. The novel begins with Jesus still, at age seven, living in Alexandria with his parents, and once Herod dies they resolve to return at once to the Holy Land, going to Nazareth by way of Jerusalem. There are several problems here. Firstly, Herod died only a couple of years after Jesus’ birth, not seven years. Both Jesus’ birth, and Herod’s demise transpired before the turn of the common era. Secondly, the revolt described as part of what the Holy family experienced when they arrived in the Holy Land, was a revolt led by Judas the Galilean and others that actually transpired near the end of Herod Archelaeus’ reign in A.D. 6, not at the turn of the era when the Holy family would have come home. For example the sacking of Sepphoris surely took place well after the time the Holy family went to Nazareth. Mt. 2.21-23 is quite emphatic that they returned during the reign of Archaelaeus were afraid to go to Judea, and so instead went to Galilee. The text as it stands suggests that the Holy family never went to Judea during the reign of Archelaeus, but rather studiously avoided it. This being the case, neither the social tension and revolutionary potential in the novel nor the several trips up to Judea while Herod’s son reigns matches up with the Matthean account and the probable historical chronology of things. It is however interesting to see her portrayal of Jews living under occupation. At one juncture Joseph is speaking with his brother as they are living in Nazareth and says “In this house we are in the land of Israel” and after everyone laughed his brother says “Yes… and outside the door, it’s the Empire.” (p. 233). It is an effective way of revealing how Jews must have felt about the ambivalent situation .
Another of the historical curiosities is the attention Rice gives to the mixed-language milieu theory. In her view the Holy family spoke Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, Greek especially because of their extended stay in Egypt. But alas, nothing in the historical record suggests they did have such an extended stay in Egypt--- probably no more than a couple of years at the most. I do not doubt that Jesus and his family knew some Greek, they would have had to know some to do business in or near Sepphoris for work purposes. But it is doubtful that Jesus of Joseph studied TANAK in Greek, and of course the notion of Jesus studying with Philo in Alexandria as a 6-7 year old boy is a pleasant, but improbable conceit. We do not even know for sure if Alexandria is the specific locale that the Holy family stayed in while there, though it is quite possible.
Of course Protestants will find very odd the huge extended family image Rice conjures up in order to account for all the children under Mary and Joseph’s roof. James, on the one hand is said to be the son of Joseph by prior marriage (ala the Proto-Evangelium of James) and so Jesus older ‘brother’. But this of course means he has no blood-kinship with Jesus at all, which makes it especially odd that he should be called Jesus’ brother not only in this novel, but in the NT. The other children are said to be cousins, and Joseph’s family is depicted as involving Joseph’s and Mary’s brothers and their families, all living under one roof in Nazareth—something no text of the NT even remotely suggests. Rice decides to develop the “Joseph” motif as a way of explaining the dynamic between James and Jesus. By this I mean James is depicted as envious of Jesus and his messianic status, and knowing more about it than Jesus until the end of the story. He is also depicted as repenting and offering sacrifice for this sin of envy at the end of the story. How we get from this depiction to Jn. 7.4-5 is hard to imagine. Also interesting is the depiction of little Salome, Jesus’ favorite younger cousin with whom he resonants throughout the novel in a chaste and spiritual way. One thing is for sure--- modern day Gnostics will not be pleased with the earthiness, Jewishness, and ritual focus of this Jesus and this Holy family any more than ancient Gnostics were. Jesus is depicted as quite specifically the Jewish messiah, the fulfiller of the prophecies, not the dispenser of esoteric knowledge to the elite and elect everywhere.
There are many things to commend about this novel. It is not an easy thing to write from a child’s point of view, and on a lesser scale reading this is rather like reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury . Secondly, from that worldview, Jesus turns out to be a rather fearful and very emotional child—loving, but also needing love and support as children do. One wonders if the ‘fear factor’ is overplayed a bit, or perhaps that too is part of the divine incognito. Jesus in any case is clearly not all that comfortable with his divine powers, and it wears him out when he uses them. Jesus is also depicted as a visionary, who even encounters the Devil in his dreams, though this is not a major theme, and interestingly it is not mainly how Jesus comes to find out who he is.

We may be thankful that Rice does not depict the early life of Jesus as a bucolic and untroubled revery. And like any good writer, she leaves many questions unanswered making this an enjoyable odyssey of the mind of child Jesus, though provocative at points. Perhaps we may expect and look forward to further novels on this subject. If so, there is even less historical fodder for the period of Jesus’ life between the time he was 12 and in the temple and the time he was 30 and began his ministry. But considering the fact there is really nothing written about Jesus as seven prior to this novel, I doubt the paucity of historical data will slow Rice down, so fertile is her imagination.

1 comment:

Ben Witherington said...

Greetings James, and say hi to my home town for me--- High Point N.C. and have some good Stamey's barbecue.....