Thursday, December 14, 2006

Book Review: Christ the Lord by Anne Rice

A towering achievement.

It is rare nowadays for a book aiming at substantiating the traditional theological understandings of the person of Jesus of Nazareth to see the light of day, much less to become a bestseller. The greater reading public, those who see themselves as believers, look skeptically at works by theologians and religious controversialists. Savvy readers often relegate these works to the realm of "belief," which in practice means "the ambit of the not-necessarily factual." What was needed was a person able to talk to this jaded audience and meet their doubts and objections frontally, ideally, someone who for most of her life herself embraced the post-modern "hermeneutics of suspicion" pervading academia and the media. To my delight, that person is Anne Rice.

Anne Rice is better known for her Vampire Chronicles series. Dark, gothic, deviantly erotic, and preternatural, Rice's "undead" were immortal understudies in the theater of humanity playing their parts in a tableau devoid of script, where morality is self-determined, and where it is better to be the hunter than the prey.

Of the Vampire Chronicles I've only read one book, at the urging of a coworker who knew my literary tastes on such things, and that's how I came to read Memnoch the Devil, a work that preserved most of Vampire Chronicles series' mystique. I found this work profound because of the breadth and depths of the questions she raised regarding the nature of good and evil, God and the devil, and the fog of uncertainty that human beings generate around ground-facts that tend to alter their meaning and contents. I found this novel's conclusion rather disturbing, because she seemed to be arguing that the reason why good and evil are so difficult to discern is because their agents are cooperating toward a common goal! In spite of this formulation, I found Memnoch the Devil vaguely Christian in the sense that it was thoroughly respectful of the Christian claims without camouflaging the egregious actions of these same Christians through history. If the work was disquieting, it was also "spiritual."

Then I read Servant of the Bones. This book is no longer connected to the Vampire Chronicles and its main character is another kind of immortal, a Jew exiled to Babylon during the time of Nebuchadnezzar turned into a sort of genie following a botched occult ritual. This Jewish man then became a witness to the history of his race and a vehicle for Rice to explore the unique persistence of the Jews as a peculiar people for over 3,000 years of recorded history. Again, Rice does not pull any punches against the historical treatment by the Christian Churches — Eastern and Western; Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant — of the Jew. Yet, Rice struggles to find a "meta-narrative" explaining the survival of the Jews and apparently finds it in the Providence of a personal God, whose personal character remains ill-defined both for the protagonist and for the writer. Christians and Jews can be redeemed together, according to Rice.

Servant of the Bones was a work of historical fiction which was also "religious." It was clear to me that Rice has become a willing theist when she wrote the final dot in this Servant of the Bones, but she left me asking myself, well, now what? Where is this path leading her? The answer is to be found in Christ the Lord.

Christ the Lord is a bold piece of historic fiction, if we are to consider the principal aim of this genre, aside from entertaining readers, that is: to render a narrative intertwining historical characters, places, and events that, although fictitious, is also plausible. Minutely researched, Ann Rice delivers a fictitious life of Jesus written in the first person, as Christ — that by itself is also bold. Rice wrote her narrative with great attention to the scholarly consensus about political, economical, religious, and living conditions in first century Egypt and Israel.

I've just talked about "plausibility." Skeptics and Christian minimalists are not going to like this work because the Jesus emerging from these pages is not "a marginal Jew," but a cosmopolitan, talented, and multilingual boy— a set of talents He acquired naturally, by the way—hailing from a lively, dynamic, and ancient culture located, not in the boondocks, but in the crossroads of the classical Roman world.

The Jesus Rice portrays in Christ the Lord is fully aware of his divine sonship at a subconscious level. This awareness invades his conscious self in waves, sometimes in dreams, sometimes by reasoning through various clues. He knows that the answer to the question of his identity lies within Him, but also He knows that He should learn the answer by natural, human means and not by drawing it out from his divine nature. This narrative line reminded me of these verses found in the Christological hymn recorded in Philippians 2, verses 5-11:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.(NIV)
Rice's Jesus "ungrasped" his divine nature, voluntarily embracing for himself the human quest for knowledge acquired through experience, and therefore, evolutionary, and growing in time as He acquired even more experience. Rice acknowledges as much in her very detailed, highly personal afterword to her novel.

Jesus' experiential knowledge was fraught with the same uncertainties every human being faces as he or she grows up. Jesus didn't "cheat" nor did He took shortcuts in his quest for personal awareness. He knew pain, fear, frustration, and tears as well as love, compassion, and tenderness which He gave as well as received, particularly from His immediate family.

Rice gives us a Jesus fully integrated into an extended human family. Beyond the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph trio known to us all, Rice gives us a vision of Jesus' extended family as fully cognizant of "the secret" of Jesus' origin and messianic destiny. The extended family closed ranks around the holy three and were all instrumental in raising Jesus, each one possessing a piece of the knowledge Jesus needed to reconstruct the circumstances of his birth and the nature of his mission. If you ever wondered what kind of human beings took to raise the Son of God, you will find the answer in this book, and you will not be disappointed.

Finally, Anne Rice emerges from this book as a fully Catholic writer. This is probably the most amazing thing to me, that the vampire-storyteller-turned-theologian wrote something so rich, meaningful, and true. In this book, Anne Rice creates culture, that is, a new medium for exchanging ideas, potentially creating new artistic expression in cinema, music, and poetry, and ennobling and uplifting those who read it. That's what it means to be a "Catholic" writer, for a Catholic writer is not one that necessarily communicates or defends Catholic dogma, but one that, through her work creates new opportunities for cultural expression that is imbued with Christian values. I could say much more, but then I'll bore you. Buy, read, and pass around this book. You won't regret it. Christ the Lord is really a towering achievement.

*Update July 3o, 2010: Please read my post, Anne Rice Renounces Christianity.