Monday, August 13, 2007

What I'm Reading: Anne Rice's Christ the Lord Out of Egypt

Anne Rice, Christ the Lord Out of Egypt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

What do Harry Potter (especially in the first HP novel) and Jesus Christ have in common? Other than being the heros of bestselling books, both are (as imagined by J.K. Rowling and Anne Rice respectively) young boys who are growing into miraculous powers, who are destined to fight evil powers, who are trying to unravel the mysteries of their earliest years, and who are surrounded by adults and parent figures who won't tell them everything they want to know.

Northrop Frye once said that there are only so many stories in the world, and they are simply retold with variations. I don't know whether Rice or Rowling had any influence on one another, or whether they are both playing variations on a 2,000 year old tune. I do know that I enjoyed Rice's Christ the Lord (CtheL)far more than I had expected to.

The childhood of Jesus has fascinated Christians throughout the centuries. If you believe in the divinity of Jesus, then you have to wonder, "when did he know what he was and who he was"? The canonical or approved scripture of the church is largely silent on the question, except for St. Luke's account of the young Jesus calmly discussing law and theology with the priests of the temple during his parents' stay in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52). However, a number of the non-canonical gospels and accounts of Jesus' life from the earliest days of the church tell many stories about miracles and acts of power that Jesus did as a young boy. These stories include making clay birds fly, causing another boy to drop dead, and then bringing him back to life. One of the most charming of these stories, which was well loved in the Middle Ages, tells of how the young Jesus made an apple tree bend down so his mother Mary could pluck the sweetest fruit from its high branches.

Christ the Lord borrows from this tradition of apocryphal accounts of Jesus' early life. However, Anne Rice has made it clear that her understanding of the story is orthodox, that she believes that Jesus was the son of God. Her book can be understood as an extended meditation on Luke's comment that "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him (Lk 2:40). As a gifted storyteller, she portrays Jesus growing into his identity, as he tries to comprehend the reluctance of the adults around him to explain the circumstances of his birth, including the flight into Egypt to escape King Herod's massacre of the young boys in Bethlehem. She shows an impressive understanding of life in the ancient world, including cultural clashes between Jews and gentiles, and her characters have an authentic humanity about them, as if she has freed them from their iconic places in our culture.

I picked up this book not knowing what to expect. I knew of Anne Rice from years ago through some of her vampire novels and some of her erotic writing, and so I was not expecting to be sympathetic to her handling of the story. What I didn't know was that during the years of work that she put into this book, reading a massive amount of material from Christian and secular scholars (her bibliography alone is worth the price of the book), Anne Rice became deeply convinced that Jesus was who he said he was, the Son of God. In a moving epilogue, Rice describes how the writing led her back to the Catholic faith of her childhood, but with a new and richer understanding of who Jesus was and who she was. As a person of faith myself, I found Rice's story as moving as her fictional account of the young Jesus. I find it miraculous in itself that Rice, with a fan following of millions, is bringing the Christian story to millions who might not otherwise have time for it.

I would recommend this book to Christians who want to gain a deeper insight into the world of Jesus, and want to enrich their devotional lives - they will find much to meditate on here. I hope non-Christians also read this book; they will find much to ponder here.


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