Tuesday, 4 November 2008

from vampires to Christ

Anne Rice is perhaps best known as the author of The Vampire Chronicles including Interview with the Vampire, made into a film by Neil Jordan and starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. So I was surprised to discover Rice had written the first book in a trilogy about the life of Christ. The book is called Christ The Lord – Out Of Egypt and it is a fictional account of the life of Christ between leaving Egypt Matthew 2:19 and the incident in the Temple recorded in Luke 2:41-51.

Rice writes in the first person and so the reader experiences the narrative through the eyes of the child Jesus. This enables the author to explore the incarnation and the emerging sense of both Jesus’ humanity and divinity as well as his unfolding awareness of vocation. The story leads us towards the incident in the Temple where Jesus is separated from his parents. The climax of the story is the disclosure to the boy Jesus of the events surrounding his birth, including the slaughter of the innocents, and the revelation by his mother Mary that he is ‘the begotten of God’.

The story is fictional but Rice has sought to be as faithful to the Gospels and accompanying traditions as possible. It is clear from the book and her author’s notes that Rice has been meticulous in her research and has clear explanations for the choices she has made in the material she includes and the way she presents it. I found the recreation of first century Jerusalem and Temple, Nazareth and the surrounding landscape convincing both in geographical and cultural description. The book reminded me of Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean. However, I felt with Theissen that the theology and research got in the way of the narrative, it was theology trying to be literature. In Out of Egypt the research undergirds the narrative but doesn’t inhibit its flow; exploring important doctrinal themes without sacrificing pace and drama.

An uncomfortable but interesting aspect of the book is that it draws on the legend material, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which Rice justifies by commenting:

‘Ultimately I chose to embrace this material, to enclose it within the canonical framework as best I could. I felt there was a deep truth in it and I wanted to preserve that truth as it spoke to me. Of course this is an assumption. But I made it. And perhaps in assuming that Jesus did manifest supernatural powers at an early age I am somehow being true to the declaration of the Council of Chalcedon, that Jesus was God and Man at all times.’

‘In using some of these legends, I sought not to attack orthodox beliefs in any way, but to include legends that Christians for the most part have shared. For me the legends helped to imagine a concrete world in which our Lord lived and breathed as God and Man; I did not respond to any docetism in them whatsoever.’

What I have found most fascinating is Rice’s account of her own journey of faith.

In her notes Rice describes her study of the New Testament, between 2002 to 2005, as she researched and began to write the book. This was a particularly painful period in her life as her husband, Stan, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died within four months.

Rice began with the sceptical critics of N.T. studies expecting their arguments to be ‘frighteningly strong’ and that they would reveal that Christianity was ‘a kind of fraud’. Surely, she surmised, she would find a Jesus who was liberal, married, had children, was a homosexual ….. . Rice looked at the Jewish scholars who presented Jesus as an observant Jew or a Hasid who ended up on a cross. Behind her studies lay the urge to know who Jesus was.

Gradually the conclusion Rice reached was that the arguments of the sceptics lacked coherence, were full of conjecture, piled assumption on assumption and drew absurd conclusions based on little or no data. She comments:

‘In sum, the whole case for the non divine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified by nobody and had nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and would be horrified by it if he knew about it – that whole picture which had floated in the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for thirty years – that case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read.’

‘And I had also sensed something else. Many of these scholars, scholars who apparently devoted their life to New Testament scholarship, disliked Jesus Christ. Some pitied him as a hopeless failure. Others sneered at him, and some felt an outright contempt. This came between the lines of the books. This emerged in the personality of the texts.’

A key turning point for Rice was reading John A. T. Robinson’s The Priority of John and his arguments for an early dating of the Gospels. Also John Wenham’s Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke. Rice is very suspicious of those arguing for a late dating based on the Fall of Jerusalem. Her argument is that if the fall had taken place before the Gospels were written then the events surrounding the fall would have had a greater impact on and in the texts. She finds the late dating based on a rejection of prophetic utterances about the fall unconvincing. In her notes Rice cites a host of other Biblical scholars and it is clear that her appetite for reading on the subject is voracious. The scholar she particularly credits is N.T. Wright.

‘N.T. Wright is one of the most brilliant writers I’ve ever read, and his generosity in embracing sceptics and commenting on their arguments is an inspiration. His faith is immense, and his knowledge vast.’

Rice sums up her approach to the book as follows:

‘The true challenge was to take the Jesus of the Gospels, the Gospels which were becoming ever more coherent to me, the Gospels which appealed to me as elegant first person witness, dictated to scribes no doubt, but definitely early, the Gospels produced before Jerusalem fell – to take the Jesus of the Gospels, and to try to get inside him and imagine what he felt.’

But for me the most interesting comments come in Rice’s note to the paperback edition in which she details her personal return to faith.

‘I returned to faith in Christ and to the Roman Catholic Church on December 6, 1998. It was after a long struggle of many years during which time I went from being a committed atheist, grieving for a lost faith which I thought was gone forever, to realising that I not only believed in Jesus Christ with my whole heart, but that I felt an overwhelming love for Him, and wanted to be united with Him both in private and in public through attendance at church.’

In one of the most powerful testimonies I have recently read, the author goes on to explain her wrestling with deep personal and theological questions:

‘How could I join with fellow believers who thought my gay son was going to Hell? How could I become connected with Christians who held there is no evidence for Darwinian evolution, or that women should have no control over their own bodies? How could I affirm my belief in a faith that was itself so characterised by argument and strife?’

And then Rice recounts her response:

‘Well what happened to me on that Sunday I returned to faith was this: I received a glimpse into what I can only call the Infinite Mercy of God. It worked something like this. I realised that none of my theological or social questions really made any difference. I didn’t have to know the answers to these questions precisely because God did…… What came over me then was an infinite trust, trust in His power and His love. I didn’t have to worry about the ultimate fate of my good atheistic friends, gay or straight, because he knew all about them, and he was holding them in His hands. I didn’t have to quake alone in terror at the thought of those who die untimely deaths from illness, or the countless million

s destroyed in the horrors of war. He knew all about them. He had always been holding them in his hands. He and only He knew the full story of every person who’d ever lived or ever would live; He and He alone knew what person was given what choice, what chance, what opportunity, what amount of time, to come to him and by what path.’

‘Did this mean that I thought doctrine and principles didn’t matter? No. Did it mean I thought everything was relative? Certainly not. Did it mean I did not continue to ponder a multitude of ideas?

God forbid. What it did mean was that I put myself in the hands of God entirely and that my faith would light the pages I read in the Book of Life from then on.’

The second book in the trilogy has recently been published: Christ The Lord – The Road To Cana.


Jonathan Evens said...

Hi Philip,

Must have overlooked this when you originally posted. Much fuller post than I managed but, like you, I found both Rice's account of Christ's early childhood and Rice's own conversion story to be powerful.

There was an interesting interview with her in the Times recently which can be found at: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/fiction/article6905136.ece.

Have you read the second book in the series? I'm waiting for a reserved copy from the library, so expect to read it shortly.

Philip Ritchie said...

Hi Jonathan,
I've had the second book since it was published but haven't got round to reading it yet. Your blog reminded me I need to get on with it. It was amazing going to Nazareth this time last year having read the book and imagining what it might have been like for Jesus growing up there.

It would be good to find time to talk in more depth about our responses to the book and the second one when we've both read it.