So, the word is out: On November 1, 325,000 copies of Anne Rice’s latest literary offering will be hitting the shelves. Big deal, right? Yes. When the main character is no longer a blood-sucking vampire but is, instead, the seven-year old, blood-shedding savior: Jesus Christ. (Listen to an audio excerpt at MSNBC.)
I was clued-in to this only a few hours ago (October 25), but already the blogosphere is heating up over her latest book, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, and the print media is not far behind. Sadly, the print outlets are exploring neither Rice’s 1998 conversion (“return”) to Catholic Christianity, nor the depths of her change—if any. If you’re up to the lackluster press, check out Newsweek|MSNBC’s “The Gospel According to Anne,” Canada.com’s review, “Christ the Lord: Anne Rice,” Dallas Morning News’ “Queen of darkness sees the light in new book on Jesus,” and TIME’s “Junior Jesus.”
Many will view this book as Rice’s nicely-timed “coming out” premier because, after all, where’s the evidence of genuine conversion in her work output? I knew when John Grisham converted: his writing dramatically changed. But what about Anne Rice? Is she simply trying to profit from the latest media-circuit bandwagon bearing Jesus’ name, a la The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown, his imitative minions, and a soon-to-be-released major blockbuster film?
Though low-key, Rice has been honest and up-front about her conversion for several years at her website: AnneRice.com. Rice has been planning to write this story about Jesus for several years. In a pre-conversion phone message to fans dated March 3, 1997, she hinted, “I’m working on a new novel about Jesus Christ.” That piqued curiosity—fans wanted to know more. She promptly satisfied their queries one week later, on March 10, 1997:
“The book I have planned on Jesus Christ is a very, very serious book. It’s nothing trifling, it’s nothing disrespectful and it’s nothing satirical. There’s nothing meant to be comic, though I think there’s going to be comedy involved. There had to be some comic aspects in Christ’s life that were expunged by early writers.
And I am going to draw very heavily on a great deal of material, both canonical material, that means gospels that are accepted by the churches, and also non-canonical material, gospels that were long ago rejected by one church or another or accepted by one and rejected by another.”
But that was 1997, when still a pagan. Maybe a seeking pagan, but a pagan nonetheless. Then, late in 1998 Rice re-committed to the Catholic faith of her childhood. Her commitment was deep enough that she remarried her husband of nearly 40 years, and—there’s a hint of irony in Rice’s report—within two weeks of her re-commitment and remarriage, she nearly died from a diabetic coma. Within four years, in 2002, her husband, poet Stan Rice, died of a brain tumor. Two years later (2004), Anne again nearly died again due to intestinal blockage. Finally, earlier this year she abandoned her beloved and iconic New Orleans home for California. (And those are only the travails Rice’s been public about.)
Through it all, she has worked on this book (with the majority of her research occupying the last three years), wrote the closing chapters of her Vampire Chronicles, and attended Mass and Communion every Sunday—though often at different churches.
So, for the last six months she’s been dropping hints on her website, and warning her fans: “You may not want what I’m doing next,” because since coming back to faith, her thinking and source of creativity have been tainted. Or purified, if you will. She told her fans on July 4, 2002:
I went back to the church in 1998. I was reconciled with the church and I did a kind of violence to my mind. Maybe a blessed violence, maybe a divine violence, but definitely a violence. I did a violence to my creativity. I have written two books since then, three books actually, Merrick, Blood and Gold and Blackwood Farm. But my mind is still undergoing some sort of Synthesis.
I work all day on my book and then I go out and read the Bible on the deck and I know what many of you are thinking that probably this is the end of me as a sensuous writer and the end of me as a transgressive writer but I don’t think that is true. I do think I will come out of the closet as a Catholic writer. But I think I’ll come out as a radical Catholic writer and I am not sure yet what all that will mean.
A year later, Rice has firmed-up her process of “Synthesis,” and has come to a decision. The Dallas Morning News reports:
“I was sitting in church talking to … [God] about it and I finally realized there was no holding back anymore. … I just said, ‘From now on it’s all going to be for you.’ And the book I felt I had to write was the life of Christ. … When my faith was given back to me by God, redemption became a part of the world in which I lived. And I wasn’t going to write any more books where that wasn’t the case. You do not have to be transgressive in order to achieve great art.”
And this is what she told her fan base on January 13, 2003:
I feel a great change coming in my career. In fact, I know it’s coming. The book I’ve written, the book that will appear in 2003 in the fall. It will be the last of the vampires and the witches. It will be the very end. …
That book at the end of 2003 will be the last one with which I approach the altar of God in convolution. There will be no more after that one … there will be no more. There may be life for Lestat, my vampire hero, there may be life for the Mayfair witches; there may be life for them, but they’ll be on television or in the movies. I have great hopes for television, and what might do. But the books won’t come from me anymore. Something entirely different will come. Something much more direct. But that last book will be published in October.
So, how have this return to faith and subsequent trials shaped Christ the Lord?
The skepticism, so far, has been limited to the blogosphere. But Canada.com assures us, “Rice starts from a position of absolute faith in the divinity of Jesus,” and TIME knowingly remarks, “The orthodoxy shouldn’t be surprising.” (Here, I want to put “queer quotes” around “orthodoxy,” as if secular media would ever recognize such a thing. My snide comments will suffice.)
Naturally, the most fulsome praise is found on Rice’s own website. In a personal note to Rice, the Rev. Joseph Cocucci, Director of Priestly and Religious Vocations in the Diocese of Wilmington, wrote:
As to the potential effect of Christ the Lord on readers: those who already know and love Jesus will find images and scenes to feed and deepen their prayer; those who know little of Jesus may be attracted and enticed to draw closer to him; those who do not know him at all or who up to this point have resisted him may find themselves wanting to learn more about him. No matter where one stands in relationship to Jesus, he or she will not stand in exactly that same space after reading your book.
You’ve actually done some great work for the Kingdom! I find the possibility of your fan-base becoming more acquainted with Jesus Christ a tremendously good thing, and most likely the reason God gave you such prodigious talent in the first place.
Anne Rice agrees: “My life has led to this book.”
Add to that, faint praise from the theologically slippery Emergent church leader, Brian McClaren:
Throughout history—from the DaVinci Code and the work of Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor, back through Pilgrim’s Progress and the Divine Comedy to the parables of Jesus—fictional narratives have been important ways for authors and readers to explore matters of ultimate concern.
Anne Rice here places herself in this rich tradition. Yes, this portrayal of Jesus will engender controversy—but it will also convey a sense of the political, social, and religious milieu into which Jesus came, which will in turn shed new light on the meaning of his teaching, life, and passion.
Also, according to the Dallas Morning News, Rice’s intent is evangelistic: “[H]er greatest hope for people reading Christ the Lord is that they will at least begin to think about Jesus, if not come to believe in him.”
Having spent three years in research, laboring through every book on the life of Christ she could find (yet being strangely stymied by terms like “ontological,” “epistemological,” and “hermeneutical”!) and watching every movie about Jesus ever made, Rice is confident her book will accurately depict the kind of life-experiences the son of a carpenter might have experienced in 1st century Palestine. (See some of the books she read, and later reviewed, in Rice’s Amazon.com reviews.)
Also on the plus side, Rice recognizes that not all the “historical Jesus” crowd acknowledges Jesus’ divinity: “Some of the people in New Testament scholarship don’t hide their bias at all. They’re just out to prove Jesus wasn’t God, but of course that’s impossible to prove.” Rice further notes that historians are kinder to Hitler than to Christ, granting Hitler at least a little mystery, power, and mysticism.
In a bloodless attempt at criticism, the Dallas Morning News includes this nonsensical quote from Adam Becker, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at NYU:
“[Rice] seems to be attacking some kind of liberal, PC bogeyman. … But the majority of historical Jesus scholars are Christian and affiliated with the church in some way. She criticizes fashionable notions, yet she’s basically saying it’s fashionable to be a Christian.”
It’s not useful, here, to criticize the critics, but if this is the best, most authoritative critic the Morning News could find, then there must be a lot of substance to Rice’s book.
To further bolster the positive, Rice’s Jesus is unquestionably divine, and she rejects theories that Christ was married or merely a political revolutionary. Aside from speculating the on unknowable (and inflammable!), Rice’s biggest challenge is not simply portraying “what would Jesus do,” but rather, “what would Jesus think.”
Unfortunately, Rice is not as restrictive in what she considers content useful for sound speculation as Evangelicals would like. Her goal is laudable, but I think she casts far too wide a net in searching for historical data. While striving to be “accurate according to all the records we possess,” (emphasis added) Rice might have done well to filter out the junk and reject outright fiction. For example, see what is reported about content on page one:
…a bully comes after the 7-year-old Jesus. “I felt the power go out of me as I shouted: ‘You’ll never get where you’re going.’” The bully falls down dead. Later, Jesus resurrects the bully, having made his point.
This is inspired by the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, not included in your standard Evangelical canon of divinely inspired literature. And not typically considered an authentic gospel or historical account. This is a work dated around 150 AD, describing how Jesus learned to use his divine powers for good (…and not for evil? What is he, Spider-Man?). Here’s the passage that seemingly inspired Rice:
Next, he was going through the village again and a running child bumped his shoulder. Becoming bitter, Jesus said to him, “You will not complete your journey.” Immediately, he fell down and died.
(From Andrew Bernhard’s translation.)
Now, if you’re truly being faithful to the legitimate Gospel records of the nature of Christ both as the only perfect man and as the fully divine Son of God, this is not the passage you’d want to start your book with. This passage, and Rice’s extrapolation, don’t show a perfect pre-adolescent Christ growing in knowledge, wisdom, grace, and favor with God and man. Rather, this is speculation about a socially inept, rage-addled second-grader who bullies others, has the power to murder, and the power to avoid consequences.
So, despite Rice’s orthodoxy in matters of divinity, I’m not all that confident about her speculation on Christ’s humanity. Though he was a man, Christ was perfect in every way. This scene wins no awards from me.
What Would Anne Rice Think (WWART)?
Rice’s father studied to become a priest, and when she was 13 she wanted to be a priest, too. Since that was impossible, she wanted to be a nun. But by her first year in college in 1960 Rice lost her faith in God, and “…in losing my faith, I lost my whole view of the world. My whole rich and hopeful and really lovely view of the cosmos as a just place, in which nobody’s suffering was ever wasted or lost. In which God knew every tear that was shed.”
After calling herself an atheist for 38 years, and simultaneously exploring the bounds of sexuality, sado-masochism, the occult, Wicca, and various world religions, she came to “Christian” faith in November/December 1998. That kind of event usually presages dramatic and often immediate changes, but in 1999, not long after returning to the Church, Rice admitted, “I obviously have radical sexual views. … I see bisexuality as strength; I see it as deeply honest and powerful.”
Contrary to most conservatives, Rice is “okay” with homosexuality. It’s not hard to empathize, since her son Christopher Rice, a successful author in his own right, is openly gay. However, Anne Rice is not merely tolerant of the gay lifestyle, throughout her fiction she virtually celebrates it, and she has become something of an iconic hero for the gay, lesbian, and transgendered movements. And, significantly, this hasn’t seemed to change much since returning to the Church. Rice admits she has examined the New Testament several times, and she simply doesn’t “see any place where Christ says you can’t be gay. I haven’t found that.” (Of course, Christ doesn’t explicitly address vampirism, either, so “Hurray for Lestat!”) Gay marriage is a “non issue,” and somehow, despite the impossibility of gay procreation, homosexuals have contributed to the evolution of mankind:
Gays have nothing to do with the ills of our society. On the contrary, we find them everywhere playing positive roles in the arts, in education, in the military, in politics, in teaching. And we are coming to understand that they have always been with us, perhaps in the same proportions, in every society on earth—a percentage born apart—playing some significant role in the evolution of the species with regard to their special gifts.
As one reviewer wrote, Anne Rice’s return to Christianity is not simple. Indeed, it is “colored by her emphasis on appreciation of the pleasures of the physical world and on the ultimate importance of human accomplishment.” (From: Literary Encyclopedia: Rice, Anne.) Let’s just hope Rice’s Jesus won’t double as an extra for “Gay Eye for the Straight Jewish Guy.”
- Jason L. S. Raia, at Intellectuals, Inc., gives Christ the Lord a big, big “thumbs up.” Consider these gems of effusive praise, “This is not just good writing, but it draws on Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual practice of Biblical contemplation.” and “Christ the Lord is a gift—to the Church, to believers and non-believers alike. Everyone who wishes to know more about Jesus should read this book. Everyone who wants to know about first century Israel should read this book. Everyone who enjoys a good story should read this book. In short, everyone should read Christ the Lord—Out of Egypt.”
- Rcksteroni, at Brutally Honest, hopes Rice’s conversion is genuine, that her faith remains, uh, faithful, and that her readers will follow her footsteps. Well, we don’t really know where her footsteps lead, yet, do we Rckster?
- Terence, over at the aptly named, Terence’s Blog, isn’t happy. He figures this book is going to be: “Fun. Yeah. Fun like a stick in the eye.”
- Over at The Drudge Siren, Jon gets points for the best headline: « Anne Rice Finds Jesus, Jesus “Skeeved Out,” Hiding ». He’s bracing for the Evangelical and Fundamentalist backlash: “Somewhere, angry sermons are already being written. They’ll be given an action-prior-to-the-snap penalty, as I guarantee you this’ll be condemned well before anyone reads it.” Maybe so. The secular press, however, is loathe to touch the religious aspects with a ten-foot pole. We’ll see what the conservatives do. (I just heard my employer will be publishing an article on her next month, I’ll link that that when it’s available.)
- Josue Sierra, at Latino Issues, A Conservative Blog,” is a little torn: “I would not put any faith on her doctrinal accuracy.” Yet, on the other hand, “considering her ability to research, [this] should be a fascinating work.” In the end? “I’m curious.”
That Josue. Such a conservative latino blogger.
- I like Jon Allen’s conclusion the best, over at Seldom Wrong, Never in Doubt: “[This book] will keep Jesus on the media’s front burner. We are all for confrontations between lazy secularists and that second-temple Jewish prophet who was crucified and by all accounts rose from the tomb. This book will reopen the discussion in coffee houses, break rooms and dormitories all over the global village.”
When I get a copy of the book, I’ll review it here. But meanwhile, I’d recommend the book for anybody who wants to stay informed about the latest pop-culture Jesus hoopla. Rice’s book will surely raise a lot of questions which the Evangelical world must formulate answers for, but it’s likely this will also be a service to the Church, like Mel Gibson’s recent movie was. As with The Passion of the Christ, there may be much to criticize, but it’s certainly possible (even likely) that the Holy Spirit will use this woman, her career, her grief, her influence, and her books to affect a whole swath of people for Christ who would never have considered him otherwise.
Otherwise: approach the book with caution.
Rice says that from here on out the Vampire Chronicles and Witches and etc. are kaput, and she’s only writing for the Lord. May this be the first of many works of art inspired by Divine grace. May it be so. But, regardless, you’ll likely need to alert to avoid the liberal theology in her works for some time.
10/26 Update: Donald Sensing over at One Hand Clapping has a good analyses of the flaws in Rice’s selection of material for her background material, especially in her treatment of Christ’s miracles and their meaning within a narrative context. Worth the read.
11/02 Update: John Wilson, over at Books & Culture, highlighted a great article from The New York Times by Laura Miller: “The Coffin Was Too Confining.” Worth the read, it gives some more background behind Rice’s life, her relocation, and her personality. One great quote: “Ms. Rice, however, does not suffer casual observations. ‘Only people who don’t know my books,’ she said gravely, would perceive the change as a major shift. A clumsy question about demons provoked an icy response: ‘I never wrote about demons. Have you ever read my books?’ In particular, Ms. Rice bristles at the notion, held by some ill-informed persons, that her vampire books are light amoral entertainment. ‘I think they’re very Christian books,’ she insisted, ‘by somebody outside the church, lost in the darkness, striving to find meaning and sometimes being rebellious.’”
11/04 Update: My colleague (and savior of my cats—but that’s a different story), Stan Guthrie, found a distribution number that conflicted with mine. I said 500K, he said 325K. I figured he was right, but all my sources said 500,000, including the Dallas Morning News, and Publisher’s Weekly. I looked again, and found that PW had both numbers. Stan called Knopf and got the right number. Knopf’s confidence in Rice’s popularity has hereby been downgraded to a first-print run of $325,000. Still, if Knopf manages to squeeze $20 out of each copy, that’s a cool $6.5 million dollars in revenue.
[tags]A.-N.-Roquelaure, Anne-Rampling, Anne-Rice, Howard-Allen-O’Brien, Christ-the-Lord, Christopher-Rice, Evangelical, Howard-Allen-Frances-O’Brien, Jesus-Christ, Out-of-Egypt, Vampire-Lestat, literature, fiction, homosexuality, novel, Pentecostal, religious-fiction, review, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0375412018[/tags]