The Taser's Edge

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice (Knopf, 2005)

The four Gospels each give us different pictures, angles, and emphases of Jesus.  Orthodox Christianity came to believe and teach that he is fully God (and has always been, including before he was born of Mary) and fully human (although even Mel, while certain that blood ran in and mostly out of his veins, couldn’t bring himself to show Jesus’ penis).  Then every pastor of every sermon seems to have their own ideas, sometimes painfully abstract ideas, even if they think they are being concrete.  After which most people reply, ‘Okay, yes, I believe you.  All that’s great, and I know, I know, it’s important.  But…what was he like?’

Reading Christ the Lord makes me think Anne Rice had a similar experience.  Like all who (re)become Christians, she (re)joined the Church knowing some things so clearly that she couldn’t stay away, but not having a clue about some other things, which she knew would just have to be sorted out later.  (In her case, some of those questions just couldn’t be sorted and leave her attached to the institutional Church.)

[Aside: I hate when reviewers over-psychologize authors, but I’m hoping it’s different when I’m labeling Rice as ‘totally normal’ rather than with a particular neurosis, as is the trend.]

And so I think one central question which either drew her to the project or at least she had to ask herself repeatedly was “What was Jesus like?”  And her answer: Jesus was a normal Jewish boy who knew that he wasn’t normal and therefore, because he was normal, obviously tried to find out who he was.

That’s the basic synopsis of the book and the mode through which Rice tells this story.  But here’s another synopsis:

At the beginning of the book, Jesus is six or seven.  He knows he once made living pigeons out of clay and that he even has power over human life and death (as Rice loves the apocryphal infant Gospel stories).  He knows that he was born in Bethlehem but that something either horrible or wonderful (or both) happened there, and that his family had to flee quickly, and that the reason why is a family secret which he must also keep.  He also knows that he is Jewish and that therefore he belongs in Israel, and that it will be his home.  The Temple is his Father’s house, even if he’s not the ‘only begotten.’

The family (not just Mary, Joseph, and the baby, but a whole lot of extended family, including Joseph’s son by another mother, James) is happy in Alexandria, but they know that they will return to their land one day, which they do.  There all the Jews are observant, but they disagree as to what that means, and so through their arguments we get a great picture of Israel as a place of upheaval and unrest, truly an occupied territory (not the mostly happy occupation that we often seem to imagine).  Over a couple years living in Nazareth, Jesus begins to learn more about his own story (the story of his identity and why his family seeks to hide it) and to grow up.

The verisimilitude of the setting is the beginning of the strengths of the book.  Mary and Jesus have a real, intimate mother-and-son relationship.  James is loving but also jealous of Jesus for being the special one, even though he (James) is the oldest son of Joseph.  Joseph is a beautiful, quiet, powerful man whom everyone knows is trustworthy.  The rest of the family is delightfully human, with senses of humor and crass jokes and joy around the dinner table and fear at political turmoil in their land.  The community at Nazareth knows some of the strangeness surrounding Mary and Jesus and are slow to welcome the family openly.  Jesus is like the child who knows he’s adopted, but whose adoptive parents feel it’s best to save the details until he’s older.

There are so many ways that one could be critical of any portrayal of Jesus, and many of them boil down to, “That’s not the way I picture him.”  But although I do have some of that reaction to Rice’s Jesus, I also love the exercise of imagination and research that brought this together.  As far as the writing goes, it’s functional – it gets the job done.  It’s better than Brown/Clancy/Grisham (Crichton being another level below them) and it’s not filled with all kinds of synonyms for ‘said’ (a la Rowling) or bad metaphors.  That is, it’s a popular author writing a popular novel for a popular audience.  I can hold it against her, or I can admit that a lot of people will love this book.

I would put my own feelings a decent bit below love, as I definitely found the writing dragged, and it was kind of boring at points, but there are certain parts, particularly characterizations and the picture of occupied Israel, that I think I will carry with me the next time I read the story of Jesus in any form.

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