[#] Anne Rice: Christ the Lord (2 of 3)

The real irony of this book is that, in many ways, it is not about Jesus at all -- not in the sense that he is the protagonist. Of course, he's the narrator, but in this book it is apparently Jesus remembering being a 7- or 8-year-old boy who is returning to Nazareth. Frankly, the Jesus Mrs. Rice portrays in this book who it the narrator ... he's not very compelling. He's somewhat average. He doesn't really reflect the person that all the people in this book interact with and find so compelling. That was one of the distracting things about the book as at the level of being a "good read": the Jesus people seemed to be interacting with was very different than the Jesus we were listening to narrating the story.

"cent: ignoramous," says the English major reading this review, "The Jesus narrating the story is not the Jesus these people are interacting with. You said yourself this is a grown Jesus reflecting on his past. Of course the Jesus these people are interacting with is not the Jesus narrating the story." Yeah, that's exactly the opposite of what I actually mean. It seems to me that the people the narrator talks about are all far more impressed with this young boy than this young by merits, and the narrator himself apparently does not know why. That's extremely problematic if you consider that this grown Jesus narrator is himself God incarnate not just in the aloof christological sense, but also in the immediate sense that plainly Jesus the adult knew what was in men's hearts. From the perspective of an omniscient first-person narrator, you really shouldn't be able to do better than Jesus, and I found the Jesus Mrs. Rice produced not quite up to that task.

But if this book is not about Jesus the narrator, who or what is it about? The novel is itself 300 pages long, and you really have to read every pages to discover that this book is being released at Christmas because it is, itself, a book about Christmas - a book about that night in Bethlehem when angels appeared to shepherds, and days later Kings from gentile nations came and gave that child honor. Of course, Jesus the 7-year-old doesn't remember any of that - even though it is not actually Jesus the 7-year-old who is narrating. What this book focuses on is the catalytic event in the life of Joseph's household that bring them back to the events of Jesus' birth: the death of Herod, and their return from Egypt to the land of the Jews.

That journey, in Mrs. Rice's account, is a journey of discovery for Jesus. It is a discovery of the story that his mother told - and, in this account, all her family believes - that she was visited by an angel, and there conceived a child by God. It is the discovery of the story of Joseph, her husband, who received multiple visitations from angels, causing him to take Mary as his wife (even though he never actually "takes" Mary as his wife in this account, which I will get to in a minute), leave ahead of Herod's murderous rage after the 3 Kings refuse to tell Herod where the King of the Jews is, and then return to Galilee after the death of Herod. Most staggeringly, it is the story of Jesus' older brother James (yes, yes: I know; just a second), and what happened that night in the stable from his perspective.

The novel has somewhat-astounding historical detail - and I'll admit that because I am not even a novice at the period, I'll take Mrs. Rice's word for it that she spent the better part of 20 years researching this book. And in the end, I think it is a flawed account. She gets the "nuts and bolts" about-right, recounting with some license the infancy narratives of Christ as reported by Luke and Matthew. But, for example, James the son of Joseph is not mentioned in either of these Gospels as being present or alive at the birth of Jesus - Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census, reports Luke, and he did not go "with his household" or "with all his family" to be counted: he went with Mary his Betrothed, who was with child. The matter of Mary's perpetual virginity is dealt with in what I would call an apologetic short-form (in effect, how could Joseph have intercourse with Mary after Mary had born the son of God? My answer would be, "because that's what married people in love do."). And the matter of James' account of Jesus' birth seems to overlook that James' mother is not Mary, and that his view of Mary would be formed by that fact -- even as a child.

However, before I give some more of my concerns about this book, here I am going to give a summary assessment of it: if you're a reader of this blog, you should read this book. Don't wait for it to come out on a bargain pallet, if it ever does. It goes for $26 at any bookstore that has it, you can get it on-line for under $20, and right now it is #26 on Amazon's total sales ranking. #26. So it will have some impact on popular reaction to Christians and the story of Christ, and you, as a reader of this blog, should have some first-hand knowledge of it in order to give an answer.

And you should have an answer because this book raises a lot of questions. Like Mel Gibson's the Passion of the Christ, this book is an access point to matters of critical importance in the proclamation of the Gospel. And, like Gibson's movie, it is an unmistakably Catholic version of events. I'm sure some Lutherans and Anglicans will not find much to grouse about in this novel, but if you do not accept the perpetual virginity of Mary, you're not going to be able to say, "this is as it was."

There are other problems, too. This 7-year-old Jesus is not quite sinless. He capriciously strikes a young child dead while playing roughly with him, and then out of remorse or guilt or fear brings him back to life. He prays for snow just to see what it is like. The legend that he turned clay birds into real birds is here propped up as a method he used to escape being accused of violating the Sabbath as a young child. And for those excited that Mrs. Rice wants to perpetuate the idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin, the part-and-parcel corollary to that is her immaculate conception and virgin birth - which are untenable in the face of the Mary portrayed in this novel as a somewhat-naïve girl with a supernatural "secret" (which is itself a little weird, given the number of people who are "in" on the secret) who is somewhat emotionally high-strung. Also somewhat bizarre is the portrayal of Satan in this book as a being who does not know Jesus is God's son (therefore very God from Very God) in spite of the fact that, as an adult, all the demons know Jesus at first sight.

What we ultimately find very little of, though, is rank skepticism about Jesus. In her concluding Author's note, Mrs. Rice makes a point of saying that she believes her portrayal of Christ in this book is inside the orthodoxy of the Council of Chalcedon in its representation of one who was always all man and always all God.

That's quite a statement from the woman who created Lestat and spent most of her adult life as an atheist. We'll examine that statement and the rest of the Author's Note in the last part of this series.

Note to Challies Readers: There is a part 3 coming, but I wanted to tease you all to stay tuned, since today is my last day of king for the week from Challies. Now you must come back for the last part.