Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
by Anne Rice
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
336 pages, 2005
Anne Rice is truly a legend, one of those writers everyone knows. Love her work, hate her work, be indifferent to her work: wherever you fall, the mention of her name conjures vampires, castrati, mixed-race blacks of New Orleans and a massive family of witches. No matter which of her books or series floats your boat, when you crack open a Rice book, you savor the moment the way Lestat savors the first trickle of blood from a fresh vein. Hungrily you drink, and she satisfies your thirst for adventure, for sensuality, for painstakingly authentic period details, for equally painstaking authentic emotional beats that survive the various degrees of the daring she brings to her plots.
Not long ago, Rice announced she was giving up vampires and witches, her two most prolific series. In her last book she wove both dark families into one story, one blended denouement.
"Vampires, castrati, free people of color, Jesus," she told me recently. "They are all outsiders who are in the very midst of life, creatures set apart who are nevertheless part of the society around them. I've always selected outsiders, outcasts, people who are perceived as larger than life, or even monstrous. My work has led to Christ the Lord."
It's also led to is the turning of a corner, and in doing so she has ventured where few novelists have dared to go. Her new novel, Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt, is a startling departure. The novel is filled with Rice's eye for detail, her exacting use of our abilities to perceive. What would any Rice novel be without these things? But if you're expecting her signature style, her distinctive voice, then prepare yourself for something new. Rice has written in the first person before, creating unique voices for Louis, Lestat and so many others. She does that again here, but her new work is written entirely from the perspective of a seven-year-old boy named Jesus.
Perhaps the title, Christ The Lord, conjures images of a man in his early 30s, with long hair and robes and sandals, preaching through the Holy Land and performing the odd miracle. Well, my hunch is that Rice will get there -- eventually. For now, though, she presents Jesus the boy, completely oblivious to the fate and the fame that await him.
When I asked her about this, I playfully referred to Jesus as "a nice Jewish boy," which is where she started her answer: "Jesus is more than a 'nice Jewish boy' in the novel. He's a deeply contemplative and observant Jew who is educated from the very start to be one of a Holy People. Unfortunately some Christians think Jesus brought love and compassion to the world. The Jews were already deeply concerned with love and compassion, kindness to the widow and the orphan, kindness to the alien in the land, etc. It runs all through the Old Testament; Christianity was for years a Jewish sect."
When the novel begins, Jesus is at a moment of crisis. He kills a child, then brings him back to life, both of which shock his family and community. While this seems more Stephen King than Anne Rice, the scenes instantly send Christ The Lord into a compelling area, one in which there's an apparently normal child who knows he is anything but normal. Rice's early scenes establish the book's spirituality -- and also the mystery -- of Jesus' predicament. In an interesting way, this makes what could be a heavy treatise into something entirely accessible and human and understandable.
"Yes, the novel begins with a crisis, and the resolution of the questions posed is the subject matter of the novel," Rice says. "Again, for me, Jesus is Divine, but he has put aside his full knowledge of what is going on so that he can experience. I feel that this is realistic because Jesus lived for over 30 years on earth -- didn't appear in a flash and leave in a flash -- and because of statements in the gospels, such as the scene in Mark where Jesus feels the power go out of him towards a woman who touched him in the crowd, but then asks, 'Who touched me?' Also Luke's statement about the boy Jesus, that he grew in 'wisdom and stature.' And Paul's statement that Jesus emptied himself for us. There are many other quotes that would support the idea that Jesus, though Divine, was experiencing life on earth in a wholly human way deliberately. Ultimately it was a theological choice, though I prefer to think of it as artistic."
The Jesus Rice portrays isn't particularly religious, no more than any other Jewish boy living 2000 years ago (or today, for that matter). He has frustrations and dreams, confusions and secrets. Primarily, these secrets involve what appear to be his special powers. The opening of the novel establishes this quickly. Something supernatural happens, and the novel explores the boy's discovery of his talents, as well as his learning how to use them.
But Christ The Lord is more complex than that. It's an action story, but it's an adventure of the mind. The Jesus who tells this tale isn't the boy we see in the scenes. Instead, the story is told as one long flashback, as the adult Jesus looks back upon his childhood, trying to put the pieces of his early life together. For all we know, this whole book is a memory Jesus has when he's on the cross. Or maybe it's completely unimportant where and when Jesus is when he's telling this story. The important thing is that he's telling it.
At its core, Christ The Lord is the story of a boy's search for truth, for identity, for meaning. In that way, it's not so different from Louis' search in Interview With The Vampire.
"You're right to compare Jesus' search for answers and understanding to the quest of my other characters for identity. But Jesus is wholly different. He could know everything if he wanted to know it. As I go on with the books, this will be developed more completely."
Reading Christ The Lord, I was fascinated by Rice's portrayal of day-to-day Jewish life two millennia ago (after all, she's not Jewish and I am). It feels like she got it right; there's not one shred of Christianity in this book, and of course there couldn't have been -- if you believe that the religion was the brainchild of others, and that it came about after Jesus' death.
In the book's afterword, Rice writes about the many religious scholars she consulted. I asked her how agreement and disagreement among Jewish and Christian scholars provided inspiration for her.
"Actually Christian and Jewish scholars argue a lot about Jesus," she said. "Geza Vermes, David Flusser, Jacob Neusner all wrote about Jesus. And there is much disagreement among scholars both Christian and Jewish as to how Jewish Jesus was -- whether Galileans went to the temple regularly, whether or not they observed the law, etc. I did a massive amount of research and made what I considered the best decisions about all this. Yes, Jesus went to the Temple as did all the males of Israel, and yes, Galileans obeyed the law. [For example,] recent digs in Galilee have confirmed the widespread use of purification baths. Of course there is controversy, but I found the evidence convincing, and I inferred that the family might indeed have one."
Where Rice's passion for detail really comes alive is in the book's compelling set-pieces that vibrantly anchor the tale. One comes early on, as Joseph and Mary bring their family back to Jerusalem from Alexandria (on their way to Nazareth). The scene they stumble into is astounding. Rice expertly paints the High Holy Days rituals at the Temple -- and the Roman slaughter that occurs. You'll believe you're there. Perhaps even that she was there.
The book's through-line, though, is the secrets: not the ones Jesus keeps, but the ones he suspects are being kept from him. He knows he's different, and he knows his differences set him apart. But it's more than his mysterious powers. What disturbs him is his suspicion that the world around him is not what it seems to be, that his family might not be all they seem to be. When Jesus is questioned by a rabbi, we learn that his powers are not only physical, but intellectual as well. Even so young, we see his charisma and it's not hard to see how it would encourage people to listen to him and follow him in later years.
The final secret, as we all know, is what happened on that night in Bethlehem. What were the circumstances of Jesus' birth? Why is that night the stuff of legend? Who were the three magi? Why did the family flee to Alexandria? And what does it all mean for this boy?
In all this, there is a sense of subdued greatness, as if to say the facts run second to their meaning. Jesus the narrator seems craves understanding as well as knowledge. In this, certainly, he echoes us all, no matter our faith.
All of this is relayed in a voice, as I have said, that marks a departure for Rice. It is sparse, quick, occasionally poetic. It is her voice of Jesus, and its cadence is biblical, both vibrant and ancient at once. If its rhythm is challenging at first, it brings real speed to the tale. This is not a book that lingers. Rather, as a storyteller Jesus moves it along quickly, eagerly getting to the next thing. I mentioned to Rice that when I "got" the voice, the book came alive in a new way. How inspiring to give Jesus a voice of his time and not ours.
"Much work went into trying to approximate the vocabulary Jesus would have," Rice says, "being a Greek speaker and an Aramaic speaker. I didn't want any glaring anachronisms."
That's not all. Jesus may not go on like Lestat does, but he certainly sees the world with the same kind of eyes, in a similarly heightened way. Rice's characters have always been defined significantly by their ability -- or lack thereof -- to appreciate and describe the world around them. Rice's Jesus is no different.
"Yes, I felt Jesus would have a profound pervasive sense of the beautiful. He is God and Man in the book, putting aside his full knowledge so that he can experience what it means to be fully human."
I felt I had to ask Rice about God. I know people who, having endured great tragedy, feel abandoned by God. Over the years, Rice has lost a daughter and a husband, and has had her own brush with death at the hand of diabetes. I wanted to know if she had ever felt abandoned.
"I've never felt abandoned by God, really," she said. "I felt that I abandoned him when I lost my faith as a young woman. Though I've suffered the loss of a daughter, a husband, and of course both parents, I have not ever seen these things personally. They are 'what happened.' I think it's entirely possible that God might have been very sad when my daughter died. I believe Divine Providence is the fabric of the universe. God is with the person who dies in a car accident, just as he is with the person who survives. We can't guess what his plan is. I see that throughout the Old Testament."
I'm anxious to know what Rice's own plan is, for in Christ The Lord she has created a true cliffhanger with an ending that's both quiet and earth-shattering. We all know what's to come: the deep dives into philosophy and faith, the visions of the future, the miracles, the dirty politics, the betrayals, the man's gruesome death. But at this early stage of the story, Jesus is an explorer, a boy in search of truth, of himself, of his heritage. In this, he is no different from you or me. That's why I found this novel so wonderful and accessible: Title aside, it's not so much about Christ the Lord as it is about Jesus the person. | November 2005
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, NJ, and he is Creative Director/Copy for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Philadelphia.