Mark Greene finds much to cheer the heart and the mind in Anne Rice's novel of Jesus' childhood. There are at least three remarkable stories connected to Anne's Rice novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. There is the story the novel tells, there is the story of the author's return to faith and there is the story of her in-depth research of the first century and in particular of her insightful travels round New Testament scholarship. And all three are heartening.Anne Rice is, at first, second and third glance, an unlikely to person to write a beautiful, compelling fictional account of Jesus' life from the age of eight to the age of 12. She is, after all, better known for a long career in vampire novels with such wholesome titles as The Vampire Lestat, The Queen of the Damned, Memnoch the Devil, Blood Canticle and most famously for Interview with a Vampire which was made into a film with Tom Cruise. For some of her fans, her metamorphosis into a committed Catholic must have been as shocking as it was for Dylanites when Bob was not only born-again but produced Slow Train Coming - a musically and lyrically accomplished album with enough depth and wit to prove that, wherever Dylan may be now, something significant had happened.
In Rice's novel, Christ the Lord: out of Egypt, she explores, not the Magdalene-marrying Jesus of Dan Brown, nor Jesus the alien from another galaxy, nor the just-another-man-Jesus of liberal scholarship - but the Jesus of the Gospels. Of course, the Gospels themselves tell us very little about Jesus' childhood so Rice's approach was to immerse herself in the Gospels and to imaginatively reconstruct the kinds of experiences Jesus might have had as he grew up and that formed him into the man he became.
The result, you might be relieved to hear, is not a sensationalist saga brimming with superficial heresies, which is perhaps why you may not have heard of it. Nor does Rice's past fascination with vampires lead her to focus on Jesus as child miracle-worker or devil-defeater. Rather, the combination of deep historical, archaeological and geographical research, a long and varied odyssey into New Testament scholarship and much heartfelt prayer has led to a book that leads the reader into a sense of wonder and deeper understanding of the mystery of God coming as a child.
Certainly, there are aspects of the novel to quibble about: Jesus may never have been in Alexandria; he almost certainly never modelled sparrows out of clay and then brought them to life - as the apocryphal tale has it; he may never, at the age of eight, have killed a playground bully and brought him back to life. Nor indeed, as her epilogue suggests, is Rice claiming that he did. Still, she uses these incidents to explore a fascinating series of questions: when does Jesus himself begin to realise who he is? At what point do his parents tell him about the angel that visited his mother, the dream his father had, the children who were slaughtered by Herod in his stead? And how did he respond? At what point, if any in his childhood, does he discover his extraordinary powers? And how does he, fully boy and fully God, come to decide on how to use them?
Certainly, we know from Luke (2:41-52) that by the time he visits the temple at 12 he knows who his real father is. But have his relatives told him anything about his past? Did he meet his cousin John and what do his other relatives tell him or hint at along the way? Whatever we may think about the events that Rice imagines, the portrait that emerges is one that is grounded in an interpretation of Jesus' life that reflects John and Paul's understanding: Jesus makes the decision to only do his father's will, not to use any power he has unilaterally. He sets aside his majesty as a child, even as we know he set it aside when he agreed to come as a mortal. It is what the scholars call 'kenosis', the Greek word for emptying out, 'made himself nothing' as Paul writes in Philippians 2:6-8
'Who being in very nature God, Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,But made himself nothing,Taking the very nature of a servant,Being made in human likeness,And being found in appearance as a man,He humbled himselfAnd became obedient to death - even death on a cross.'Helpfully, Rice's reconstruction of a possible childhood serves to help the reader understand the kind of society Jesus actually grew up in and the kind of experiences he might well have had. So for example, when we read in the Gospels about how Jesus expels the money lenders from the Temple, it sometimes seems to us that it might have been one of the first times he had been in the Temple, one of the first times that he had seen how the moneylenders and pigeon seller exploited people's love of God and desire for forgiveness. But it almost certainly wasn't. He'd probably been several times before as boy and man. Moreover, his father and uncles and the other villagers he'd known would have complained about that vile practice.
Similarly, it's unlikely that Jesus' childhood years drifted by in country bliss far from the madding crowd and the sword, blood and fire of the times. Whether he witnessed the burning of Jericho or any of the violence and crucifixions that attended the sporadic Jewish rebellions against the Romans, he would almost certainly have heard about them and seen some of their consequences. Similarly, as a Nazarene, he would have known about the burning of the nearby Roman town of Sepphoris, almost certainly have known families who had been bereaved by Roman retribution, or abused by Jewish rebels.
Rice brings all this into the young Jesus' first person narrative as well as evoking Jesus growing love of the natural world, of his life in a village as a carpenter's son learning Joseph's trade. Indeed, for those who know the Gospels there is a wonderful, dynamic interplay between what we know and what Rice writes about. When, for example, she mentions 'sparrows' suddenly the Gospel passages about sparrows come to mind.
Similarly, as the young Jesus makes observations about the world around him we see how indeed the child is the father of the man. So for example, one day he notices just how hard the women have to work to put bread on the table and keep the house clean. On another occasion the whole extended family is saved from execution by the wise intervention of an old matriarch but none of the men thank her. He wonders why not. His mother tells him: “She’s still a woman and they are men.” And then Jesus tells us: “In the night I woke up crying.” And then we perhaps remember how this empathy will one day grow into the radical teaching that affirmed the essential, irrevocable, eternally determined equality of women and that would indeed begin to liberate women from the shackles of the oppressive patriachalism of the Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures.
Rice’s quest for Jesus focused on the Gospels so it is no surprise that her account helps us hear them in new ways. And so we are called on to wonder at God’s wisdom in making him the son of a carpenter. When he is 12 and Mary and Joseph go back to Jerusalem to find him, Mary finally tells him who he is and then says: ‘And now you come home with us to Nazareth. Not back to the Temple. Oh, I know how much you want to stay at the Temple. I know. But no. The Lord in Heaven did not send you to the house of a Teacher in the Temple or a priest in the Temple or a scribe or a rich Pharisee. He sent you to Joseph bar Jacob, the carpenter and his betrothed, Mary of the Tribe of David in Nazareth. And you come home to Nazareth with us.’
This is the first of four novels on the life of Christ that Rice is planning and on this evidence, there is much to look forward to. Indeed, there are passages in the book that are simply breathtaking, even if it took me at least some time to abandon myself to Rice’s approach.
The book also contains an epilogue that has two main elements. Firstly, the story of her return to faith after decades away and then the story of how she came to write the book and the continuity that her current writing has with her past focus on vampires. She realises that that whole exercise was an attempt to find meaning in a world that she believed to be without God. But Christ she has found. And having found Christ, she began to want to write about him. Secondly, it is a personal account of an extraordinary period of meticulous research. What is interesting is not just the breadth of her reading, or its quality, or even the fact that she has come to be convinced by the veracity of an evangelical understanding of Christ – there is an eloquent paean of praise to Tom Wright. No, what is fascinating is what she notices about so much of liberal New Testament scholarship: ‘In sum the whole case for the nondivine 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 liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for 30 years - that case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in the field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read.’
This is heartening indeed, though said without rancour, with evident humility and with gratitude to scholars of different persuasions that she has learned from. It is, nevertheless one more piece of evidence, if any more were needed, that a mind bent on seeking truth will find it. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that a mind that bent on seeking truth will be found by Him. And that’s a good thing to be reminded of it – even if we knew it already.
‘...seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened’ (Matthew 7:7-8).
Mark Greene is the executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.