Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice. Alfred A. Knopf (2005), 322 pages, $25.95 (hardcover).
Anne Rice has been writing horror novels for over 30 years (her first book Interview with the Vampire, was written in 1973). But something happened to her in the late 90’s. She was drawn back to God through the mystery of the survival of the Jews. In 1998 she went back to the Catholic Church.
As she began studying the Bible, she decided to give herself completely to the task of understanding Jesus Christ. She said she was “ready to do violence to [her] career,” and decided she wanted to write the life of Jesus Christ in the first person. She consecrated herself and her work to Christ, and began studying.
As Mrs. Rice read more of the skeptical scholarship about Jesus, she became disillusioned with the lack of coherence of their arguments:
What gradually came clear to me was that many of the skeptical arguments—arguments that insisted most of the Gospels were suspect, for instance, or written too late to be eyewitness accounts—lacked coherence. They were not elegant. Arguments about Jesus himself were full of conjecture. Some books were no more than assumptions piled upon assumptions. Absurd conclusions were reading on the basis of little or no data at all…. I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read. I saw almost no skeptical scholarship that was convincing, and the Gospels, shredded by critics, lost all intensity when reconstructed by various theorists. (pp. 313-314)
She then decided that the real challenge was to write about the Jesus of the Gospels:
Anybody could write about a liberal Jesus, a married Jesus, a gay Jesus, a Jesus who was a rebel. The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” had become a joke because of all the many definitions it had ascribed to Jesus. The true challenge was to take the Jesus of the Gospels, the Gospels which were becoming ever more coherent to me, the Gospels which appealed to me as elegant first-person witnesses, dictated to scribes, no doubt, but definitely early, the Gospels produced before Jerusalem fell—to take the Jesus of the Gospels, and try to get inside him and imagine what he felt. (pp. 319-320)
And that is what she tried to do. But can someone successfully write a book about a man who was God using the first person? A book written in the first person says volumes about the narrator: in this case, Jesus Christ, Son of God. The personality and thoughts of the narrator are revealed—even the language, vocabulary, and general style of the writing says something about him. In other words, the narration of the novel is an accuracy problem waiting to happen. It is also, in my opinion, the foundation for much critique.
It is easy to forget that this is only a novel—some reviewers treat it as a work of scholarship. But it is a work of fiction (although based on scholarship), and this review attempts to treat it as such.
The very first line of Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt tells us that Jesus is seven years old, and we can infer that he is the narrator. Jesus is writing his history—but for whom? And for what purpose? These questions are never answered (or asked, apparently). Stranger yet, it does not sound anything like the Jesus in the Gospels. This is not because he is a child—the adult Jesus is narrating. We know from the Scriptures that Jesus has an unparalleled range of insight and is eminently quotable. Surely the adult Jesus narrator would write with amazing insights filled with wit and wisdom. But this is hardly the case. In fact, I could not find even one sentence that would be worth quoting outside of a review. If you are going to have an adult Jesus narrating, you must make it sound like an adult Jesus. And based on all the evidence of what Jesus Christ spoke like, this does not have any resemblance.
Mrs. Rice knows that there will be many people who read this who are unfamiliar with Old Testament stories. So she weaves in old stories with whatever event is happening, and she does a good job of it. She is not content to make a distant reference or allusion. This is done, for instance, with King Saul and David, as well as the story of Jonah and the whale. This is not only helpful to the reader, it also gives greater exposure to these forgotten stories—and might even create interest to read the actual stories in the Bible.
Mrs. Rice also does a good job imagining how songs and prayers might be intertwined with the daily lives of the Jews. Songs are always being sung, and prayers always being said, during travel, work, or even when alone. It fits beautifully with the characters, setting, and culture and is very convincing.
Consistent characters are key to a good story. Unfortunately, the character of Jesus is inconsistent. A recurring theme is Jesus becoming scared or frightened, and working himself into crying. He often has bad dreams and wakes up crying for his mother, for example. This does not seem to fit with any reliable information we have on Jesus, nor does it fit with his supernatural abilities. He is a boy who can kill people, raise them again, make sparrows out of clay, make rain stop, make it snow, make blind people see. Yet he spends most of his time being afraid and crying! That does not sound like consistency in character. Could it be that the author is so used to writing about fear and horror that she must assign these qualities to Jesus as well?
Another inconsistency issue is the difference between desire and prayer. For example, on page 171, Jesus wants the rain to stop, and it ceases. He did not have to pray, but only to desire. Yet all through the story Jesus desires many things that he does not get—he wants the fighting to stop in the Temple, for instance, but it does not. This is complicated by the fact that the main “suspense” in the story is Jesus being ignorant regarding his birth, and gradually learning bits and pieces from various people other than his parents (Mary and Joseph forbid Jesus to even ask about it). So Jesus wants his parents and Uncle and brother to tell him all about his birth, but Jesus does not get what he wants.
Speaking of Jesus’ birth, why do Mary and Joseph not want Jesus to know about his childhood? Why do they forbid him to even ask about it? This seems odd and unrealistic. It seems more likely that Jesus would have been told about his birth from a very young age. And it would not be something to be hushed up and awkward to speak of in the family—it would be celebrated!
The character development in general is not strong. By far the most interesting and well-developed character (other than Jesus) is Jesus’ Uncle Cleopas. The other characters are flat. Mary is treated like a child (in order to emphasize her “innocence” one presumes). Joseph is unintelligent—he forbids Jesus to ask questions about his birth because he does not know the answers. And the rest of the family (other than, perhaps, Little Salome) could all be the same people with different names and jobs.
Setting and Historical Accuracy
Enough about the plot. Is the novel historically accurate in its setting? In the author’s note at the end of the novel, Mrs. Rice explains her obsession with historical accuracy:
Every novel I’ve ever written since 1974 involved historical research. It’s been my delight that no matter how many supernatural elements were involved in the story, and no matter how imaginative the plot and characters, the background would be thoroughly historically accurate. And over the years, I’ve become known for that accuracy. (p. 305)
With as much reading as she has done, it would be hard for her not to be historically accurate! And I am happy to say that overall she is careful and accurate. There are certainly things to quarrel about. For instance, Mrs. Rice dates the birth of Jesus at 11 B.C., a view not too popular among conservative scholars. That being said, the setting and characters fit the time period and culture. The food, landscapes, towns, and rituals all fit together like a puzzle. This is certainly the best part of the novel.
Christ the Lord is a “contemporary” novel in almost every sense of the word. If you can imagine our culture’s plain metal and glass buildings and our taste for concrete slabs translated into a literary style, you will have something close to the style used in this novel.
I mean to say that the writing style is very plain and simple. It could easily be understood by a child, and takes little effort to understand for an adult. The sentences, paragraphs, and dialogues are very short, and rarely complex. The language is informal, and the constant contractions grate on the mind.
The novel is mostly dialogue—there are few riveting descriptions that move imagination. In fact, at times it reads more like a screenplay than a novel. It does not take full advantage of the medium of the written word, but rather seems like it was made to be a movie (and that, no doubt, will happen). Compare Christ the Lord with a work of imagination from Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, or J.R.R. Tolkien and you will see what I mean.
Another stylistic problem is the narration, as I have touched on already. The adult Jesus is narrating this story, which brings in even more issues than if the child was narrating. The narrator does not sound like a mature man, much less the God-man. There does not seem very much wisdom or insight in his words. Surely Jesus would have been more didactic in his narration, and given deep truths as to why certain events happened. And can you imagine Jesus, who created everything and for whom all things were made saying that “perhaps” this and “maybe” that, even looking back? Not I.
An excellent test for literature is how it affects us after we read it. Good literature makes us new people—we experience new lives, one could say. Our minds and imaginations are stretched. An experienced reader knows this feeling well. I think C.S. Lewis has the best explanation of this concept that I have ever read:
We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves…. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own… We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even doors….
In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. (Lewis, C.S. Quoted in Leland Ryken, The Christian Imagination, pp. 51-52)
But I felt none of this when I finished this book. I did not feel like I gained much of anything by reading it, other than a collection of notes for this review. I was not challenged nor stretched—and if any book should challenge or stretch me, I think it would be a book that is narrated by Jesus Christ, Son of Almighty God!
In one sense, all reading is worldview reading. The author espouses a worldview through the narration, characters, and plot. The reader must discern this in order to truly understand literature. But for the Christian, this becomes extremely important when reading works written about Christ or Christianity. Books always affect us—for the better and/or for the worse. Discerning the author’s worldview (and the worldview of various characters the author has created) is greatly beneficial to making sure we are not being misled.
And here Mrs. Rice is not easy to figure out. While she is a Catholic, not all the ideas she espouses are orthodox, even within the Catholic Church. In terms of Catholic doctrine, she certainly puts forth Mary’s “innocence” and virginity:
“[Joseph] never lies beside her….” [Jesus said]
“He never touches her because he does believe. Don’t you see? How could he touch her after such a thing?” (p. 47)
Because of Mary’s perpetual virginity, Jesus’ brothers and sisters are Joseph’s children from a former marriage (which is different than both traditional Catholic or Protestant doctrine). But more troubling than this is Mrs. Rice’s picture of Jesus Christ.
The novel begins with Jesus accidentally killing a bully. Then Jesus seeks out his dead body and gives his life back. This is essentially the Son of God not understanding his power, misusing it, and then fixing his mistake by using his power in a different way. Did you catch that? The novel begins with Jesus making a mistake. An error. God just did something wrong, and had to fix it. But an orthodox understanding of God (and therefore Jesus, since he is God) is that he does not make mistakes, and makes no errors or misjudgments.
A few pages later Jesus makes another mistake:
“There’s blood on your face!” my mother whispered. “Your eye, there’s blood. Your face is cut!” She was crying. “Oh, look what’s happened to you,” she said. She spoke in Aramaic, our tongue which we didn’t speak very much.
“I’m not hurt,” I said. I meant to say it didn’t matter. (p. 8)
Jesus accidentally said something other than what he meant to say. Again, Jesus makes a mistake. Even more of a problem, what he does say is a lie. The page before explained that Jesus had been kicked in the face and in the ribs, and “ached all over.” And his mother (in the above quote) says his face is cut. So for Jesus to say that he was not hurt is a complete lie. This is not an orthodox representation of Jesus Christ.
Little Jesus not only makes mistakes and lies, but also has trouble with obeying his parents. For instance, after Joseph commands the family to “get on your knees and stay there,” Jesus disobeys:
A wild will came over me and I struggled to get up and free. I pushed and jerked to the side until I wasn’t under Joseph, and I climbed to my feet as if I was running….
“Joseph, look,” cried my mother. “Get him, pull him down.”
I pulled free of the hands that tried to tug at me. (p. 59)
So much for honoring or obeying his parents! I wonder if Jesus got a spanking after that episode, because it sounds like he deserved it.
Another problem Jesus has is a faulty memory. Consider this passage, which serves as a good example of not only this point but also the previous two as well:
“What happened in Bethlehem?” I asked. I blushed. I’d forgotten Joseph’s order to me not to ask. I felt a sharp pain all through me. “I’m sorry I said it,” I whispered. (p. 235)
In this passage Jesus forgets his father’s order, makes a mistake, disobeys his father, and then is sorry and guilty for his sin. But this is not the only time Jesus struggles with a forgetful mind. Jesus couldn’t remember “all those links” to Old Sarah, “no matter how often they were told to me” (p. 133). He couldn’t remember the names of Old Sarah’s grandfather’s seven sons, even though Joseph could (p. 142). He couldn’t remember “a single word that my mother said to me that night in Jerusalem” even though his mother insisted that he do so (p. 173). And he couldn’t remember much about what Elizabeth had said about Zechariah’s murder in the Temple (p. 265). Clearly, the Jesus in this book has a memory just like the rest of us. He is a man, and shows no signs of being God incarnate. At best he might be a prophet, who works miracles and has glimpses of insight from time to time.
That is perhaps the most disturbing part of the novel: the lack of the divinity of Jesus. I would not think Jesus was God from this novel. Prophet, yes. Half-God, maybe. This, in my opinion, is worse than portraying a Jesus who lies, makes mistakes, and has a faulty memory. Mrs. Rice does not portray one of the most essential truths about Jesus: that he is not only “Son of David” or “Son of God” but God incarnate wrapped in human flesh. He is the God-man: 100 percent God, and 100 percent man. Yet the novel does not clearly portray this, and that should caution us and help us see that this is not—by Catholic or Protestant standards—an orthodox portrayal of Jesus Christ. A God who lies, makes mistakes, is forgetful, and is not aware that he is God does not sound like the God of the Scriptures.
Christ the Lord is a good experiment. It is good because through this experiment we know that writing a novel about Jesus in the first person simply does not work. God’s ways are above our ways, his thoughts above our thoughts. If we try to write down his thoughts, we will fail.
But even apart from the first person narration, I don’t think this novel is exceptionally written. The main benefit of reading this book is gaining an imaginative rendering of how Jewish culture functioned during the time of Jesus. But if you are looking for a well-written story along with an accurate portrayal of Jesus, you will have to look somewhere else.