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

review by John Tintera

It would be hard to imagine a less obvious person to step into the debate on the identity and mission of Jesus Christ than vampire queen Anne Rice. Yet, in Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, that is just what she has done. Not only does Rice offer up a strong and clear portrait of the savior as a young man, she narrates the story in the first person voice of Jesus himself. Suffice it to say that this new book will take many by surprise, if not merely for the fact that it's beautifully crafted and written in the kind of rich, plain style that marks the best popular fiction.

The story opens in Alexandria, Egypt, where Jesus and his family had fled several years earlier to avoid the wrath of the vengeful King Herod. After hearing in a dream that it's time to take the family back to Palestine, Joseph, Jesus' stepfather, packs up his clan and boards ship for the Holy Land with plans to spend Passover in Jerusalem. Their journey takes a terrifying turn at the temple, when, on the day before the Passover feast, Herod orders the Roman legion to quell a huge mob that has gathered there. Things turn bloody and the eight-year-old Jesus witnesses a pilgrim being slain by a Roman cavalryman right before his impressionable young eyes. The family then hurries off to their final destination in Nazareth.

At Nazareth, Jesus' family reunites with members who had stayed behind. Because of the Roman troubles, the family homestead, like many of the surrounding villages and towns, is in disrepair. Being skilled carpenters, some of the men set about fixing things up, while others begin repairing homes in a nearby town. The boys meanwhile are introduced to the local clergymen, devout Pharisees, and enrolled in the local religious school. The novel closes with the family's journey back to Jerusalem the following year, at which time, the precocious young Jesus is lost for three days before being found with the rabbis in the temple.

In addition to following Jesus and his family through the course of a year, Rice also portrays Jesus's developing interest in the strange circumstances that surrounded his birth (which, of course, includes the reason why the family moved to Egypt in the first place). Herein lies the fundamental narrative arc of the novel: Jesus slowing coming to the realization of who he is.

His childhood is not what one would call normal. For example in the opening scene, Jesus is in the midst of a brouhaha concerning the death and resurrection of a local bully. Frustrated with the bully's taunting, Jesus wishes that the boy were dead, and the child in fact dies! Immediately struck with remorse, Jesus visits the boy, says a prayer, and brings him back to life. The stir caused in the neighborhood by the strange occurrence makes everyone in Jesus's family happy that they will soon be returning to their homeland.

Coupled with his wonderment at his special powers is a burgeoning understanding that the adults in his clan are often whispering about him. His mother's brother, in particular, has many enigmatic conversations with Jesus that leave him breathless for the full story. By the end of the novel, Jesus learns about the events that we know through the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke (filled in with a smattering of legends from apocryphal accounts of Jesus's childhood).

In addition to providing us with a ringing account of the Gospel birth narratives, Rice also seeks to portray Jesus's family as having many of the attributes that he would later embrace in his ministry.
God is very near to the heart of all the lead characters, and a genuine love for God permeates all that they do. Yet, while they clearly respect the religious authority of the Pharisees, Jesus’s family tends toward a slightly more mystical view of Jewish rituals, and is much more moderate about the law than is their leaders.

Clearly, for Rice, Jesus is not the radical revolutionary often portrayed by liberal scholars. Neither is he the kind of brooding blood-spattered Son of God that Mel Gibson and his cadre have given us. Rather, Rice's Jesus is an open-minded, generous, articulate, dreamer-type, not unlike the boys Mark Twin set to lights. Which leaves us each to discern for ourselves which portrait might incline closer to the truth. Regardless, Rice serves up the story of Jesus's boyhood in such a way that everyone who admires the New Testament can enjoy, and those who have not read it might contemplate exploring.

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Rice spoke about her experience of conversion to the Catholic faith of her childhood (as she does in the very interesting Afterword to the book). In the interview, she hinted that Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is the first of a possible four-part series of novels about the life of Christ. On The Today Show she confessed "from now on I will write only for the Lord."

Certainly the promise of further explorations of the life of Christ bodes well for those among us who feel beaten down by the poor quality of most religious fiction. What's more, it's possible to imagine a situation where Rice's first-person portrayals of Jesus could inspire a richer experience of the actual life of Christ, moving us deeper into the words and situations presented in the Gospels. Regardless of their historical accuracy, these characterizations will surely encourage many people to form their own opinions of the savior's life, including his youth, family, mission, and the miraculous occurrence of the Incarnation itself.

Copyright ©2005 John Tintera

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