Perilous project: But Anne Rice hits an orthodox balance

Gene Edward Veith

Gene Edward Veith, Jr., is Professor of English at Concordia University-Wisconsin, where he has also served as Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences. He has authored numerous books, of which Postmodern Times received a Christianity Today Book Award as one of the top 25 religious books of 1994. He was a Salvatori Fellow with the Heritage Foundation in 1994-1995 and is a Senior Fellow with the Capital Research Center. He is currently the director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia University, a center devoted to the study of Christianity and culture. He is the cultural editor of World magazine.

Anne Rice hits an orthodox balance in her portrayal of Christ as a boy

Portraying Christ in literature poses special problems. How to portray someone who is both God and Man? Some authors evoke His deity, portraying His transcendence and majesty or turning Him into a mystical inner presence. But they miss His humanity, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Other authors evoke His humanity, portraying Him as a flesh-and-blood man, often sentimentalized. But they fall short of conveying His divinity.

But Anne Rice, in her novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (Knopf, 2005), hits the orthodox balance. She portrays Jesus as a 7-year-old child, but He is more than a child. He plays, He cries, He is dependent on His parents. But when He yearns to see snow, it snows. When His uncle is sick, the young Jesus heals him. Throughout the novel, Jesus tries to understand who He is, piecing clues together and asking questions. But, as a prophet tells Him, "The day will come when You will have to give us the answers."

The only potential problem with Mrs. Rice's novel is the project itself. She tells the story of the 7-year-old Jesus in the first person, from Christ's point of view. Entering into the mind of Christ, even when He was so young, might seem disturbingly presumptuous. So is making up episodes in His life. This project is indeed fraught with peril. But those objections are softened by the author's reverence and her care to be biblically and theologically correct. Out of Egypt can best be appreciated as the work of a skillful writer meditating on the Incarnation and the Person of Jesus Christ.

Source material for Christ's childhood is scanty, so Mrs. Rice makes use of what she has, including apocryphal books excluded from the canon of Scripture. This too is fraught with peril. But Mrs. Rice told WORLD that she herself considers the accounts to be "legends," and she uses the details while draining them of any heresy. For example, in an apocryphal gospel, the Christ child strikes a bully dead. Lots of schoolchildren would like to do that, but it feels uncharacteristic of the New Testament Jesus. In this novel, a bully hits Jesus, who feels "power go out of Me." The boy dies, like Uzzah touching the ark, but then later Jesus, sorrowing with the boy's family, raises him from the dead.

Instead of gnosticism, what we get in this novel is a richly textured imagining of historical reality. Mrs. Rice synthesizes the findings of historians, archeologists, and anthropologists to give us a vivid portrait of everyday life in Bible times—household customs, the observance of Jewish law, what it was like to worship in the Temple. Her portrayal of life in a large extended family—which does characterize tribal societies—is particularly charming. It also makes at least imaginable Mrs. Rice's Catholic conviction (shared by many of the Reformers) that Jesus' "brothers and sisters" were not Mary's children, but a product of adoptions within the kinship system.

Scripture says that Joseph and his family left Egypt when Herod died, but feared his son Archelaus and so moved to Galilee. Mrs. Rice fills in the history, recounting the horrific bloodbaths and insurrections sparked by this change of rule. She portrays the rebels not sympathetically but as plundering bandits. In this anarchy, the Romans are welcomed at first as restorers of order, though they often crucify the innocent with the guilty.

Through these tumultuous times, Jesus grows in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. We see Him being exposed to things He would later use in His ministry—lilies of the field, living water, moneychangers, weddings, crucifixions. When Jesus, now 8, finally learns that He is the Son of God, He realizes at the same time that He is "born to die." The setting for this epiphany is significant: He is in the Temple, standing in front of the altar of sacrifice.