Saturday, June 06, 2009

Novel Review: Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

Around four years ago my wife (Alida) and I were having a Barnes & Noble date. I suppose this needs a bit of explanation. When you are a young married couple and don't have a large surplus of unassigned funds, you try to find creative ways to get out of the house together without spending much. So my wife and I discovered a fun way to do just that - we would go to a bookstore, buy a coffee or two, and peruse books and magazines for a while. Often this kind of date would result in the purchase of a book, like the time we bought Shel Silverstein's silly book of spoonerisms called Runny Babbit.

On another such date I picked up Anne Rice's Christ the Lord out of sheer curiosity. My first thought was, "Could this possibly be the same Anne Rice who is responsible for books like Interview with the Vampire and Queen of the Damned?" Sure enough it was. If we had just arrived at Barnes & Noble I probably would have read the first twenty pages or so. However, whenever I discovered this book on the shelf the store was nearing closing time. So I decided to simply read the author's note at the end of the book. I was surprised to discover that Rice had come to write this book out of genuine interest in Jesus: first as a historical figure, then as the figure of faith. Through studying Jesus, even through reading academic works!, Rice's faith was revitalized and she became serious about her Catholic faith once more, which she had more or less abandoned since her college days.

I was hooked! I simply had to read this book! However, our budget at the time said otherwise, as did my reading load at Truett Seminary, where I received my M.Div. Rice and her return to faith left a major impression on me though. Three years or so later, while in another large bookstore, I saw a mass market paperback edition of Christ the Lord on sale for under five dollars! I consulted with my wife and bought the book. In short order I put one hundred pages behind me and within two weeks I was nearing the end of the book. A multitude of projects put my completing the book on hold, but eventually I did.

The combination of the book being written from the (first-person) perspective of Jesus and the interesting subject matter in general made wanting to read this book come natural to me. The basic premise is that Jesus and his family (including some extended family) are in Egypt. After Joseph hears that things have more or less smoothed over after the Herod-killing-all-the-babies thing, the Holy Family returns to Israel and re-settle in Nazareth. They make a couple of trips to Jerusalem to visit the Temple on high holidays, as well as a business venture in Sepphoris. The book ends with Jesus and his parents returning to Nazareth from Jerusalem after Jesus' impromtu stay at the Temple, as is recorded in Luke 2.41-52.

Several things to note about this book:
  1. The reader should understand from the beginning that Rice is going to accept most of the Catholic dogma about Jesus and his family. This turns up almost immediately as it is made clear that Mary has had no other children, which is in support of her perpetual virginity. Even though I disagree with this point based on the evidence in the New Testament itself, it did not distract me much from the story. At several other points a careful reader could spot other examples of Rice advocating Catholic theology.
  2. Rice accepts some of the apocryphal stories of Jesus childhood as recorded in various non-canonical Gospels. This will, of course, rub many readers the wrong way, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. However, Rice was simply attempting to work with the traditions which are available. Plus, the stories she includes are so intrinsically fascinating that the writer in her probably would not let her pass them over!
  3. As already mentioned, this story is told in first-person and Jesus is the narrator. I naturally have to wonder what sort of historical situation would have allowed Jesus the time to write and/or tell this story? I know that this may be an odd quibble to have with the book, but several times this question nagged at me. I'm not sure of the answer and Rice gives no real clues except that narrator Jesus is clearly telling this story from some undetermined future date.
  4. The basic arc of the book is Jesus coming to full-realization about who he really is. This was the most interesting part of the book for me. As a young child, Jesus gradually begins to understand that he has certain powers and that when he prays things happen. The problem, however, is that Jesus does not know why he has this power or how much power he has! Part of the problem is that he has not been told the whole story surrounding his birth, which he finds out in more and more detail as the plot moves along. By the end of the book Jesus has fully come into his own - realizing his identity, vowing to use his power only in accordance to the Father's will, and even understanding his ultimate fate. While this clearly would be considered a stretch by many of my academic friends, it makes for a great read!
Overall I would recommend Christ the Lord to almost anyone. It is a book written explicitly from a faith perspective different than my own but this does not tarnish its sheen at all! Instead it only makes it more interesting for me to read! I'm sure that I could nitpick many of the historical details in the book (such as the identity and location of the Essenes), but that would serve no one except maybe me (and that's a big maybe!).

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