Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Book Review ... A Life Review

I've just finished reading Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and wanted to capture my thoughts whilst they were still fresh.

For those who missed the news, Anne has found her way back to God. She was (as she explains in the afterward) raised as an Irish Catholic, but abandoned her Faith and embraced Atheism as a world view. She married, raised a family, became a a very successful author and found it all empty. In time she returned to the Church in which she had been raised.

But I've wandered off track...except it's important that you understand a little of this so I can tell you what I found in the book.

At its simplest level, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is a novel told from the perspective of the young Jesus as His family leaves Egypt and returns to live in Nazareth. He is seven at the beginning of the novel and Joseph announces that he and Jesus and Mary (and their extended family) can leave Egypt. Herod is dead. The news will come by Roman post in two days' time...Joseph has been given advance knowledge.

The family returns to Jerusalem, hoping to make it for Passover in the temple. Along the way the young Jesus starts to hear hints of stories about His birth in Bethlehem, but no one will tell Him anything definite. His parents are tight-lipped, and their reticence is shared by the entire family. Jesus is obedient, but driven by the curiosity.

Their visit to the Temple is cut short by an armed rebellion which is brutally quashed by Herod's troops. The family flees to Nazareth.

The story covers a period of one year, ending when they return to Jerusalem for the next Passover.

It's not a compelling narrative in the usual sense of the phrase. After all, we already know what it is that Jesus is trying to learn. We know that He is the Son of God and that His birth was heralded by angels and He was visited by the Magi. There's also the fact that the young Jesus is sinless, so there's no question of him disobeying.

Yet the book works beautifully on two levels.

On one level, it is a marvelous excursion into New Testament times. I've come to understand the bloody brutality of it, the bondedness of families, the complex rituals of Jewish life, and I've gained a sense of what it must have been like to live then. Anne Rice has always been good at research, drawing a scene and taking the reader there.

At a deeper level, the book is really about Anne working out her Faith. In one memorable passage the family is discussing an argument between the Rabbis from the local Synagogue. One of them says that it is good that the rains have come because that means the mikvah (ritual bath) has living water. Another points out that the water which filled the mikvah before was from the cistern which had been filled with rain water. And, besides, the small hole at the bottom of the mikvah meant that the water drained constantly and so counted as "living water".

Jesus' older male relatives kick around the various arguments, but in the end it is Joseph who settles it by saying, "See two paths on a mountain ridge. One is close to the edge, the other is farther away. The one farther away is safer. That is the path of the Pharisee -- to be farther from the edge of the cliff, farther from falling off the cliff and into sin, and so Rabbi Jacimus believes in his customs."

Moving behind that text I see Anne, struggling with the rules of the Church and the priests who favor a strict interpretation of the Catechism. In Joseph's words she at once supports that Faith and acknowledges the human differences in all of us.

In another passage Jesus brother James (Joseph's son from a previous wife) reconciles with his brother. In James' words I hear echoes of Anne's own confession and her brokenhearted determination to return to a savior whom she has rejected. There is such love and peace suffusing the scene that I wept when I read it.

And therein lies the wonder of the book. It presents a real, believable, human, Divine, and complete Jesus. I daresay the book even has some sense of Presence.