Review: Christ the Lord - Out of Egypt by Anne Rice
In Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, Anne Rice, yes, the Anne Rice of Interview with a Vampire fame, takes up the task of giving us the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who is Christ the Lord, in this first-person historical novel, which is the first of several. Out of Egypt is the story of Jesus and his family’s departure from Egypt and their settling at Nazareth. As the narrative unfolds, Jesus learns of the amazing circumstances of his birth, realizes his possession of special powers, and slowly comes to recognize His unique relationship to the Father. Rice succeeds at what is a very difficult task. First, she takes on a story with events and elements that many readers likely already know, and yet she paints with such careful strokes of writing that it is a delight to read as it unfolds before you. The events of the birth and childhood of Jesus are woven together effectively, many of them indirectly so that they unfold for the reader as if for the first time. My intuition and imagination would never have thought of someone writing the life of Jesus from his point of view, and yet it is this very method that is so effective. While reading I vacillated between thoughts like, “this is really strange, very weird—she is writing historical fiction through the eyes of the Lord,” to thoughts on the other hand, “wow, this is really making sense of the story; it must have unfolded something like this.”
Second, she takes on a very serious subject matter impinging on real history, theology and church doctrine—things people get quite prickly about—and she does so quite effectively and believably. This is certainly historical fiction: the dialogue, many of the characters, events, and scenes are created by Rice as substance to cover the thin skeletal structure of events that we have from Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. Yet the novel is faithful and convincing, indeed it is a very historical fiction.
For one, the political, social, and religious realities of the early first century are excellently sketched into the storyline. It is one thing to know the historical and cultural facts, but this novel provides historical and cultural feeling. One can put one’s feet in the dust of Nazareth’s streets, smell the Sabbath dinner prepared beforehand, see the running water of the mikvah, feel the wind blow over the Galilean hillsides, experience the push and pull of a throng of worshippers in the Temple at Jerusalem, smell and see the blood of sacrifices, and sit attentively through the Sabbath synagogue service. One also experiences the Jewish mindset, their longing for hope, their faithfulness to God and the Law, their customs, and their immersion in a world foreign to them even in the midst of their own land. Indeed, one character cries out, “we’re in exile in our land” (p. 68). Of course there are several different groups within Judaism of the period, and so we see how Jesus’s family likely fit among them. Furthermore, one continually feels embedded into the story of God’s people, just as the Jews view themselves to be in the unfolding drama of God’s mighty acts.
Into this texture, Rice weaves the historical figures of the Gospels as well other historical persons and events of the day. At nearly every hand, I found Rice’s choices plausible and possible. For instance, she places the family of Jesus in Alexandria, Egypt which is very likely. Interestingly, Philo of Alexandria makes an appearance and the infamous golden eagle incident is mentioned. Her use of all the sources available to us about Jesus is also respectable. She uses some information from extracanonical works about Jesus, which though of questionable origin, is used responsibly, and she is very faithful to the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke. Though I disagree with her assessment of the relationship of Joseph and Mary, I understand her perspective and adherence to her Church’s doctrine. At least, she made the relationship believable, if unlikely. Her familiarity with the scholarship of the Gospels, Historical Jesus research, and of the Second Temple period is evident throughout. Her account of acquainting herself with biblical and historical scholarship in the author’s note is quite fascinating.
The actual story of Jesus is carefully revealed scene by scene. She carefully hides many of the actual events to us, and we discover them how Jesus would have learned of them: through his family, friends, neighbors, and his own observations. This is very much a story of discovery, the most amazing story of personal discovery in history. Jesus, piece-by-piece, puts together the story of his life, his identity, and his purpose.
In Eugene Peterson’s book, Take and Read, he relates a number of books of all kinds—commentaries, theologies, prayer books, biographies, novels, poetry—that have been of use in his spiritual journey with Jesus. I must say that Rice’s Christ the Lord will become one of my companions on my journey. I genuinely feel strengthened by it. It gives me a sense of earthy spirituality in the rhythm of Jesus’s family serving God yet living real, hard working lives while seeing their lives through the story of God and Israel. Some may be bothered by her approach and by the earthiness of it's spirituality, and by the fact that Jesus discovers who he is over time. In other words, this view of the Incarnation make rock your theology. However, the authenticity of Christ’s Incarnation is here shown to be so touchable, real, and actual without lessening the impact of His divinity. God’s kingdom is coming to down to earth – walking feet down on dirt-floors and muddy roads.
It is commendable that Rice comes to the Gospels as an unashamed believer in them, and she handles them reverently, carefully, and creatively. Her approach may be a first among historical fiction literary works on Jesus and it is the strange sense of wonder and weirdness of Rice telling the story of Jesus through his eyes and the way she tells it that make this such good reading. I have attempted not to spoil any of the plot for you, so go get it, read it, enjoy it. Among the stacks of needful and necessary pounds of textbooks on the Gospels—introductions, surveys, histories, and such—this is exactly the kind of book that can breathe new life into one’s study of the Gospels and send one back to the God-breathed accounts found in the New Testament Scriptures ready to see with new eyes the story of Jesus.