instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Can anything good come from novelizing Nazareth?

It's weird, I think, to see it in black and white:


Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
Interview with the Vampire


When news broke a while back that Anne Rice had re-engaged with the Faith and even written a novel featuring a seven-year-old Jesus as narrator, I thought it was great for Anne Rice but probably not the finest moment for American literature. I'd read some of her vampire books, but The Queen of the Damned was too pagan for my blood. Writing in the voice of the Son of God seemed like a case of trying too hard, and I gave Out of Egypt a miss.

And I would have given the sequel -- Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, to be published on March 4 -- a miss as well, if a review copy hadn't come in the mail during a Lent when I'm only reading books with a religious theme.

It starts on a discouraging note, with the stoning of two young men who spent too much time alone together. Criminy, I thought, is her 1st Century Nazareth going to be just like her 19th Century New Orleans?

And I may have rolled my eyes as Jesus moons over the beautiful young girl who lives across the street. (Not to worry, though; Rice's Jesus knows that the personal problems of a Messiah don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.)

Still, you (by which I mean "I") don't read a novelization of the life of Christ for the plot. You read it to find out what insights, if any, the novelist has into the mystery of the Incarnation.

Rice gives us a thirty-year-old Jesus who knows he's the Son of God, but is somehow able to not know things he knows he could know. He's a bit of a doormat; as he waits for whatever it is that he's waiting for, he's regularly pecked at by those around him who are getting on with their lives. And one old man, one of the scribes who questioned the twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, tells him scornfully,
"The world swallowed you.... You left the Temple and the world simply swallowed you. That's what the world does. It swallows everything."
Despite all this, Jesus does at times rouse himself to command those around him. He can speak with authority, but it is vested in the evident wisdom of his words rather than in his own person.

What finally stirs him to action is the news that his cousin John is preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. Jesus announces that he is going to John, and his whole family say they will join him.

From there, we're in familiar territory: the Baptism, the 40-day fast, the temptations, the calling of the first disciples, the miracle at Cana. And here, I think, the book really comes into its own, when Rice can use her Catholic novelist's imagination to flesh out the Gospel stories.

The curing of Simon's mother-in-law is particularly sharp:
I took her hand. She turned and looked at me, annoyed at first that someone would disturb her in this way. Then she sat up.

"Who said that I was sick? Who said that I should be in this bed?" she asked.

And immediately she rose and scurried around the little house, heaping pottage into bowls for us, and clapping her hands for her maidservant to bring us fresh water. "Look at you, how thin you are," she said to me... She glared at her son-in-law. "Did you tell me I was sick?"
Little wonder Simon left everything he had to follow Jesus.

My favorite chapter is the temptation in the desert, in which Satan appears as Jesus would look if he accepted the offer of all the nations on earth in exchange for homage. Jesus quite simply pwns him:
"It is the Lord God who rules," I said, "and He always has. You are nothing, and you have nothing and rule nothing. Not even your minions share with you in your emptiness and in your rage."
That's satisfying, emotionally and theologically, but their whole conversation is well-imagined and believable.

Finally, I have to say Rice does a commendable job with the characters of Mary and Joseph (yes, he's still alive). Call it filial piety, but I'll cut a novelist a lot more slack with what they make of Jesus than of His parents. The Mary and Joseph of The Road to Cana make a good case for devotion to the Mary and Joseph of history.

Which leaves us where?

The Road to Cana is easily the best -- the best written, the most Catholic -- of the handful of novelizations of Jesus's life that I've read. Rice's enthusiasm and talent keep pace with each other, her imagination and her faithfulness to Revelation work together. It may be a little too contemporary to be timeless, but if you can read it, not as an assertion of Gospel truth but as one writer's meditations on the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, you might find it worthwhile.