Christ, minus the passion

Anne Rice's chronicle of Jesus at age 7 offers little in the way of revelation



Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

Anne Rice

Alfred A. Knopf / 366 pages

Three decades ago, Anne Rice published her classic debut novel, Interview with a Vampire, and with that a character nearly as iconic as Dracula was born. Rice's vampire, Lestat, was an angst-ridden, existentialist hero-villain, a vampire far more evolved than the average Hammer Film bloodsucker. Lestat had the suavity of many a vampire, but he also possessed soul and, to a degree, conscience; with Lestat, Rice had created a vampire for our time.

Lestat also had legs, appearing in numerous volumes of Rice's gothic novels along with other compelling demonic characters, up until her most recent vampire tome, 2003's Blood Canticle.

But Rice has bid goodbye to all that darkness and embraced the light. Literally and literarily. Rice has returned, like St. Augustine, after a 40-year absence, to Catholicism. Her latest novel - a thorough departure from her previous work, which also included erotic sadomasochistic fantasy novels written under a pseudonym - is the first that she dedicates to her most recent and self-proclaimed obsession: Jesus Christ.

Rapturist and revelation tales have become increasingly popular and profitable in recent years; Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ was one of the best-selling films ever.

Rice is not, however, cashing in on a trend with Christ the Lord. Rather, she is writing as a woman of conviction, a woman in the throes of religious passion, a woman who has, as she explains in her afterword, dedicated herself and all her future writing to Christ.

A stake has been driven through the heart of Lestat. Rice has moved onto a different supernatural plane. But is this as exciting a venue, and will her fans follow her into this new realm?

Millions of readers are devotees of the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Compelling, character-driven, with some science-fiction aspects to them, they are religious novels with a kick. Christ the Lord is not.

It's not that Rice's novel about Jesus isn't good. After all, she is mistress of the gothic tale, and what could be more gothic than the story of Jesus? But Rice has chosen for her debut the 7-year-old Jesus and a first-person narrative portraying his family's flight from Egypt and return to Nazareth. Alas, unlike Lestat's 5-year-old vampire companion, the young Jesus has only limited insight into his own transcendence and power.

Rice has delved into religious themes before, in The Feast of All Saints and Cry to Heaven, where she explored the dark side of religion. The only darkness in Christ the Lord is the Roman-Jewish conflict in the Jerusalem of Jesus' youth. And although this fight is bloody - as well as forming the foundation for the millennia-long suffering of the Jews - as perceived by a 7-year-old it seems more like an afternoon of playing Grand Theft Auto than insightful historical/religious fiction. Christ the Lord has neither the mystical flare of Nikos Kazantzakis nor the over-the-top thriller-ish drama of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

Therein lies the literary problem of Rice's novel. In A.A. Milne's famous series of children's books, the 7-year-old Christopher Robin has only a few walk-ons. The tale is really told by the bear, Winnie the Pooh and his friends, Piglet, Eyeore, et al. Dickens has child protagonists as well, but each tells his tale from the vantage point of the adult looking back on the young Oliver Twist or the young David Copperfield. The mind of the child - even if it's Jesus - just isn't that compelling.

Rice has always had, at the core of her novels, a strategic battle between good and evil, or, at the very least, between comparative evils. No such conflict evolves in Christ the Lord. There is pondering by adults and the child Jesus about who Jesus really is: Joseph doesn't want him to know he's the Son of God until he's a little older, but Mary's brother Cleopas reveals the truth while in a febrile state after a consumptive fit when the family first arrives in Jerusalem.

The rest is very much Bible stories for grown-ups: The novel begins with Jesus striking a bully dead and then resurrecting him (Rice culled this from Apocryphal literature). Later, there are harrowing scenes of murder and mayhem on the streets of Jerusalem as Roman soldiers slaughter Jewish pilgrims on the eve of Passover. Finally, there is the revelation that Jesus is indeed Christ the Lord after some compelling scenes at the temple. Yet, in sum, there is no palpable passion, no fervor in this Christ, nor insight into who the child Jesus really is - and only a glancing look at what it is to be God in a 7-year-old.

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