When best-selling novelist Anne Rice was a good Catholic girl growing up in New Orleans, she dreamed of becoming a leader of the church.
Instead, she abandoned Catholicism at 18 and stopped believing in God. She joined the Haight-Ashbury hippie milieu and evolved into the best-selling author who elevated the sexually ambiguous vampire Lestat to cult status. She wrote pornography under one pen name and erotica under another.
Now, she has come full circle - and may finally be getting her childhood wish. Rice has written a novel on the boyhood of Jesus called Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. It is a best-seller. It has given her a high profile in the religious media and a platform for her reformist views on the future of Christianity.
Her views will not please all of the devout. Rice favors gay marriage. She believes the church position regarding birth control is a grievous error that is not supported by Scripture. She repudiates what she sees as intolerant, "sex-obsessed" church leaders and says she does not find support in the message of Jesus for their focus on sexual orientation or abortion. She argues for a more inclusive church.
"Think of how the church bells would ring and the pews would fill if women could become priests and priests could marry. It would be the great resurgence of the Catholic Church in this country," Rice said recently, seated in front of a roaring fire, in the La Jolla, Calif., mansion she moved to after she left New Orleans.
As the Christian media besiege her with interview requests, Rice is revealing her own message about Jesus.
"He doesn't say anything about abortion," Rice said. "He doesn't say anything about gays. I abhor abortion, too. But to make Christianity rise and fall on these issues is a great distortion of Christ's message."
The reception in the religious community to her book has been positive, though not unanimous - a few religious bookstores have refused to stock or advertise Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.
Christianity Today published a warm profile of Rice, "Interview With a Penitent," a tone that is echoed by conservative commentators who praise Rice for vividly bringing to life a 7-year-old boy named Jesus.
"This is a conversion story on the level of Augustine," said Christian columnist David Kuo, a former aide to President Bush who was the deputy director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "Anne Rice was a daughter of darkness."
"Rice sold [millions of] books that explored the darkest realms of the spiritual world," Kuo wrote in an online column for beliefnet.com. "She dressed all in black. She glorified the night and her atheism. But look at pictures of her now. ... Look most of all at the sparkle in the eyes - at the light. It isn't the Bible, but it is inspired by God."
St. Augustine renounced his earthly "sins." But Rice, 64, isn't renouncing anything. She's proud of her son, novelist and gay activist Christopher Rice, who lives in West Hollywood. The Broadway-bound musical of her work, Lestat, opened in San Francisco the weekend before Christmas, with a score co-written by AIDS activist Elton John. To Rice, the path from the Vampire Chronicles to Jesus was a continuous, lifelong spiritual quest, which, like a seemingly predestined love, led her to this moment, to fulfill her role as a modern "apostle" of Jesus.
Her God, she said, "is all-merciful, all loving."
Rice says her fascination with Jesus began with a devoutly Catholic girlhood. Born in October 1941, Rice grew up on the edge of New Orleans' Garden District, where "my environment was just saturated with religion," she said.
As a child, Rice said, "I felt the love of God. I wanted to be a priest. When I found out that being a girl meant I couldn't be, I was so disappointed. I didn't understand why."
When Rice went to Texas Woman's University in 1959, she found that the church's rigid doctrine was at odds with the growing complexities of her new life.
Instead, she became fascinated with the existentialists, reading Sartre and Camus. She met Stan Rice, a poet, artist and atheist, and they married in 1961.
They moved to the Haight-Ashbury, but when their apartment filled with hippies, "I was the square. All around me people were taking acid. I had no intention of ever taking it."
Then the Rices were dealt a mortal blow: Their daughter, Michele, born in 1966, died of leukemia at 5. Stunned with grief, Rice sat down and began to write. Five hazy weeks later, she says, she finished a first draft of Interview With the Vampire.
"I think that book perfectly reflected the grief I felt about my daughter and the Catholic Church," Rice said. "I wrote an incredibly strange novel about a vampire seeking God, trying to find out if he was a child of God or a child of Satan. I was seeking answers. It's a strange novel because it's so nihilistic, yet it's filled with potentially redemptive issues.