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Entertaining and faithful
on March 8, 2011
Anne Rice is an author best known for her series of novels about vampires. A few years ago she came back to her Catholic faith (a process some people call "reversion", to distinguish it from "conversion") and wrote a historical novel about Jesus entitled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I never read that book, but the sequel (published in 2008 in hardcover, 2009 in softcover) was eventually sent to me for review. The original book, I understand, was about the child Jesus, including his stay in Egypt as a refugee. This second novel, named Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, picks up with Jesus as a man, just prior to the start of his public ministry.
Before continuing with this review, I should mention that Ms. Rice has since renounced her Catholic faith in a very public manner, and has been spotted posting comments severely critical of the Church on various well-known web sites (such as Jimmy Akin's blog at the National Catholic Register). Some have even taken to calling this her "unversion". At any rate, I am not in a position to make any comments regarding the current state of Ms. Rice's soul. All I have before me is her book, which will stand or fall on its own merits regardless of its author's personal history.
Now there are many forms of historical fiction. Some simply use the backdrop of a particular historical period as a setting to tell stories that have no historical value in themselves. Others use the events and persons of history as characters and plot devices. Finally, some take actual historical events as the narrative of the story itself, and actual historical persons as the protagonists. In this final category there as actually little suspense, as our knowledge of history informs us what actually happened (and therefore, what will happen in the story in question). Such fiction does not explore *what* happened, but *why* it happened: it is an exploration of what might have been motivating the real figures of history, through an explanation of their psychology and perhaps by adding in a few speculative details that history itself has not recorded. Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana is a piece of historical fiction of this third kind. Simply put, Jesus is the protagonist, and we are given a possible interpretation of what might have been going on in his mind as he was on the verge of beginning his public ministry.
On the level of storytelling, I consider that The Road to Cana is largely solidly written. As much of the drama is taking place in Jesus' mind the story requires a special kind of rhythm that could easily slow down, but Ms. Rice manages to keep it moving forward with just enough external action to keep up the pace. Some parts of the story are definitely stronger than others: I found the feminine characters much more believable than the masculine ones, for example, but I consider that more of a quibble than anything. After all, I suppose it is normal that a woman writer be better able to portray a female character than a male one...
Of course, I am not a novelist, so I would rather refrain from offering too many observations regarding the actual artistic merits of her work. Suffice it to say that, while The Road to Cana will not likely go down in history as one of the "great novels", it is a piece of solid writing that treats its subject with respect and even reverence. I am qualified to comment, however, on the theology. Any novel about a spiritual topic is necessarily going to contain a theological vision. How does The Road to Cana measure up?
Let's start by saying what the novel isn't: it isn't heresy. For example, Jesus has brothers and sisters in this book, but they are Joseph's children by a previous marriage (a particular speculation still found in the broader Christian tradition). Biblical scenes and events, such as the baptism of Jesus by John, are portrayed faithfully, and more abstract realities (such as the divine nature of Jesus) come through clearly and unambiguously. Heck, even demons make an appearance, such as in the chapter on the temptations in the desert (my favourite chapter, by the way), or in the exorcism of Mary Magdalene (who, I should add, is spared a Dan-Brown-esque retooling of her story to suit an agenda).
The most interesting theological element of the novel, in my opinion, is the exploration of the mind of Jesus. This is actually a very interesting (and sometimes controversial) theological topic: just how aware was Jesus, in his human mind, of his divine nature? And how much divine knowledge did the human mind of Jesus have access to? For example, in the Bible Jesus at one point says there is something only his Father in heaven knows, and which he (Jesus) does not. Theologians have had a field day for centuries with that statement, because if Jesus is God how can he *not* know something? Such theological speculations can seem like a sideshow, but in a historical novel such as this one, where the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters are the real drama, they are essential to the story. I found Ms. Rice's treatment of these issues to be both creative and orthodox -- a rare combination. I am not saying she solved the conundrums involved (this is only a novel, after all) but she does demonstrate the issues well and shows the elements of an intelligible solution. Well done.
As a final point, it is clear to me that this novel was written as an act of devotion to Jesus Christ. Ms. Rice's care for her subject is obvious. Also obvious is her devotion, at least at the time, for the Catholic Church, whose doctrines are not always shared by other Christians but which she scrupulously avoids offending in this book. While Ms. Rice has since made a public break with the Catholic Church for reasons I believe are more of the heart than the mind, I do pray she has kept her devotion to Christ the Lord himself, and that she may find her home in the Catholic Church once again.