Anne Rice was masterful in her descriptions of everyday life in the town of Nazareth. There is a wonderful scene when the whole of Joseph’s extended family arrives back in Nazareth after traveling home from their long sojourn in Egypt. Roman soldiers are moving through the country-side putting down a Jewish revolt with hundreds of crucifixions, and the family walks into a deserted town with everyone in hiding. When four Roman soldiers ride into the empty courtyard right behind Joseph and his newly-arrived family, a tense moment quickly turns comedic as they are saved by Old Sara who comes out of the house with some gifts and a lot of wit.
Anne Rice spent many years reading about the history and world into which Jesus was born. Each reference to Jewish rebels, political developments among the Herodians, or Roman military movements is meticulously accurate in its details and chronological sequence. Her mastery of building construction, social dynamics, agricultural practices, modes of travel, and religious life all shine through and create a compelling portrayal of the life that Jesus lived during his childhood years.
People in the town of Nazareth all remember Joseph and Mary, who both grew up there. They remember the scandal surrounding Mary’s pregnancy before she left town to have her child in Bethlehem and then spend seven years in Egypt. As the family settles back into life in Nazareth, Joseph is vigilant to protect Mary and Jesus from continued rumors. One of my favorite scenes was when Joseph and one of his younger brothers are enrolling Jesus and a few of his cousins in the local synagogue school for the first time. There is a tense confrontation with the Pharisees who run the school as they challenge the linage of Jesus and as Joseph and his brother stand their ground, carefully building a strong case for his legitimacy. Humor shows up repeatedly, even in the most tense moments, and the reader develops a love for all the types of people in this small town.
Joseph was the most compelling character for me. He is depicted as an incredibly careful and quiet man who is constantly waiting for God to show him the next step to take. At the same time, when he tells the story of the prophet Jonah during family devotions on a Sabbath, everyone has tears running down their faces with laughter over the antics of the foolish prophet.
Most of the plot development focuses on the process by which Jesus learns the full story about his own birth. Joseph and Mary are committed to raising Jesus as a normal little boy and do not tell him about the virgin birth until he is old enough to understand it. Also, such terrible stories as the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem are too much to share with him as a small child. He finds out quite a lot about his own story on his own, but his parents will share only a little at a time until the crisis at Passover when Jesus stays behind at the temple in Jerusalem to talk with the scholars and scribes about God’s promises and the coming Messiah. Jesus has always been deeply devout in his own prayers and an excellent student of the scriptures. He is putting together his own story with the the story of God’s people throughout scripture, and his parents finally share everything that they know with him after this trip to Jerusalem. It is clear that his own parents do not know what all of this means, but they simply place their faith in God to show Jesus what he is to do as he continues to grown in wisdom and stature with God and man. They commit Jesus to his heavenly Father.
Although I found most of these plot details compelling, there were aspects of this coming-of-age story that felt beholding to modern psychological conceptions of humans as autonomous individuals. Almost all of what Anne Rice says about parenting was thought-provoking and felt substantive. Mary and Joseph were convincing to me as characters. However, some of the private thoughts that the child Christ wrestles with felt dramatized along lines that felt too modern. Some of this was probably just corny and sappy. As Jesus lies on the sunny, grassy hillsides of Nazareth as a little boy, I appreciated a lot of what Anne Rice imagines going through his mind and senses, but some of it also felt slightly sentimental. The worst of this was connected to a decision that Anne Rice made to have Jesus performing miracles even as a tiny child. She defends this decision in her author’s note at the end of the book by saying that she wanted to portray the fact that Jesus was fully God throughout every stage of life. I think she accomplishes this best when she tries to portray the interior prayer life of the boy Jesus. However, her use of childish miracles just feels hokey. It was too much like the accidental magic that we see with Harry Potter or Anakin Skywalker as little boys. Theologically, I think that it makes sense to think of miracles as being connected to Jesus taking up his mature vocation, starting his teaching ministry with the first miracle during the wedding at Cana.
The wedding at Cana brings me back to main value that I see in the imaginative effort by Anne Rice. Her story contains a wonderful description of weddings in Nazareth, and it is in these kinds of passages where the reader is blessed by her strengths as an author. She does her homework thoroughly and brings us tangibly into the world in which Jesus grew up. It is a healthy spiritual exercise to image this childhood in all of its normalcy as well as its very unique burdens, and Anne Rice does a good job with at least the normalcy.
Anne Rice’s personal story is fascinating, and her personal convictions about the full divinity of Jesus do come through in her writing. She shares a whole lot about herself in the authors note at the end of the book. This author’s note included a very cogent and well-documented case for the fact that the four gospels were written by eyewitnesses and are fully reliable as history. In her years of reading for these books, she became fully convinced that Jesus was God and that he had risen from the dead just as the gospels claim. She gives an excellent survey of scholarship about Jesus and the birth of the church, and she ends up with very traditional and conservative positions on all of it. Her criticisms of the higher critics are succinct and brilliant. She continues to believe all of this about Jesus although she has given up on institutional Christianity. In a March 11, 2016 interview with Alice Cooper (shock rock star and also a professed believer in Christ), Anne Rice reaffirmed these the deep personal convictions about Jesus that motivated her two novels about the young Jesus.
Everyone puts their faith in something or someone. Where would you say your faith lives?
…Though I’ve moved away from institutional Christianity and organized religion — and all its theological strife — my devotion to Jesus remains fierce. …The story of the Incarnation is so important to me, the story of Jesus being born amongst us, growing up amongst us, working and sweating and struggling as we do, and dying amongst us before he rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. I write about outsiders seeking redemption in one form or another and always will.
Your book Christ the Lord Out of Egypt was the basis for the film The Young Messiah. In the co-writing of this movie many references were used from the Bible. Was the Apocrypha also used as a source?
Actually very little of the apocrypha was used in the novel, only the legends regarding Jesus’ childhood in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is NOT gnostic and contains legends that influenced Christian art for centuries. Nothing gnostic was used in the book whatsoever. I researched the First Century for something like ten years, off and on, probing history, archaeology, anthropology, and the bible, of course, the bible again and again and the early historians, Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. I sought to write a biblically sound and authentic novel about Jesus as a child that would bring Him alive for people, presenting a fictive day to day life for him. I wanted people to hear his laughter, smell the dust in the streets of Nazareth, to see the world in which Jesus lived; I wanted people to have a sense of Him as a real little boy, surrounded by mysteries — the Jesus whose birth was celebrated by angels singing to shepherds, the Jesus whose birth brought Magi from the East, the Jesus whose mother had been visited by an angel…. The bible mattered infinitely more to me than the apocrypha.
For all of her historical reading, Anne Rice is very much a child of today. I can sympathize with her brokenhearted response to much about institutional Christianity. She wants to see a church that leads the way in loving outsiders, in bringing healing, light, and love into dark places. Her heart goes out to homosexuals and vampires. This is understandable, but she is ultimately trapped by her modern ideas about the autonomous individual. In the end, she cannot submit herself to the greater community of faith and all that it claims about our fragility, our limitations, and our interdependence. Certainly, some of her own hangups show up in her novel about the child Jesus. However, much else that is of value also shows up clearly and warmly invites us to image God with us.
The book ends with Jesus at the age of ten realizing that all humans are born into this world to die and that he must join humanity in death as well. The boy Jesus also has some thought that his every experience of human life is being brought into the life of God himself. Although I’d have to read it more carefully with a fine theological lens in order to speak more confidently, this ending was not bad theology. It reminded me of these lines from “The Journey Of The Magi” by T. S. Eliot:
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
Anne Rice was raised in a very traditional Irish Catholic home before rejecting her faith for most of her adult life. While she claims to be committed primary to the Bible in her telling of this story, she is certainly interpreting the biblical story along traditional Roman Catholic lines, and she borrows freely from many extra-biblical traditions. For example, her Mary is a perpetual virgin and was dedicated to God as a young girl who was selected to help weave the massive Holy-of-Holies veil for the temple in Jerusalem. These details don’t bother me because I’ve come to be convinced of these ideas separately in recent years for various other reasons. However, these details could be distracting and off-putting to a Protestant or Evangelical reader.
There are other potential distractions to be sure, such as when one of the world’s most famous authors of vampire tales spends several sentences describing the life blood upon the altar in vivid terms. In the end, however, the story does not read dogmatically or sensationally. It is gentle and heartfelt, and I found it very easy to enjoy its goodness on a piecemeal basis. I think any reader could glean many wholesome things from the story, aware that it is simply the heart-felt imaginings of one believer. Theologically, it was clear that Anne Rice sees the incarnation as the vital heart of human history and personal experience, and this gave the story a wholesome grounding. It is a healthy thing to imagine the lives of biblical figures and to imagine ourselves within the stories of the Bible. In my experience, the Bible was not obscured or violated by this imaginative work of Anne Rice. Scripture and the story by Anne Rice stood clearly apart as separate things. Instead, her story-telling pushed me back to the Bible with fresh questions and appreciations and also back to my own life of prayerfully pursing Jesus Christ.