c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Don’t ask Anne Rice about “The Da Vinci Code” unless you want an earful.
Rice, who returned to the Catholic Church in 1998 and abandoned vampires, her former stock in trade, soon after, calls it a “load of nonsense.”
Her latest novel, “Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana,” is in many ways an orthodox response to the popular thriller that imagined Jesus and Mary Magdalene married.
Firing a direct salvo at “Da Vinci,” Rice states in her author’s note: “It is more than ever important to affirm our belief in Christ as sinless and unmarried because that is the way the gospels present Him.”
“The Road to Cana,” scheduled be published in March, follows Rice’s bestselling 2005 religious fiction debut, “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.” While the first installment in the series limned Jesus’ childhood, the second focuses on the beginning of his ministry, taking readers from the baptism in the Jordan River through the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
“I can draw a valid portrait of him according to Scripture as a sinless, celibate man,” Rice said in an interview. “Not some feminized pious image floating off the ground, but a real, virile man subject to noticing the beauty of the girls of Nazareth.”
Jesus may notice beauty and even be tempted by the idea of marriage with a local young woman, but in keeping with Rice’s beliefs and her Gospel source material, there are no lustful thoughts as in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and definitely no wedding vows.
Jonathan Cordero, chair of the sociology department at California Lutheran University, sees Rice’s work as part of a larger cultural trend emphasizing Christ’s humanity. “For most of Christian religious history Christ has been depicted in images and literature primarily as divine. But Biblically speaking Christ is both fully God and fully human,” he said.
Thousands of readers wrote to Rice after reading the first “Christ the Lord” book, many confessing that the blend of Gospel, history and imagination had personally affected them.
“What people say more than anything is that they didn’t think about the humanity of Jesus before,” she said. “There’s also a relief that it’s scripturally correct. Often people start a letter by saying, `I didn’t want to read your book because I thought it would be a wild and crazy version of Jesus. But it wasn’t.”’
Contemporary depictions have tended toward the contentious _ “Last Temptation,” for example, garnered author Nikos Kazantzakis’ excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church. Far from pushing boundaries, or the church’s buttons, Rice’s portrayal of Jesus as the son of God and the savior of humankind is theologically sound. At the same time, he’s also very human, with needs and cares readers can relate to.
“It’s an attempt to get close to him and what he experienced, to make it historically exciting and historically correct,” she said.
As with “Out of Egypt,” Rice peppers her novel with references based on historical research: the Roman appointment of Jewish high priests, the separatist Jewish community of the Essenes, Judah the Galilean’s tax revolt. She inserts historical events into her story that the Gospel writers never mentioned but which she imagines as shaping Jesus’ outlook, such as Pontius Pilate’s violation of Jewish law when he brought military standards bearing the emperor’s name into Jerusalem.
For Rice, Jesus’ mission of peace springs forth amid a violent milieu. Brigands roam the countryside, Roman troops are seemingly around every corner and periodic bloodshed is the norm. Several characters in “The Road to Cana” needle Jesus about his lack of action, reflecting their hope for a messiah to overthrow Rome and restore Israel.
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Historians, however, disagree on the level of unease Jews might have felt at the time. According to Jeff Siker, chair of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, despite tensions with the Romans and even among Jews themselves, the political situation in the Galilee was stable. Furthermore, messianic expectations were neither universal nor monolithic.
“Historians have to have an imagination. You take these bits and try to come up with a plausible picture in an attempt to interpret the past,” said Ross Wagner, associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. “Fiction does that also, but I think as a genre it lacks the self-imposed humility that says, sometimes we just don’t know. … Do you lose something by saying the truth of Jesus depends on my being right about all this other stuff?”
Filling in the Gospels’ blanks can be an irresistible temptation, as evidenced by the many books and movies that have tinkered with Jesus. While historical scholarship is compatible with faith, some experts wonder whether history and belief can be blended into a seamless narrative. “It seems that Rice is saying, I’ve done my research and here it is. But she disguises the fantasy at work,” said Warren Carter, professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. “She’s trying to play the orthodox card without recognizing that history and theology are miles apart.”
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Rice plans two more books in the series: the first a continuation of Jesus’ ministry, the second an account of the last week of his life. Movie versions may materialize once the series is complete (Viggo Mortensen and Johnny Depp are two actors Rice can envision in the lead roles).
Writing the books “has made me conscious of what (Jesus) suffered in the way of derision and dismissal,” she said. “Just like today _ people go around making jokes about him. But he goes right on winning souls no matter what anybody does. We’ve come 2,000 years, and you can still sit at his feet and hear him speak and feel his hand, maybe, touch your shoulder. He survives it all.”
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File photos of Anne Rice and a jacket photo of “The Road to Cana” are available via https://religionnews.com.