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Issue Date:  December 23, 2005

Out of the savage garden

Anne Rice's surprising new book about Jesus' childhood is part of a long journey to faith

Kansas City, Mo.

A best-selling author for three decades, Anne Rice is known for her stories of vampires and witches. Thus her newest novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, a serious and even reverent account of Jesus’ childhood, is a surprising turn. But according to the author, it’s not as radical a break with her past work as some might assume. Ms. Rice said the novel is “the end of a journey” that began when she wrote her first book, Interview with the Vampire, in 1974.

“The journey is chronicled in the ‘Vampire Chronicles,’ and it’s always been a conversation about God. In the end, I found what my characters never found -- I found the Eucharist that they were looking for in the blood,” she told NCR in an interview in Kansas City.

In 1998, Ms. Rice returned to the Catholic church after a nearly 40-year absence. Four years later, Ms. Rice decided the time was finally right to make Jesus Christ her subject matter.

“I was ready to do violence to my career,” she writes in her Author’s Note for Christ the Lord. “I wanted to write the book in the first person. Nothing else mattered. I consecrated the book to Christ.”

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt begins with a 7-year-old Jesus taking his first steps to understanding who he is after his family returns from Egypt to Nazareth. The culmination of years of research by Ms. Rice in New Testament scholarship (a saga in itself that she relate in her Author’s Note), the book weaves together details of Jewish life and history as well as 1,500-year-old “pious legends” of Jesus’ childhood that she felt could be compatible with the four Gospels.

The novel is told from the point of view of Jesus, who is intelligent, sympathetic and believably a child. He has powers he does not understand, and hears the whispers among his family members that hint at strange circumstances surrounding his birth. The course of the novel becomes his quest to discover what happened in Bethlehem.

The book is emotionally engaging and often moving; Ms. Rice succeeds in creating a Jesus who is recognizably human -- but without sin.

“I felt that he was capable of confusion at times,” she said. “That he emptied himself, as Paul says, and that he was growing in wisdom, which meant that he didn’t have it all together all the time. So he must have put aside his omniscience and he must have wanted to have an experience with us humans from the beginning. So he entrusted himself to a human childhood, and he was capable of making mistakes. But they weren’t sins. He had to find out things about himself in a human way.”

Ms. Rice said she focused on Jesus’ humanity in the novel because that is what the Incarnation invites believers to do. Asked if she considered herself a Catholic novelist, Ms. Rice, now 64, said she has been all along but didn’t always know it.

“I think my earlier books were records of a long discussion about the loss of faith, and that began to reflect my opening the door more and more to the possibility of a reconciliation with God,” she said. While her novels in the 1990s, such as Memnoch the Devil and Servant of the Bones, more explicitly dealt with religion, even earlier books like Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat “were saturated with the question: How do we live in this world if we can’t be with God?” she said.

While some longtime fans have objected to Ms. Rice deviating from her traditional vampire fare, Ms. Rice said that most have been accepting. And Ms. Rice is finding new readers as well, once they overcome their suspicion that “the Vampire Lady probably wrote something bad, blasphemous.”

As someone who left the Catholic church before the Second Vatican Council, Ms. Rice experienced in returning to it just how dramatically the church can change.

She noted the contrast between the strict Catholicism of her childhood when divorce and birth control were rarely discussed and the church she came back to in which people were getting annulments and obviously using birth control. She found the contemporary church “a little bit demoralized,” quieter and more detached from current events than the Catholicism of the 1950s. And then there was the shock of the pedophilia scandal.

“At the same time, it’s my church,” she said. “The traditions are all there, the heritage is there, the great will to reform is ever-present as it always was. And the English Mass I’ve come to love; I’ve come to love the participation of the faithful.”

After she returned to Catholicism, Ms. Rice and her husband were married in the New Orleans parish of her childhood, although Stan Rice remained a committed atheist. He died of a brain tumor in 2002. They were married for 41 years.

Ms. Rice said her reconciliation with God has made her a more optimistic person and given her a new perspective on the nature of good and evil that has been a common thread in her writing.

“I believe God’s purpose is clear in the world, that he’s with us every minute,” she said. “We’re not alone fighting evil. We’re not lost, we’re not in the savage garden. That was the word I used to use for the world, the savage garden. I don’t believe anymore that we’re at the mercy of the savage garden. I think we’re in a broken world and a fallen world, but it’s a magnificent and beautiful place and he’s with us all the time. He’s there. And when we open ourselves to him, he hears us and he responds. And evil is never going to win.”

Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2005

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