Rice’s Christ The Lord

I just finished Anne Rice’s Christ The Lord. I think it is a remarkable achievement, as much for the deep humanity in it, as for the clear vision she presents of 1st century Judea. Some observations:

I am struck by as similarity between her novel and another great book of scholarship I have read recently, Steven Greenblatt’s Will in the World, about the life and times of William Shakespeare. Both books unabashedly use creative means to bring the main characters to life. In both books, the life circumstances of Jesus and Will are described with great care and sympathy, and so the reader slowly falls in love with them, following the author’s lead. In her note at the end of the book, Rice describes an almost palpable dislike for Jesus in much of the scholarship she read about him. It made me think of that unpleasant academic characteristic, which is to look down one’s nose at jus about everything, even the subject you’re supposed to be expert at. She and Greenblatt so obviously love their subject matter, and that love evaporates off the pages and surrounds the reader in feelings, as well as thoughts. This is the mark of academic greatness – the ability to impart feelings which do not detract from the intellectual exercise one is undertaking, but enrich it.

In her note – an autobiographical essay at the end of the book, really – she describes two powerful life journeys which relate to Christ the Lord. The first is sweeping. It is the arc of her faith: the initial indoctrination, the long adult doubt, and the delicate return after a life rich with success and blessings. The second is short and devastating. Her husband of 41 years was felled rapidly by a brain tumor just months after Anne first conceived of the form of this novel. I thought of Lessing, losing his wife so soon after marrying her, then writing Nathan. I thought of Mozart, facing his own mortality, and writing the Requiem. Great artists have this terrible ability to use the despair of tragedy as the fuel for creativity. Anne implies that writing this book through her husband’s death kept her sane. I wonder if she was asking Jesus some powerful questions as she brought his little figure to life. I’m certain the passion in the book tastes of the Anne’s life as surely as Hamlet smacks of Shakespeare’s grief.

Her Jesus is a child, and beautifully child-like. Sent by God to earth, he has a wonderful curiosity about everything he sees, and is prone to find a quiet place in the grass, lie down and listen to the bugs humming nearby. This is my kind of Jesus. He experiences every emotion, and clings to his family for love and support, even though, through most of the book, he is aware that they are hiding something from him, something about his birth. What touched me the most is that, after all the miracles, the super-natural events, his great revelation at the end of the book is two-fold: he was sent to earth to live, and like all living things, he will eventually die. It is his human-ness which continually overwhelms him, not his divinity. Reading her book, I wanted to be there next to him, to shelter him, to play with him, to learn from him. She makes him seem beautifully fragile amidst a rugged and sometimes violent landscape.

I really don’t care much about the historical Jesus. Anne writes that Christ scholarship is so divided and rancorous it’s impossible to settle on anything without picking a side in a gigantic theocratic/academic turf battle. A bit like Will Shakespeare, we’re just going to have to live with not knowing, and bring to life the Will and Jesus we want to see in the world, hoping others will do the same. I’m sure, if I was somehow time-transported back to the first century, and met the historical Jesus, I’m sure I’d be disappointed. It would be like meeting that rock star you idolize. It’s better when you can’t smell them.

Singing Tiny Dancer to Ella tonight, I inadvertently switched the genders:

Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band
Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you’ll marry a music man
Ballerina, you must have seen her dancing in the sand
And now he’s in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand

Jesus freaks out in the street
Handing tickets out for God
Turning back he just laughs
The boulevard is not that bad

Piano man he makes his stand
In the auditorium
Looking on she sings the songs
The words he knows, the tune he hums

But oh how it feels so real
Lying here with no one near
Only you and you can hear me
When I say softly, slowly

Hold me closer tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
you had a busy day today

Right around the “Jesus freaks” line, I heard what I had done. Oh no, I thought, it’s happening – I’m becoming a Jesus freak. I knew that tonight I was singing to Ella about a new Tiny Dancer, one I had just inherited from Anne Rice. But Ella didn’t care. She snuggled in close to me in her warm dark room, and I just kept singing.