Saturday, March 8, 2008

Readings: on Out of Egypt

On February 23, 2008, Tom, the Keeper of the Keys at Disputations, posted a review of the recently-released novel about Jesus by that renowned retailer of vampire sagas, Anne Rice. The novel, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, is the second offering in what is sure to be at least a trilogy, and perhaps more. I had seen the first novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, on the new book shelf at the public library when it came out. I picked it up and riffled the pages briefly, then put it down. As Tom phrased it in his review of the sequel, “Writing in the voice of the Son of God seemed like a case of trying too hard, and I gave Out of Egypt a miss.” My thoughts were akin to his. Jesus at age seven just didn’t engage my imagination enough to devote the requisite time to it. Then I read Tom’s brief review of The Road to Cana.

Knowing Tom to be a ruthless critic with the highest conceivable standards, I began reading, fully expecting the review to be a hatchet job to make the ghost of Carrie Nation moan with envy. I was very much surprised to be completely wrong. You should read Tom’s piece for yourself (you’ll have to scroll down to it, as I can’t figure out how to link to specific posts on Disputations), but his bottom line is: “The Road to Cana is easily the best -- the best written, the most Catholic -- of the handful of novelizations of Jesus's life that I've read.” No shit, sez I. This dictated the necessity of reading The Road to Cana. But since we’ve obviously got a boxed set building here, and I’m more than a little anal about completeness, I knew that I’d have to read Out of Egypt first. And so I am.

As of this writing I’m not even half-way into the novel. But you must understand that I’m not publishing a cyber-mag here; I try to make Rodak Riffs a true “weblog”—that is, a log of what I’m doing. As I tool down the road, I stop for hitch-hikers; if you want to grab a copy of Out of Egypt and read along, please do so. My opinion of the novel so far is positive.

As the novel opens, Jesus is seven years-old. Joseph has had a premonition that Herod is about to die, and has resolved to return to Nazareth, after stopping at Jerusalem for the Passover. The family is living and working in Alexandria. The whole, extended Holy Family is there, working in the family business; Uncle Cleopas, the several Marys, the cousins of Jesus, his half-brother, James, some other uncles, etc. For Protestants, such as myself, who have been skeptical of the prominence given the Holy Family, and particularly Joseph, by Catholics, Anne Rice here provides a very convincing portrait of Joseph as the patriarchal head of the clan. His word is law.

Tom says of the Jesus of The Road to Cana, “…as he waits for whatever it is that he's waiting for, he's regularly pecked at by those around him who are getting on with their lives.” This is already going on in Out of Egypt. But it is more that Jesus is trying to figure out why he’s treated as so special by all the others—particularly his uncanny cousin, John.

This is already getting longer than I had intended for it to be. Therefore, briefly, some things that I like about the novel:

1) It stresses the historical fact that Jesus was born and raised in a Greek-speaking civilization. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all of the other characters speak fluent Greek, as well as Aramaic. Rice actually has Jesus beginning his formal education under the tutelage of Philo. One of the reasons for Joseph removing the family back to rural Nazareth, despite their material success in Alexandria, is that he wants Jesus to be educated where they read the Scriptures in Hebrew, rather than in Greek.

2) Rice stresses the violence of the world in which Jesus lived and delivered his message. It is so easy for us to imagine Jesus strolling through a tranquil countryside, delivering his speeches to a care-free people. The first thing that happens when the clan arrives in Jerusalem is a massacre, conducted by the palace guard of Archelaus, successor to Herod, of the Jewish pilgrims arriving at the temple to celebrate the Passover. Once the clan has fled from Jerusalem, staying with relatives in the vicinity of Jericho, their temporary dwelling is invaded by Jewish insurgents who are intent on looting their possessions in order to carry on the fight against the Roman occupiers. The family puts up no resistance, behaving as cowering and penniless peasants, and are not harmed by the rebel band. After the bandits have left, Joseph instructs his family thusly: “Remember this, “ he said. He looked from James to me and to Little Joses, and to my cousins who stared up at him, and to John who stood beside his mother. “Remember. Never lift your hand to defend yourself or to strike. Be patient. If you must speak, be simple.” The pacifist in me likes that touch.

3) At the point in the novel where I have stopped reading in order to write this, Elizabeth has just announced that she will soon die, and that John will be sent to live with the Essenes, in the desert. This clearly opens up room for some very interesting speculation about an interesting group, and I look forward to seeing how Rice develops this theme.

Enough. Get it. Read it, as I shall now go and do.