Reviewed by Cindy Crosby
Truly God and Truly Man
The gospel story of the life of Christ has been retold so often we might be excused for wearying of yet one more novelization. But rarely are the talents of a novelist such as Anne Rice brought to the table. Rice, whose books have sold more than 75 million copies, couples her writing talents with the zeal of a recent convert and a passion for historical research in Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, an intriguing followup to Out of Egypt.
For Rice, whose return to the Catholic faith of her childhood in the past decade has been widely publicized, writing the trilogy is a gamble with her readers. Rather than soft–pedal her beliefs, she lays them out plainly in the reader's letter at the front of the novel. "I believe in Him as God and Man, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who came down on this earth to be born amongst us, live and work with us, and to save us. This Jesus is Sinless. This Jesus created us." No pussyfooting around here.
The first person narration is a bold move by the author, putting us directly into the mind of God. "I am Christ the Lord. I know … . And in this skin, I live and sweat and breathe and groan." It also puts us right into the heart of the God/man struggle. In one striking night scene, Rice writes of Christ outside alone, looking at the stars:
I felt as if I were moving upward and outward, as if the night were filled with myriad beings and the rhythm of their song drowned out the anxious beating of my heart. The shell of my body was gone. I was in the stars. But my human soul wouldn't let me loose … . "Lord, how long?"
Rice wisely seizes on the interior conflict between Jesus as God and as man to create the tension that holds the story together—the same conflict that has seemingly paralyzed other novelists. Rice shows the audacity of an outsider to the Christian publishing world (where most of the novelizations of Christ's life have been created) and rushes in where the proverbial angels might fear to tread. But it is Rice's courage in tackling her subject matter—while still holding her protagonist in reverence—that elevates The Road to Cana above its predecessors in the genre.
With the plotting of a master storyteller, she weaves together Jesus' love for a beautiful fifteen–year–old village girl, the gifts of the magi, the wedding at Cana, his baptism, and the opening steps of his ministry. The familiar story overflows with surprises. Rice rarely relies on quoting Scripture to bolster or to pad the story; another easy trap to fall into. She's gained confidence in her subject matter since Out of Egypt, and it shows on every page.
Jesus is now past thirty, and he's on the cusp of beginning his ministry. Rice places him against the backdrop of a long drought in Nazareth and the desperate need for rain, which serves as symbolic of the need for his ministry to begin. Everything in Jesus' world is dry, dusty. Everyone in Nazareth is waiting for the rain to fall:
Something was indeed coming. It had to be. Here, all around me, were the signals of its approach. It was building, a pressure, a series of signals of something inevitable—something like the rain for which we'd all prayed, yet something vastly beyond the rain—and something that would take the decades of my life, yes, the years reckoned in feasts and new moons, and even the hours and the minutes— even every single second I'd ever lived— and make use of it.
Rice compellingly portrays the contrast between Christ's love for people and his extended family and his chafing to be alone and find solitude: "Every room in our house is filled." His time alone is spent in nature—by the spring, in an olive grove, and later in the desert, where his temptation by Satan provides scene after scene of compelling reading.
Rice wants us to understand Jesus in the context of his culture. What would it have meant to be thirty and unmarried in Nazareth? In one early scene, his older brother James demands of Jesus, "What's the matter with you? … When will you take a wife? … There are two men as old as you in this town who've never married. One is crippled. The other's an idiot." In one early scene, two boys unjustly accused of homosexual acts are stoned to death. "Be careful men don't say the same things of you, Yeshua," his friend Jason tells him, complaining, "Where is your wife, Yeshua, where are your children?"
Rice's historical research pays off as she fashions a rich background to the gospel story. There are big–picture details: Herod Antipas is ruler over Galilee; a new ruler is appearing on the scene, Pontius Pilate; "and the reports were already evil." Pilate has installed ensigns within the Holy City, an abomination to the Jews. There are small–picture details as well: we find "reading was common, but writing took experience and skills," or of a beautiful Jewish home: "No pagan nymphs or gods decorated these floors or walls, not for this devout Jew. Only the permissible designs, circles, curlicues, and lilies." Rice adds each tiny piece of information to create a kaleidoscope of color around her beloved gospel narrative, while being careful to not color outside the lines.