Christ the Lord: the Road to Cana
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)
As usual, this is not so much a book review as it is a commentary on my impressions and thoughts while reading the book.
I start with some insights into Rice's recent (2010) departure from her church. Then I liken her experience to mine, in departing from my church, and point out a BIG diference: she remains orthodox in her beliefs, I do not.
Then I finally walk through some parts of the book and what my impressions were while reading.
Anne Rice's Struggle with Religion:
Leaving the church but keeping the faith
On Anne Rice's website (click here to go there now) there are links to interviews, including interviews about her leaving her church, yet remaining devoted to Christ.
Rice's answer to this question (LA Times) caught my attention:
Q) You were raised Catholic, became an atheist, then returned to Catholicism in 1998. Why are you quitting now? It's not as if the church has suddenly changed.
A) Well, I've been living with this now for 12 years, and I've come to the conclusion from my experience with organized religion that I have to leave, that I have to, in the name of Christ, step away from this. It's a matter of rejecting what I've discovered about the persecution of gays, the persecution and oppression of women and the actions of the churches on many different levels. I've also found that I can't find a basis in Scripture for a lot of the positions that churches and denominations take today, and I can't find any basis at all for an anointed, hierarchical priesthood. So all of this finally created a pressure in me, a kind of confusion, a toxic anger at times, and I felt I had to step aside. And that's what I've done.
My Own Struggle with Religion:
Leaving the church and tossing the faith
Rice's story reminds me very much of my own walking away from decades as a Mormon, primarily because of their view of women as eternal chattel and heavenly baby makers in mostly polygynous eternal marriage relationships. We men all want to become as God the Father. Some early Mormons taught that in the eternities, when all righteous women linked with unrighteous men are redistributed, we would have many wives with which to populate new worlds. Yippee?
I saw the vehement fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, including lies from Church leaders about their clandestine activities. It was intolerable, to me. Fair or not, I saw it as a move to protect the vision of the nature of God as the owner of innumerable wives. If society started telling women they were men’s equals, they might demand Priesthood, and then Godhood with a capital G. If their Godhood is equal to a male God's Godhood, then God, collectively, would be largely female!
Therefore, in this life they are 'partners' with their priestly husbands but not priets, in the next life the are gods with a small g, and their husband will be able to rise to eventually become a God with a capital G. When that is somewhere hidden in the obscure historical recesses of your belief system —if that is what you believe— then a hierarchical, patriarchal [=man in charge]society is what you must defend as the Divine Order: as above, so below.
Gays? They can be church members as long as they remain celibate. Zero chance for the highest degree of glory in the hereafter, since that requires eternal marriage.
In the decade before 1979 I was also upset at the religion discriminating against black people, black men also couldn’t hold the priesthood. But that changed 'by revelation,' in 1979.
When female feminists suggest publicly that the way women are viewed now is similar to the way blacks were viewed in the past, they are often excommunicated. Male feminists? Well, they are disciplined and excommunicated as well, but not as often, since it takes a higher level of authority to excommunicate a man than a woman. Go figure.
I tell my own ‘leaving’ story on this website [click here to go there now].
Anne Rice's Continuing Orthodox Views
Anne Rice explains her basic beliefs before again leaving her church in her book Called Out of Darkness, A Spiritual Confession (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). To add to your insight into her continuing belief system, I will quote from that book's pages 226-227:
The more I study the New Testament, the more I see the contradictions enshrined within it. But I see something else there too. We have been a quarreling religion from the beginning, born out of an earlier quarreling religion—Judaism—and in a sense the New Testament enshrines us as such very clearly, with no easy solution as to how we handle our quarrels or the contradictory passages except that we must love! The voice of Christ speaks so loudly in the Sermon on the Mount that surely it drowns out those passages that urge us to condemn or to shun. But how is one to say so for sure?
To accept the canon means to accept all of the canon. And that means there will be no easy resolution ever, and that learning to live with this tension, in love, is what we must do.
This may come across as simplistic. It is not simplistic. It is life changing and endlessly difficult, and the steadfast determination to love is threatened at every moment. We walk a tightrope over a pit of grasping demons when we insist upon love. And sometimes we walk alone.
The truth is, we are never alone, but we are tempted to think we are alone.
. . .
Over and over again people write to me to explain why they left a church in bitterness and hurt, because of the mercilessness of Christians who made them feel unwelcome, or even told them to go away.
I’m convinced it takes immense courage to remain in a church where one is surrounded by hostile voices; and yet we must remain in our churches and we must answer hostility with meekness, with gentleness, or simply not answer it at all!
. . .
After a discussion of the gender issues dividing churches today, even her own church, Rice continues with (p. 239):
My vocation is to write for Jesus Christ.
It is to belong completely to the Man at the Top.
That means a fidelity to the Jesus of Scripture, the Jesus of the Four Gospels, and it means I must never bend, in my portrayal of Him or His followers to any attempt to retroject my current values on the past.
If one becomes too involved with doctrinal arguments and sexual and gender controversies, one can be alienated from the Lord.
I can’t allow that to happen.
I’m too keenly aware that, in 1960, my agonies as a Catholic became intermingled with questions of pure faith; and, leaving my church, I left the Lord.
So, though I am again and again confronted with the political problems of organized religion, I strive mightily to ignore them.
The Lord Jesus Christ is where my focus belongs. And my commitment to Christ must remain unchanged.
On her pages 242 and 243, Rice makes a plea for tolerance and for seeing the love and goodness in people struggling “to establish households in which stability, fidelity and love are paramount” regardless of their sexual orientation or whether they have children or nor. She folds her love around “Buddhists and Muslims who share the same irrepressible belief in a Creator or a Greater Good beyond themselves.” She sees the effectiveness of 12-step programs, healing people from spiritual illnesses through reaching for a Higher Power that nourishes them in their quest. “These truths I celebrate with my whole soul” she says.
Toward the bottom of page 243 and the top of page 244 she draws an intriguing, and to me novel, parallel between the fight to stop astronomical science to protect Scripture, and the current fight to control sexuality to protect religion. She asks:
Is it not possible for us to do with gender, sexuality, and reproduction what was long ago done with the stars? To realize that these are also secular areas, and that new sources of information about them may be as valid as the information given us long ago by men who gazed through the first telescopes at the night sky?
Is it not possible that gender, sexuality, and reproduction are areas for which the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount may be entirely adequate as they are for every other sort of behavior we face?
If I am wrong on this, I pray you will forgive me for this suggestion. And a suggestion is all it is.
But I see people driven away from churches by these issues. And some for their whole lives.
And too many make the mistake I made. They leave the loving figure of Jesus Christ because they feel they have to leave His churches.
I will never leave him again, no matter what the scandals or the quarrels of His church on earth, and I will not leave His church either.
This book was published in 2008, meaning it was written well before her leaving her church for a second time in 2010. But the important point behind the citations just given is that she believes in an all-loving, non-judging, Christ, the Christ of her personal faith. This is the Christ we meet in her book Christ the Lord; the Road to Cana.
Personal Impressions While Reading Anne Rice's
Christ the Lord; the Road to Cana
Very near the start of this novel Jeshua (I will use the more familiar Jesus) attempts to, but fails to, stop a grave injustice: two young boys are stoned to death for alleged homosexual conduct without a fair hearing.
The second instance where we see the non-judgmental Christ of Rice's belief is even more revealing, to me. It is where Jesus is telling the Devil toward the end of his 4-day ordeal in the desert that he doesn’t have as many followers in the world as he thinks he does (pages 196-197 of The Road to Cana):
“Look down, yourself, on this perspective that is so dear to you. Think of the thousands upon thousands who rise each day and go to sleep without ever thinking evil or doing evil, whose hearts are set upon their wives, their husbands, their fathers and mothers, their children, upon the harvest and the spring rain and the new wine and the new moon. Think of them in every land and every language, think of them as they hunger for the Word of God even where there is no one to give it to them, how they reach out for it, and how they turn from pain and misery and injustice, no matter what you would have them do!”
“Liar!” he said. He spit the word at me.
“Look at them, use your powerful eyes to see them everywhere around you,” I said. “Use your powerful ears to hear their cheerful laughter, their natural songs. Look far and wide to find them coming together to celebrate the simple feasts of life from the deepest jungle to the great snowbound heights. What makes you think you rule these people! What, that one may falter, and another stumble, and someone in confusion fail to love as he has striven to do, or that some evil minion of yours can convulse the masses for a month of riot and ruin? Prince of this world!
“I’d laugh at you if you weren’t unspeakable. You’re the Prince of the Lie. And this is the lie: that you and the Lord God are equal, locked in combat with one another. That has never been so!”
Rice continues this dialogue, and to me it is one of the highlights of the book since it suggests a universal salvation for all who live honestly and lovingly, as described. If only such a speech had been captured in the canon!
Quite the opposite: Christianity quickly became an exclusive religion, and in order to crystallize its beliefs, decided on definitions of unclear issues in huge conclaves, and then behaved aggressively, even violently, toward those sincerely seeking to follow an alternative definition of some aspects of the new faith, from within the faith!
History shows these sentiments regarding a more accepting and universally loving and respecting attitude toward fellow humans in disparate parts of the world never occurred in the minds of most early Christians. Right from the start there was little tolerance for sincere believers with a differing opinion on Christian dogma, and there was no tolerance for non-Christians. Later, Christian nations went about the world conquering in the name of Christ and Christianity, seeing all who were not Christian as sub-human, fit for slavery, whether or not they converted. Deserving of death if they were resistant to the new order established by their Christian overlords.
Back to Rice's story: despite her very sincere determination to remain Catholic as late as 2008, by 2010, as noted above, she had to leave again. But her dedication to the Jesus revealed in the four gospels remains strong, and she defends her two books on the life of Christ as still reflecting her beliefs, still reflecting the content and ideals contained in the four gospels.
In her Called Out of Darkness biography, Rice tells of her motive behind her two books on the life of Christ (pages 210-211), motives that have not changed since her 2010 walking away from her church:
Very early on, as I worked on the first book, my commitment was to the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, the magnificent love story of God and man which had drawn me back to religion in the first place, the great and beautiful tale of Jesus becoming one of us.
. . .
Essentially, my challenge became a conservative one: to render a convincing portrait of the Jesus of Scripture, the Jesus of tradition, the Jesus of personal devotion and belief.
Only the level of realism in the book was radical. That is, I took the technique of the realistic novel and used it as intimately as possible . . . . So complete was my commitment to the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation that no miracle reported in Scripture was left out by me, or skimmed over, or watered down for any contemporary prejudice on the part of “modern’ believers who seek to ‘tame” the power of Scripture in the name of a variety of social concerns.
Jesus is God to me in these pages. Jesus is God to me in my belief. . . .
Concerning her second book, the Road to Cana, Rice explains (page 211 still):
Once again the commitment to the orthodox dogma of the Incarnation is total. . . . The numerous books by New Testament skeptics always manage to be helpful because these people ask so many interesting questions. But my answers invariably come out on the side of orthodox faith.
That ought to have been enough to give me notice that there would be nothing in this book Christ the Lord: the Road to Cana to address my ever-present need for new, and likely unorthodox, insights. But in reading, I expected them anyway. Why?
Because in reading Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt [click here to go to that page] I had found unusual thoughts and insights, based on apocryphal writings of the early church, so I looked forward to the same type of experience in this next volume in the series.
In her Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt Rice showed she did her homework regarding the nature of family and community life in that time and place. She constrained her story by the “known” events in Jesus’ life, meaning those events mentioned in the four gospels and the non-Gnostic apocrypha. Then into those constraints she poured community and personal life experiences that were both credible and thought provoking.
This second volume in the series lives up to the standard she set for herself in the first volume. It is a leap into the life of Christ during one critical year as he reaches the age where he can be considered a Rabbi, which is typically taken to be 30. Although given his struggles with personal issues men confront in their teens and twenties, I had a hard time projecting an age of 30 onto the character painted for the reader in this story.
On the very first page I was shocked to see, but should not have been, that Jesus knew he was “Christ the Lord.” That gave him a prescient edge in handling the situations coming his way, although Rice rightly soft-pedaled that prescience and hinted in more than one place that the revelation of what was to come in his life was unfolding through his experiences during this seminal year.
One way in which even an orthodox perspective did not unduly constrain the story was the dogma that Jesus was fully God and fully human. In those same early pages I was pleased with the way Rice was portraying Jesus as fully human. It is very early on in the book that we learn of his love interest, Avigail, the first real beauty to grace Nazareth in a long time according to him (page 6). He was obviously twitterpated, as his mother observes on page 50: “When Avigail is with you, you’re faint with love.” Several times he dreams of the possibility of her being his wife (pp. 4 and 35).
Rice in this book twice has Jesus say he loves Avigail. At one point he explains to his mother that he cannot marry her, but in doing so he tells how deeply he loves her. On page 51 he says in response to his mother’s observation of his being “faint with love” when Avigail is with him:
“Mother,“ I said, “that love will go with me wherever I must go, but Avigail will not go with me. No wife will go with me—no wife, no child.”
Then his heart breaks as he realizes that this means soon she will be completely out of his life:
“Avigail. This is worse than the dreams. No images to banish. Simply all I knew of her and had ever known, Avigail. This is almost more than a man can endure.”
On page 52 Jesus protests when his mother suggests that his having to give up Avigail is bad for him:
“I don’t know that it’s been bad for me, Mother. What is bad for me? To love as I love Avigail—it has a luster, a great and beautiful luster.” . . .
“there come these moments,” . . . . “These heartfelt moments—the moments when we first feel joy and sadness intertwined. Such a discovery that is, when grief becomes sweet. I remember feeling this perhaps for the very first time when we came to this place, all of us together, and I walked up the hill above Nazareth and saw the green grass alive with flowers, the tiniest flowers—so many flowers, and all of it, grass and flowers and trees, moving as if in a great dance. It hurt.” ….
“It hurt,” . . . . “but it was to be cherished . . . forever.”
This theme comes to a finale at Avigail’s wedding on page 230 as Jeshua/Jesus hears the wedding vows spoken:
“My heart filled with pain; it was washed in pain.
“Farewell, my blessed darling.
“I let the grief come. I let it run through my veins. It was not grief for her, but for the absence of her forever, the absence of that intimacy, the absence of that one beating heart that could have been so very close. I let myself know it in the absence, and then I kissed her with all my heart on her tender forehead in the image I held of her, and I let this go. Leave me, I said to this. I can’t take you where I am going. I always knew that I couldn’t do it. And I let you go now, yes again and for always—I let go of the wanting, I let go of the losing, but not the knowing . . . no, I will never let the knowing of it go.”
This makes my cry inside on several levels, really. He and Avigail were in a cocoon of love, chaste, yes, but that is not relevant. It seemed to me that it was a total immersion in a love he knew all along would not run its natural human course, hence his pain while basking in their mutual intimacy. It was a sincere love, no guile, no games.
Note the reference, above, to Jesus dreaming about Avigail. I was fascinated with the parallel I could read into one part of this story by Rice, a parallel between Saint Francis and Jesus when he awoke from a particularly vivid dream about his being with Avigail in an intimate sense on page 4, and ended up outside, washing himself and his robe in very cold water. He stayed out in the cold until he was dry and put on a clean robe.
What does that have to do with Saint Francis? Once Francis was sleeping at the home of a woman he loved, sleeping alone, and he dreamed of him and her together, having a normal family life, with babies. A great temptation. Next, we read he is running away from her house, in winter, naked and making snow angels, until this temptation passes. I tell this story elsewhere on this site. [click here to go there]
Rice does not come right out and say that the bodily ablutions and cleaning the robe are the aftermath of a ‘wet dream,’ but that seems obvious to me. This is an intriguing treatment of the ‘fully human’ aspect, and says that in Rice’s opinion there is no sin involved in a nocturnal emission. Good to know since that is not what some religious people teach their sons. But it goes deeper than that. This suggests that Christ had a subconscious, which, like every other young man’s subconscious, includes the desire for love, perhaps even lust, in its meanderings over and through the matter stored in the brain. Since Christ is sinless in this story, this declares that the subconscious will push things into consciousness that may not be palatable, but having the thought is not a sin, it is what is done with the thought in terms of its amplification or turning it onto action that determines whether or not it is sinful. To Jesus’ credit, his actions and continuing thoughts are blameless, although he feels a deep love and intimate bond with this teenage woman.
The Avigail-Jesus love story is a subplot of the book, in my opinion.
Early on, Jesus sees/knows that he will be present at Avigail’s wedding, but, as noted in citations given above, this does not mean that he is to be the groom. Catholic orthodoxy would not allow for a married Jesus, of course, but there are serious scholars who have said the New Testament does not anywhere say that Jesus was not married, and he was obviously intimate, but perhaps not physically so, with the Mary to whom he shows himself first after the resurrection. In Rice's story this is the Mary from whom he casts seven devils and their meeting after she is healed is warm, friendly, maybe a touch intimate, but not (yet) romantic. But now we are into territory what will hopefully be part of the next novel in the series.
Jesus makes the wedding possible between Avigail and a distant kinsman (Jesus was also her kinsman), by taking care of some serious interpersonal issues that have arisen that make this wedding seemingly impossible. This settling of issues involves personal diplomacy and peacemaking of a nature that could only have been accomplished by the very nonjudgmental person Jesus is shown to be in this story. He seems to hold no prejudices, he never writes anyone off for bad behavior, but seeks accommodation with them, to get them to do the right thing, whenever possible.
An early instance of Jesus showing his compassionate side in the face of alleged wrongdoing occurs early in the story when two very young men are stoned to death by a mob, allegedly for having been caught in what was interpreted as a homosexual liaison: two boys under a blanket in an olive grove on a very cold morning. The local rabbi, and Jesus, try to protect the boys, and demand a proper trial with testimony from the boys and from witnesses. The witnesses never come forward. Instead, stones fly, and Jesus is both dismayed and angry. The operative lesson here and elsewhere is that Jesus is not a zealot for the letter of the law, but is a zealot for justice with compassion.
Returning to the Avigail story, there is another instance where Jesus' nonjudgmental compassion comes to the fore. Jesus is baffled when he is accused of inappropriateness when he protectively embraces Avigail, in public, after she is freed from a would-be kidnapper. Avigail’s father makes an accusation of impropriety on Jesus’ part (page 70). The father attempts to punish his daughter by locking her up and not feeding her properly.
Jesus and his family organize local authorities to help them free her from her home prison and bring her to their house (they are kinsmen, all), which has a lot of people living in it, and which has secure inner rooms for the women.
This story involving Avigail continues with an episode on pages 115-120, where Avigail finds Jesus asleep at night in his favorite contemplation-place in an olive grove on a hill. She is dressed in a robe underneath which she is wearing rather intimate apparel. She attempts to get intimate with Jesus. Now we see the other side of the love existing between Jesus and Avigail: Avigail's side.
The story is quite touchingly told, Rice knows how to weave a story that exudes and breathes intimacy! Jesus, in a very kind and love-filled way says he will not be intimate with her, and will not marry.
Avigail then asks Jesus if she would be his wife if he were ever to marry. He assures her she would be if he were ever to marry. Her response set me back with recognition of the sentiment behind it (page 120): “Then take me as your harlot. Please. I don’t care.”
What sentiment did I recognize? The same sentiment as in the letter from Heloise to Abelard, very famous French lovers who could also not be together at this point in their lives, in which she said she would rather be his harlot than his wife.
Is there really any connection between the motives behind these two roughly similar utterances? I think so. In both cases they express a hunger for intimacy, for becoming one with another, and not for the restraints that society lays over that source of joy [click for a link to the Heloise and Abelard story here]
The Avigail story culminates with the wedding at Cana, where Jesus, being ultimately responsible for the negotiations that made it possible for the wedding to take place, changes water to wine. What I like here is Jesus’ very human pain and sorrow at now knowing that his Avigail, the only woman with whom he has had an intimate relationship, is now no longer available to him. He lets go of the longing in him, for her, but not the “knowing” of the feeling of intimacy that came with their love (page 230).
I see this Jesus/Avigail story as the very ideal of a “courtly love” relationship: the deep intimacy of shared love, but without sexual consummation! [ click for a link to a courtly love discussion here]
The story handles well and imaginatively the few ‘historical’/’biblical’ events that took place during this approximate time in Jesus’ life such as his meeting and getting to know his cousin John the Baptist, his baptism, his 40 days in the desert and confrontation with Satan, and his meeting Mary Magdalene. The story meets the expectations one naturally has when reading work by a master story-teller.
So, if you are an orthodox believer, you will find this story adding insight and depth to the character of Jesus, and you will become more familiar with his struggle to be peaceful in a violent world.
What if you are not an orthodox believer, even an adamant unbeliever? You will find nothing in this book that supports your unbelief. You will find a tale, very well told, that adds depth to, interprets, but does not question, New Testament events where they intersect the more personal story being told.
The stories, as told, confirm modern Christian, especially Catholic Christian, assumptions and expectations. Rice’s book accepts, and does not question, some major, and intriguing, issues that are open to interpretation and have been the basis for a wide range of speculation such as:
When did Jesus learn of his divine status and mission and fate?
Who were Jesus’ brothers and sisters if Mary always was and ever remained virgin?
Why was Mary seemingly responsible for the refreshments at the wedding in Cana?
Rice answers question 1 by saying Jesus knew of his status as a child already, but the full realization of what this meant grew in him as he experienced life before starting his public teaching career.
Rice answers question 2 in the standard way: Jesus' older brother was Joseph's, from a previous marriage. The others were close cousins is all. Joseph was quite old, Mary was not.
Rice answers question 3 in a similarly orthodoxy-preserving yet credible way, Mary was the bride's kin, and had given her a place to live in their household, hence her shouldering this responsibility.
If you are looking for intriguing alternative answers to these three questions, as I was even though I should have known better, you will not find them in this book. There was daring in this book where expanding the meaning of Christ being fully human while also divine was concerned. But there was no daring in terms of stepping outside the bounds of what has historically been assumed in the early and current (especially Catholic) church regarding these three questions.
Others, with no allegiance to Catholic orthodoxy, have questioned whether Jesus ever claimed any degree of divinity. He considered himself a prophet, and his Jewish followers seemed to see him as just that. It wasn’t until Paul came along that the faith was turned into the non-Jewish, Christian religion we have had amongst us for 2,000 years now.
Others, again with no allegiance to orthodoxy, see the brothers and sisters of Christ as the offspring of Mary and Joseph, do not make Joseph into an old man, and have no problem with Jesus having a mortal father and still being the ‘anointed one,’ the Christ.
Still others, again with no allegiance to orthodoxy, have argued that Jesus, to be considered a Rabbi, had to be married, and see the Cana story with Mary in charge, as Jesus’ wedding. Most speculate that the bride was Mary Magdalene because he showed himself to her first after his resurrection and some apocrypha suggest they were intimate.
But Anne Rice chose to be orthodox in her re-imagining of Jesus on these three points of potential departure from orthodoxy. For the sake of fairness, I am obliged to step away from my personal desires and respect the fact that Anne Rice has a personal point of view that differs from mine and that she states, quite explicitly: she is an orthodox believer and writes as such.
If you like reading a story by a masterful storyteller, you will like this book.
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