PLEASE DO NOT EXPECT A STRAIGHTFORWARD BOOK REVIEW, AS IN ALL MY READINGS I PLACE THEM INTO THE CONTEXT OF MY OWN LIFE AND EXPERIENCE AT THE MOMENT I AM READING THE BOOK, SO READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK
In November 2006, a business trip to Spain had me taking a few hours to visit the artwork of San Lorenzo de El Escorial’s Royal Monastery (a place I also referred to as I was editing the story of my recent visit to Paris which also included a book review). During this trip, as is quite usual, I was also reading. I was reading yet another best-selling book to do with the life of Christ. It is “Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt,” by Anne Rice (Ballentine Books, New York, 2006). Somewhat by contrast with the book discussed in the account of my Paris trip, the one by McGowan, this author, Rice, has had a relatively recent conversion experience and seeks to be as orthodox as she possibly can be and at the same time retell the story of Jesus using every available authentic piece of information available.
In her “Author's Note” and her “Note to the Paperback Edition” at the end of the book she explains her conversion experience(s), her dedicating herself to write solely in the service of God from now on, and her use of the non-Gnostic Apocrypha as historical sources. Apparently the use of the Apocrypha puzzled some believing readers who are not familiar with this body of work, and she felt the need to defend her use of this material, and she defends it very well, making me think back to my own reactions to this material long ago.
When I was younger I read these Apocrypha and found them to be strange stories and not credible, but I was then a believer, and as such I was reflecting my rather straightforward no-nonsense understanding of my religion’s teachings about who Jesus was and what he did and did not do. So I felt these miracle stories to be outside of the scope of things I believed about Jesus. This is a classic case of prejudice, although at the time I felt I knew the truth better than the authors of these ancient works. This, I see, is exactly the problem with the believers who have apparently complained to Rice, they have prejudices, they have a preconceived idealized image of Christ in their minds and hearts and
didn’t know it until reading this book which has Jesus, true to her sources, somewhat bumblingly and experimentally performing miracles as a child.
Rice handles this very respectfully and does very, very well in her attempt to imagine Jesus for all of us as a seven-year old child becoming aware of his uniqueness in terms of origins and abilities as he copes with intended and unintended miracles he produces, and listens to what grown-ups are so careful not to tell him about his origins, until –of course– he is told some of the facts in the course of events. But even then he does not yet know what it all means, he is still a child, and Mary and Joseph and her relations are also quite unsure of the meaning of all they have experienced at the hands of God and God’s angels.
I read this book in a hurry and tried to savor it at the same time. Rice’s evocation of characters is so stunning that I was all of the people she describes, emotionally, as I read. She is very orthodox in her treatment of the virgin birth and all the other special historical oddities that perplex Biblical scholars because of omissions and contradictions. She makes it all expertly cohere and credible, and in her Notes at the end of the book shows how she handled the sources with belief and respect. I praised McGowan in my review of the book she wrote in terms of her creating characters that touched me emotionally. But now I see that although she is very good at that, Rice is on another level of skill altogether, she is so good that I was believing that I was experiencing some emotions in response to events she was in the process of describing before those emotions even hit her character.
So, when she describes how Jesus, for example, felt internally as he experienced both some very good and some very bad things, I was already feeling his euphoria or his pain before she got to describing them. Jesus’ moments of mystical insight were particularly touching for me, having felt these same types of insights into the wholeness of all that is. And I was stunned at his moment of realizing that 'time' existed, I can still recall just such a moment from my childhood when I was perhaps the same age and I saw a calendar and it dawned on me what the existence of a calendar implied: time is, and it is moving!
Rice’s last few words almost stopped either time or my heart for me because of another such instance of recognition of this same recognition in myself, except in my case it came when I was well into middle age (or beyond), and Jesus was just a little boy at the time!
Do I need to say that I really, really liked this book and will read the ones sure to come in this series?
However, I also have a need, as did another young man in Rice’s story, to make a confession and clear myself of the stain of sin (of prejudice: I happen to NOT be a Rice fan, where her usual stories are concerned). Her usual stories (before her great conversion) are of the miraculous in the fight between good and evil, with vampires her main symbols of this battle. So I bought Rice’s book with a negative thought in my mind: I thought Rice had turned to this Christ-life topic because its miracle stories go hand in hand with her carefully crafted vampire tales. I thought this was a way for her to disarm believers into appreciating her vampire tales. I thought she was trying to make this connection: that both the stories about Christian beginnings and of the world of vampires require a suspension of disbelief to allow the magic of it all to soak in, both partake of a magical world view. And when looking at the book at the airport bookstore I happened to flip to page 66 and saw that Chapter 6 started there, to me that was a sign that I was right, and I almost put the book back on the shelf, except . . .
Except I looked at the Author's Note in the back of the paperback edition and was struck by her personal tragedy and conversion story, and I was struck by the genuine research effort she had made and the fact that she received endorsements from religious people and organizations that were not so easily pulled into a ploy of the type I was envisioning.
As I read the book she totally disarmed me and removed this pre-judgment on my part. I now believe her. I believe she is actually throwing her considerable talent behind her newly re-found faith, to keep a promise sincerely made to God. If the total surrender to God that she describes in her Author's and other Note works for her, if it makes her the more complete being in spirit and body she now feels she is, it is a very good thing for her. This new-found religion of hers is true. For her.
In a somewhat similar vein, the author whose books I have reviewed here quite often, James Cowan, now also has an orthodox book in hand looking for a publisher. It is one I helped (in my opinion of course) by proofreading the manuscript and commenting on its historical milieu. It is set just after Christ’s death, so it is not in the same vein as Rice’s work. It is fiction. But it is explicitly attempting to be orthodox from a Christian belief perspective.
This has now led to me to yet another wild speculation. Perhaps with the craze of unorthodox books and movies about Christ relating to the Mary Magdalene theme that is so popular now, this new emphasis in literature on a more orthodox view may be a manifestation of the Jungian collective unconscious reaching out through persons capable and sensitive to feed a slight dose of corrective thought into the mix to allow multitudes of now unsettled and troubled believers to set aside the anxieties they have ingested with the Mary Magdalene revelations in fiction as well as in the nonfiction that feeds the fiction like Baigent and Leigh’s “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and Margaret Starbird’s “The Woman With the Alabaster Jar” for just two examples.
Well might you ask, since Jung felt it plausible that it could be God that lies behind the collective unconscious and thus lies at the root of every human’s subconscious, am I now hinting that this is a new revelation, this new orthodoxy, is God's reacting with displeasure to the new ideas about Mary Magdalene? No in fact I am instead divorcing God from Jung’s collective unconscious and saying that instead that unconscious only reflects mass anxieties among the Earth's people. Just as it reacted eventually to the removal of all femininity from divinity over the millennia and cause it to be reinstated (for a segment of humanity at least) through Mary’s crowning as the Queen of Heaven (and Mary Magdalene’s similar crowning in heaven), just so it is now reacting to the discomfort in human hearts about the basis of their religion being attacked. Nothing divine about it, just the way it is, attacks on foundations of a life create anxiety in that life. But in the process of the collective unconscious seeking an outlet to protest and control this anxiety, look at the richness it is bestowing on whichever way one turns, emotionally, in this debate: all sides are enriched by the re-forming of formerly stylized characters into fully human actors that we can deeply identify with and who can thus become more meaningful and inspirational to us, whichever way we choose to believe.
And, as I seldom tire of saying: if your myth of what reality is, your religion, works for you and makes you whole and fulfills you: it is true for you.
I applaud these two very capable writers (Rice and Cowan) in putting their talents to fictionalizing early Christianity in a plausible and yet also orthodox way. I also applaud the non-orthodox treatments by very talented writers like McGowan. All are attempting to paint a fuller picture into which we can insert our own reality.
If you think that your religion is true for all people and ought to be believed by all exactly as you believe it, you have not lived long enough to realize that even among the strongest proponents of your own religion and yourself there is a very wide gulf in terms of how you may understand 'facts' you may recite in explaining your belief and how those same ‘facts’ are understood at a fundamental level by a fellow true beliver. This is because, as I assert, all such facts are colored and interpreted by you and everyone else in the context of your internal myth, the 'you' in your life. This ought to be comforting, it is meant to be, but
won’t be for all readers because of where they are in their lives in coming to grips with their being their own myth, and thus being in control of who they really are.
Am I immune from the magical world view? No, as I learn more about the structure of the universe and of the unique thing it is to have a planet with life, let alone self aware life like we enjoy, and the very fact that, like Jesus in Rice’s story, we can recognize this and find joy in simply recognizing that we are, that we exist and we know it, I am brought right back to magic in my own myth, my own experience. The fact that we are, and are thinking and sharing thoughts through words is a great miracle. It is THE miracle, THE magic, in which I live and move and have -and know I have- my being. It is my myth. I am my myth. You are your myth, your own author, live and write well!
Thanks, Anne Rice, for stimulating these thoughts.
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