Friday, February 29, 2008

Neuhaus on Rice (on Jesus)

From Richard John Neuhaus in First Things, a brief but glowing recommendation from someone who is not the easiest audience (after a more neutral approach by Marvin Olasky in World)...

I am not given to reading books with titles such as Interview with the Vampire, The Mummy, The Witching Hour, and The Tale of the Body Thief. In fact, I don’t read them at all. Those are among the titles with which Anne Rice won fame and fortune....

I had heard about her conversion, with its consequent and radical change in her writing. I had not read the first book in her Christ the Lord series, Out of Egypt, and it received a rather cool notice in these pages. [See also: two letters that take the reviewer to task and her response.] Then she sent me the second, The Road to Cana, with such a ­gracious inscription that I felt obliged to take a look. A couple of hours later, I put it down with a sense of great appreciation.

Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, to be published this month by Knopf, is a remarkable achievement. From the beginning of the Christian movement, writers have been trying to fill in the details of “the hidden years” of the life of Jesus before he began his public ministry. Thus the fanciful tales contained in the pseudo-gospels of the early centuries. The serious Christian cannot help but wonder what it was really like in the household and workplace of Nazareth. Mel Gibson was delicately attentive to that curiosity in his film The Passion of the Christ. The ­ Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola include “compositions of place” that entail such exercises of the ­imagination.

Questions about what Jesus was thinking when this or that happened involve mysteries of his divine and human nature. Scholarly tomes have been written about, for instance, his “messianic self-­consciousness.” Such imaginative reconstructions can end up in treacly Bible storybooks or in bizarrely muddled fantasies such as Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son.

Ms. Rice’s The Road to Cana is a rare achievement: an engaging story told within the structure of biblical narrative and theological orthodoxy. Of course, there are those who will say that, if God wanted us to know the details of those hidden years, he would have inspired the gospel writers to tell us. I think they are wrong about that. With our capacity for ­reason, God gave us curiosity and imagination to be employed to his glory.

That is the employment to which Anne Rice has turned her storytelling talents. She does not claim to know what happened; she is simply saying how it might have been. This is a novel, after all. I do not say that this is great literature; Dostoyevsky need not fear for his preeminence. But The Road to Cana makes more vivid the Word—both the person and the text—and that is no little accomplishment.


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