Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

Reading Anne Rice's Christ the Lord Out of Egypt proved, at a glance, that I must hate myself on some profound level. All through reading this book I would come across something particularly bad and ask Adrienne, “Why am I reading this?” She would say, “So you can make fun of it with a clean conscience.” She knows me well.

For some background, when I'm writing a long project like Simon Peter, I try not to clutter my brain with too much outside literature. I generally read a lot less, and it tends to be about whatever it is I'm writing, if only tangentially. This helps me stay focused on a big project. The last thing I want is to get a really great idea in the middle of writing something that distracts me from what I'm doing. So, right now, I tend to read a books about various 1st century CE subjects, especially if they're dealing with Judaism, Roman Palestine and, of course, Biblical figures. Rice's book is very much the sort of thing that I read.

I've also planned on reading it for a while. I am not an admirer of Rice's work, but she's important to Simon Peter. After learning that Anne Rice had written a novel about Jesus it really dawned on me anyone could do it – and I fancy myself a much better writer than Anne Rice. So I started looking into it and, behold, I'm doing it.

As you can probably guess, I think the book is bad. The rest of this post is about how bad, and the forms this badness takes, and it'll probably be pretty long. It's the worst book I've actually finished in a longish time.

Also, for the record, I hold no particular hostility towards religious fiction. I am, after all, doing it, myself. I like a fair number of Jesus-fic novels such as Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist and Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff by Christopher Moore. Others, such as The Last Temptation of Christ I might not have liked, but I can see the craft and art that went into writing them. To me, a well written book about Biblical characters is akin to interesting fantasy, and I hold neither the books nor the writers in any sort of contempt. I say this because I didn't go into this hating it. While I'm not a fan of Rice's works, I did enjoy Interview with the Vampire, so I further know she's capable of writing things I like.

But Out of Egypt is just a bad book. It's so bad I am struggling with where to begin. So, after Carroll, I shall being at the beginning.

The book takes place when Jesus is seven or eight years of age. It takes place in the first person, as if Jesus is narrating things as an adult. The plot revolves around Jesus learning he is the son of Jehovah, immediately after the death of Herod the Great and the riots surrounding Herod's death.

The first problem is the narration, itself. Jesus is narrating the book as if he was an adult looking back, but the book totally lacks mature insights into the youthful Jesus' problems, personality or social interactions. Particularly lacking is mature insight into Jesus' social interactions, which I very much would have liked to see. But the narration, despite technically being recorded by an adult Jesus, comes off as being narrated by the child Jesus.

The book begins with Jesus striking another child dead while he lives in Alexandria. It was inspired by a scene out of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (Out of Egypt also mentions Jesus turning clay pigeons into real birds, also from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.) The inclusion of the striking dead scene is problematic and, I suspect, the reason it never even got seriously considered for Biblical canon. After all, murder is a sin, and Jesus is said to have lived a sinless life. Though, in Out of Egypt and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus undoes these acts, having done them, he had sinned. Just because you give back the money you've stolen doesn't mean you're not a thief – you're just a penitent thief, right? The first thing that Rice has Jesus do is sin.

Now, if it had been a book written in that fashion, I probably would have been pleased. A Jesus that went around withering people and striking them blind – based on various legendary sources – would have been a hoot. Heck, if I wasn't deep into Simon Peter I might have done it that way, myself. However, Rice intends to confirm the divinity of Jesus – which is not well served by having Jesus kill someone, even if he does repent of it. God is above that sort of thing, right? At least, that's the standard Christian doctrine – that Jesus is perfect. So the book starts out with a serious misstep.

The book has a lot of missteps. It's like Rice doesn't know what she's doing from one chapter to the next. So, in one chapter, Joseph tells Jesus not to do violence. He is clear. Joseph says, “Never lift your hand to defend yourself or to strike.” Then, a chapter later, Joseph and his relatives kill a man who is attempting to rape a woman. Which is it, Joe? Never lift your hand, or is it okay to kill in self-defense of third parties?

Another misstep is the . . . well, the Jewishness of Jesus is a complex subject in the book. Clearly, if Jesus lived at all he was Jewish. We don't know what kind of Jew – we know very little about him, as a person, and it is often contradictory or outright silly – but certainly a Jew. Christianity largely de-emphasizes Jesus' Jewishness. Some of it is outright racism on the part of Christians, certainly, but there is a larger point to it – Jesus is not a Jewish messiah but a universal messiah. By emphasizing Jesus' Jewishness, it weakens Jesus' universal appeal, which clashes uncomfortably with the rest of the tone of the book where it is emphasized that he's a universal messiah.

Those are the three major missteps I can think of, right now. Now I'll start to address the further horrors of the book.

Keeping on with the Jewish character of Jesus, the book dwells on things in a truly comical way. The characters mock Egyptian Jews who study the Jewish Bible in Greek, unlike Jesus and his family who do it in Hebrew. Which struck me as reasonably cruel, to mock someone's ignorance. It further struck me as comical – Jesus and his family of super-Jews. (Not to mention that it isn't like most Christians learn Greek and Hebrew to study the Bible. Rice, herself, had to do her Bible study in English. It seems a bizarre standard of mockery, given the lack of importance American Christians give to learning the languages the Bible was written in.)

The Jews, in general, are treated in a cartoonish way. So, in Sepphoris, Jesus notes the absence of prostitutes for the Roman soldiers to fuck, vis-a-vis Alexandria. As if Jewish women didn't know how to prostitute themselves? The Bible is very explicit on the extent of prostitution amongst Jews. Apparently, it was nigh ubiquitous. At several places in the Old Testament – such as Ezekiel 16:15 . . . oh, to at least verse 38 – the author shows a pretty profound knowledge of the ways of prostitutes. And, of course, famously, Jesus hung out with prostitutes. But in Out of Egypt, it's like the Jews are too moral to engage in prostitution, which is laughable.

(Interestingly, the book seems to praise Jewish women for wearing the veil, which protects them from the Roman soldiers. I don't think that Rice was praising the veil as effective against sexual assault – when a person gets it into their head to rape someone, a piece of cloth is unlikely to stop them – but trying to suggest that Jesus would have been for the veil because it's modest. Still, there is also enough in the Gospels to suggest that Jesus wouldn't have cared about veils or the conservative social modesty of the Jews. He broke a lot of Jewish social rules, such as traveling with women (Mary Salome, Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene – by the social rules of the time, they should have been escorted by a male relative) and associating publicly with prostitutes. But she chose to have Jesus praise the veil, which isn't necessary given the further life of Jesus nor particularly sensitive to modern issues.)

And the Pharisees are SUCH GOOD PEOPLE. They're so learned and holy and . . . ugh, it's childish. They're not just good people, as humans can be, but they're these smiling, sinless people who never lose their temper, who never get developed beyond their smiling, one-dimensional caricatures. And there's the wise old woman who is so old and wise! And the crotchety uncle with sage advice! None of the cast (who aren't walk-in characters, generic threats) had, it appears, a single bad impulse in them – even when they do something that is bad (such as Jesus striking someone dead) it's never because they possess a sinful thought; Jesus acted impulsively, without thought, Joseph and his cousins acted to save someone else. Humans without some measure of bad in them, of course, are caricatures. They aren't believable. Thus, none of the characters in Out of Egypt are the least bit believable.

Going hand in hand with the cartoonish, one-dimensional nature of the characters is the awful writing. There are some examples that will help illustrate this. Be warned. It is bad.

Elizabeth lowered her voice and spoke on.

“We have brethren with them, grandsons of Mattathias and Naomi, who went out long ago to the desert to live with them, and I've spoken with them, and they will take him, even now. It's their way to take children and bring them up strictly, abiding by their rules of purity and fasting, and strict community, and all these are natural things to my son. And he will study with them. He will learn the prophets. He will learn the word of the Lord. The desert is where he wants to be, and when I'm gathered to my ancestors there he will go until such time as he is a man and decides for himself what he will do. I have already provided for John with the Essenes and they wait only for my word, or for him to come to those that live on the other side of the Jordan and they will take him far out away from here to where he's to be brought up removed from the affairs of men.”

Who speaks like that? C'mon. It's a parody of the sonorousness of the King James Bible. This passage isn't a particularly bad one, either. It's all like this. Very portentous, very pretentious. In other passages, I swear I can also hear the nasal New Yawk twang, too. How can a person take this seriously?

Another bit that I found amusing:

”Oh, yes,” said a woman who saw me look at them. Her eyes were red, and her clothes covered with ashes and dust. “And days ago they massacred us, I tell you, and sold off anyone in sight to the filthy slave merchants who descended on us to put our loved ones in chains. They took my son, my only son, he's gone! And what had he done, but gone out to try to find his sister, and she took for what? She was trying to go from my house to the house of her mother-in-law?”

Rice, especially with female characters, has them say things like “I tell you” and repeat themselves – the slavers sold off anyone in sight and put their loved ones in chains – in a way that makes me wonder if this was proofread at all, by anyone! And sometimes, again largely with female characters, I swear I can hear a New Yawk twang with all the “I tell yous”.

Rice also does that annoying thing where when she wants to emphasize something, she puts a particular sentence as a sole paragraph. This is also pretty juvenile, I feel, and vaguely insulting to the intelligence of the reader. Like we're not clever enough to figure out what's important.

Over and above this, however, the book's biggest problem is it is painfully dull. It took a bit, but since I was stuck on the road a lot over the vacation, and there's only so many cacti a person can look at before they all blend into a Platonic form of cacti, I figured it out. Jesus and most of the main characters of the story are, well, canonical figures. Because nothing is really known about Jesus' childhood – a few spurious infancy gospels aside – and because Rice doesn't want to do anything to blatantly contradict the Bible (tho' she fails in this in a couple of places, as said above), the characters must be static. They can't do anything really noteworthy, else she would have to explain why this wasn't included in the Bible, itself.

Particularly static is Jesus. Because she is, in large, trying to write him as the perfect child, and because Joseph and Mary are protective parents, this means he obeys his parents. And when you're seven years old, well, you're not allowed to do very much. A fair bit of the book is Jesus asking to do something interesting, being told that, no, he's not allowed to do that, and then him obeying. After all, he must! He must honor his mother and father, right?

And because the extended family of Jesus included in the novel are equally holy, they are equally dull. For a moment, there is a brief bit of tension because Jesus' brother James (the Just, eventually, who is patriarch of the Jerusalem church and a martyr in the fullness of time) resents Jesus because James knows that Jesus is the messiah, but what could have been actual tension is resolved instantly, so it means little. And the rest of Jesus' family, who know he's the son of Jehovah, also have no problem with it – they accept it wholly and without any problem at all. Again and again, there are places for actual conflict, but Rice never really capitalizes on this. I suspect she does this because, well, the messiah can't have a fucked up family full of people who doubt Jesus is the messiah, right? Even though there is Biblical evidence that his family didn't accept his mission!

Even when Rice suggests that the larger Nazareth community doesn't believe the stories about Mary and the virgin birth, but it's kept very distant. Mary is never confronted, and neither is Jesus. The tension is hinted at, but nothing is ever done with it.

Satan also makes an appearance in one of Jesus' dreams (though uncredited, it's obvious who it is). Now, Satan is one of my favorite literary characters because it's so easy and fun to deconstruct Satan. Other writers have really had fun with Satan, from Milton to Kazantzakis. He's a fun guy! Rice's take on the big S seems designed to be as bland as possible. The child Jesus easily beats off whatever temptation that Satan might have been trying to do – compare with the Satan out of The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus on the cross came very close to succumbing. Satan, the greatest villain of Christianity, is treated as though he was a punk ass bitch. Again, when given the chance to really create some tension, for something interesting to happen, Rice flubs it. One could even say that, as a child, Jesus would be vulnerable to Satan's charms. Apparently not. Yawn.

So, all the action of the book takes place from a very limited perspective. Of a young child that has no real verve, an obedient child, a completely dull child. The other characters are equally dull, because they have to be worthy to be the family of the Christian messiah. Even the passage through the riots following Herod the Great's death are without impact – they are never really threatened. The book is very explicit about this, that Joseph wouldn't have been ordered to return to Galilee if the way hadn't been made straight. So, no real threat! They are protected by GOD HIMSELF.

All of this combines, of course. It isn't just that the characters are one-dimensional parodies, and it isn't just that the writing is bad, and it isn't just that nothing really happens. All of these things are happening at the same time.

The book is dull and silly, it says nothing original in poor language. It isn't even bad in an interesting way – it plods along, boring and pretentious, not even letting the audience thrill in how truly awful it is. It's bad in a pedestrian way. I recommend giving it a miss.

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L>T said...

Personally, I don't like Ann Rice's books anyway.
Acually, there is a lot of fiction that makes "Best Sellers" lists that I don't like.
Some of it I think is horrible even. I'll have to check & see how many weeks that one has been on.
But, if it sells... that's the point, right?

Your comment about Ann Rice using King James vernacular, struck me as funny. You ever noticed when God or the Angel talked to the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, (who wrote it down word for word) they talked just like King James. I find that very suspicous. ha ha!

April 10, 2007 3:38 PM  
Chris Bradley said...

Oh, yeah, there's a lot of "bestsellers" that I think aren't worth the paper they're printed on. But as a surly writer type, I'm obligated to think that way. ;)

I approach the publishing industry with the idea, however, that they're in it to make money. This has actually influenced my current project. I'm writing Simon Peter as I am because I feel it will be able to *sell*. I'll be able to go to a publisher and say, "Print this and we'll make millions. Atheists, humanists and the like will dig it because of how it treats religion, and the fundies will want to kill me, and to burn books you've got to buy them." Selling books is very much the point of the industry, and the people in the industry are basically honest about that, after a fashion.

But, yes! You'd think that when GOD ALMIGHTLY came down from heaven or wherever that he would be able to talk in normal language and make himself perfectly and clearly understood. I feel that way about all religious texts. I read them and go, "This . . . doesn't make very much sense." You'd think that god would be a better writer and speaker. To judge by religion, you'd be wrong. ;)

April 10, 2007 4:01 PM  
Sadie Lou said...

Interview With A Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were both good books and I thought I would be an Anne Rice fan until I read The Mummy. Yuck. My mom reads all of her books--owns them all in hard cover. I guess she wrote a fair amount of erotica under a pen name too/ Anyhoodles,

April 10, 2007 9:07 PM  
Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, those are her two best books. Interview was written from a place of deep pain by Rice, and some of that was still there for The Vampire Lestat, but after that she was just churnin' 'em out. I actually read Queen of the Damned and almost gouged my eyes out it was so bad.

She did, also, do some softcore porn bodice-ripper types. Never read any of them, hehe. Not really my idiom.

April 10, 2007 11:38 PM  
Stew said...

Chris - error 404 on your amazon link to Anne Rice's book.

My father is a fundie christian (I was responsible for his conversion - it seemed like a good idea at the time)
The jewishness of Jesus is a big deal with him and he has been reading about Jewish marriage ritual and how it relates to Jesus' teachings about the church, his bride. (I go to prepare a place for you etc.) And also the symbolism in Pesach and how that relates to the last supper, sacrificial lamb etc etc.
For my father this is like some deep mystery revealed, ancient knowledge forgotten and rediscovered and it greatly re-affirms his faith.

April 11, 2007 5:46 AM  
Stew said...

OK - all these posts about your novels, but I've trawled your blog and can't find any reference on how to buy them or read them.
I'm a Sci Fi reader (Silverberg, Asimov, Moorcock, Aldiss, Heinlein, Bradbury, Bob Shaw, Clifford Simak) so I'm a bit old-school.

April 11, 2007 6:09 AM  
Homo Escapeons said...

RICE should have atleast allowed young Jesus to fight Vampyres!
So no mention of his brothers and sisters? Does he swing a mean hammer? Is he speaking in 'tradesman' Greek like his father?

It sounds horrible but the US publishing industry is what it is and although 85% of Americans claim to be religious an astonishing percentage of them are biblically illiterate.

Sorry that you have to slog through this..you have certainly convinced me to wait for the Hallmark version on TV so that I can nap peacefully to the drone of those nattering New Yawkish veiled ladies..

maybe Fran Drescher could play Mary?
a heh heh heh.

April 11, 2007 11:36 AM  
divabeq said...

To Stew: Chris's novels are not yet published, and so they won't be available widely until they get that way, but in the meantime he has and will be posting his short stories for download, to give a sample of his writing style. Ruthless is the first one he's posted, but there will be more coming.

April 11, 2007 1:16 PM  
Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, I fixed that 404 error. Something weird is happening with when I save blog posts when I pre-write them and when I post them it adds a bunch of crap to URLs even tho' when I paste the stuff into the window to be sent it doesn't *show* the additional characters.

And like Becky said, I have *unpublished* novels. But, uh, if you ask nice I'd be glad to send you Condotierri so you can read it. ;)

I know that some modern Christians are exploring Jesus' Jewishness. So maybe I should cut slack to Rice for doing that. I mean, better that they do that then continue in the oh-so-Christian tradition of anti-semitism.

And I thought you were in, like, FRANCE. I thought it was illegal there to be a fundie Christian or something. ;)

April 11, 2007 1:22 PM  
Chris Bradley said...

homo escapeons,

LOL. I can actually answer some of those questions!

No Vampyres. Which is SAD! The book would be been dramatically improved if some vampire came along and offered Jesus hot vampire man love. Something would have happened!

Jesus' brothers and sisters are mentioned. Rice takes the POV that Joseph had an earlier family, before Mary, so James, Joses and the rest are half-siblings. Rice also holds that Mary is a perpetual virgin -- after fucking god, apparently Joe didn't want sloppy seconds. Which is a crude way of saying that, yeah, Rice says that Joseph is so awed by Mary that he can't bring himself to touch her. Poor guy. Poor girl!

They don't speak tradesman Greek, but very upper-crust Greek. Jesus learned it from Philo of Alexandria, apparently.

I got a total belly laugh over Fran Drescher playing Mary, hehe. I totally laughed out loud. Not in the "LOL" sense but *real laughter*. :)

April 11, 2007 1:25 PM  
Sacred Slut said...

I don't think Anne Rice has written anything interesting since Interview With the Vampire. I thought that one was interesting and innovative at the time but every subsequent book (okay, so I only made it through 2 more after that) got progressively worse.

You must have a strong stomach to make it through this one.

April 11, 2007 11:54 PM  
Chris Bradley said...

A strong stomach and . . . it's related to what I'm writing. I can't emphasize that enough, hehe. I finished it in large part because I am reading Jesus-fic novels to help me stay focused on my own project.

And, damn, I need the help. *tries to will part 2 to end with the power of my MIND*

April 12, 2007 12:21 AM  

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