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.
Labels: anne rice, book review, christianity, jesus christ, writing