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After stupendous sales for her tales of vampires, witches and lust, novelist Anne Rice has turned to Jesus -- personally and literarily.
Her innovative new novel "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" (Knopf) depicts Jesus as a 7-year-old lad, speaking in his own words as the holy family moves to Nazareth from Egyptian exile.
"What did it feel like to be God and man as a child?" Rice asked herself. Oddly, the question carries an echo of her first super-natural thriller three decades ago, which explored a vampire's first-person per-spective.
Rice said that she has no regrets about writing her Gothic novels, which include "Interview with the Vampire," later a movie, and "The Vampire Lestat," theme of an upcoming Elton John musical.
"I see this as a journey," she said. "They were written with complete commitment."
But that's all behind her now, she stressed; her 2003 vampire novel, "Blood Canticle," was her last.
Why give it all up?
"I wanted to write only for Jesus Christ," she replied, noting that the current novel is intended as part of a series.
"My hope is to live long enough to finish the life of Christ," the 64-year-old author said. "God is interesting again."
Rice's new burst of creativity stems from her return to Roman Catholicism -- though she seems a most unlikely recruit. Leaving aside those past novels (the more erotic ones appeared under pseudonyms), she quit church as a teen and never looked back for decades. Her late husband was a convinced atheist; her son is a gay activist.
But some critics thought her vampires' angst reflected the author's spiritual restlessness.
As Rice describes matters, there was "a yearning, a nostalgia, a grief" toward Catholicism but "I had this idea lodged in my head, I could never go back ... the longing was tremendous. The desire was tremendous."
"I gradually realized I could return, that I believed again."
After years of pondering, the climax occurred in 1998 at her home in New Orleans. Rice asked part-time assistant Amy Troxler, a parochial school religion teacher, to recommend a priest. Troxler immediately took Rice to the Rev. Dennis Hayes of Arabi, La., who became her spiritual director.
The move wasn't easy because "I was tortured by questions I couldn't resolve." She told Hayes: "I'll do my best on the unresolved questions." Among these are her church's ban on women priests and opposition to gay sex. She's convinced both eventually will vanish.
Though some popular preachers claim that faith produces good fortune, Rice has faced serious problems since rejoining the church: the death of her husband, a diabetic coma and burst appendix (both life-threatening), gastric bypass surgery to counter a dangerous weight gain and surgery for an intestinal blockage.
Didn't that shake her newfound faith? "God is as much with the person who drowns in the flood as with the person who's rescued," she asserted. "It has never occurred to me to blame him for anything. Things happen. People are always getting sick and dying."
An "author's note" at the end of the novel tells of Rice's religious turn, years of research and hostility toward liberal academics' doubts about the New Testament. "Absurd conclusions were reached on the basis of little or no data," she complains.
Rice's "Lord" is perhaps the unexpected development at a time when spiritual themes are hot in popular entertainment -- from TV to best-selling novels to Mel Gibson's box-office smash "The Passion of the Christ" to Disney's upcoming film adaptation of C.S. Lewis' Christian allegory "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
By coincidence, Rice's book also appears simultaneously with the artful "Jesus: A Novel" (Zondervan) by National Book Award-winner Walter Wangerin Jr.
"Maybe this is inevitable after years of popular atheism dominating our culture. Maybe people are hungry," Rice mused.
Rice said her Jesus novel didn't result from commercial calculations but her return to faith. In fact, she expressed anxiety about how her fans, accustomed to darker themes, will react.
"I have received no resistance from believers. The only skeptics about this book are skeptics," she said. Her prose is devoutly awe-struck toward its lead character and orthodox in theology.
There are odd notes, however, as "Lord" opens. Jesus denounces a neighborhood bully who then dies, after which Jesus resurrects him. Also, Jesus' brother recalls how he magically fashioned clay birds that became alive.
The strange tales didn't come from Rice. Rather they originate with the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas," a late apocryphal book the early church rejected. (The bird incident reappears in Islam's Quran.) Bart Ehrman, religion chair at the University of North Carolina, said "nobody takes this seriously as history" but it shows how some ancient Christians speculated about Jesus' childhood.
John Wilson, editor of the evangelical journal Books & Culture, said the conjunction of the Jesus novels by Rice and Wangerin isn't surprising -- writers continually have produced fiction about Jesus. Among them: Sholem Asch, Anthony Burgess, Robert Graves, Nikos Kazantzakis, D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, Jose Saramago and Gore Vidal.
It's a difficult challenge. None of these novels are masterpieces and "often they just seem absurd," Wilson said. "You don't know whether to laugh or to cry, both with the pious variety and the debunkers."
As for Rice, he said he thinks she simply "had taken this flirtation with evil as far as it would go and returned to the good."
On the Net: http://www.annerice.com.
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