Monday, February 25, 2008

The Road to Cana

If there is any silver lining to the delays I encountered this weekend on my way to New Mexico, it is that the long hours spent waiting to stand-by on flights provided me an opportunity to read Anne Rice's new work Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. Better known as the author of the Vampire Chronicles, this is Anne's follow up to her 2006 work Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

Rice (or her publishers) places at the beginning of the novel an invocation to the Trinity and then a quote from Karl Rahner, SJ: "The truth of the faith can be perceived only by doing a theology of Jesus Christ, and by redoing it over and over again." This is indeed a daunting task, one demanding a constant return to Jesus' own question to Peter "Who do people say that I am" (Mark 8:27). In this short (242 pages) and readable text, Rice sets out to answer that question anew.

Her tactic, however, is narrative rather than dogmatic. Instead of citing conciliar decrees or Church formulations, Rice assumes the role of Jesus and recounts aspects of his life. The Road to Cana begins approximately in Jesus' 30th year, beginning shortly before his baptism by John in the Jordan and ending shortly after his encounter with Mary Magdalene and the wedding at Cana. Creative liberties are obviously taken: as the scriptures are silent concerning Jesus' life between his visit to the Temple as an adolescent and his baptism, Rice is forced to imaginatively construct the social world in which Jesus may have found himself. To her credit, Rice demonstrates an a conscientious engagement with up-to-date scholarship and weaves this seamlessly into her narrative. (I mention this more to situate the work as a novel re-imagining of the "Hidden Life of Jesus" in order to stave off "DaVinci Code"-esque beliefs that what she writes about is HISTORY rather than fiction based on historical research and the experience of faith.)

So on a scholarly level, let me make one critique: much of what is spun here is fictional. We really don't know who lived with Jesus, what the various occupations of family members were (we can assume carpenter for some), or what tensions may have beset them. Again, I say this only to point out that this is not scholarship! With that in mind, let me share with you my impressions of the book.

In my experience as both a student and a teacher, I find very often people make very strange assumptions about Jesus. We think he was the most perfect human specimen (6-pack abs, flowing hair, killer smile, etc.) who came out of the womb possessed of cosmic awareness and a clear and full sense of self-identity. This is, sadly, an immature understanding of Jesus and downplays the role of his humanity. Jesus emerged from the womb and had to have his diaper changed. In short, there was a time in his life when he got sick, got stinky, and probably at times had to have boogers wiped from his nose. 

More importantly, however, Jesus had to learn how to love. Those years the Scriptures passed over in silence are the formative years when Jesus grew and matured into the man baptized by John. In those years he confronted the plight of his people, saw outcasts and widows and orphans, and had to learn how to respond to the needs of others. His family - Mary, Joseph, and all those who contributed to his life - played, accordingly, a crucial role in how Jesus learned to look with the eyes of love that we have come to take for granted in the Gospel portrayals. Just as Jesus had to learn to tie his sandals and use a lathe, he had also to learn how to love others.

What Anne Rice has done is to give us an imaginative portrayal of how this evolution may have taken place. In taking on the character of Jesus, she tells the story of of what it might have been like to have been Jesus prior to and just after his baptism. Did he have doubts? Fears? What may have made him angry? How did various events of the times affect him and incite him to action? 

In short, what might the internal landscape of Jesus have looked like?

Rice thus constructs her work as a story in light of a story. Jesus has heard the tales of his miraculous birth and the fantastic events surrounding it. These are stories that have shaped him as he has grown up and that have shaped and molded him into the man that he is. Others have heard these stories as well, leading many to look with suspicion on Jesus -- is he not to be the Savior? If so, what is he doing the backwater town of Nazareth!?! 

In light of this back story, Jesus confronts oppressive systems of power ranging from the imposition of the Roman ensigns in the Holy City of Jerusalem to the horrific stoning of two young boys. Stories, too, of Jesus' cousin John have begun to circulate and the news of the baptism he is offering at the Jordan capture the interest of those who hear it. In this novel, then, stories begin to align: the overarching tale of who Jesus is prophesied to become, Jesus' lived story and his evolving self-knowledge, and the story of the prophet who sees Jesus' story expanding to include a ministry to all of creation. 

What I love about this book is the rich descriptions Rice provides through her powerful prose. If you've every prayed using Ignatian Contemplation (or meditation) you will know how powerful the application of the senses is for this style of prayer. Rice seems able to capture the aridity and grittiness of life in Nazareth, the feelings of angst and anxiety that Jesus faced, and she conveys them to the reader without manufacturing feeling. Her writing, in a sense, facilitates an imaginative encounter with the fictive world of Jesus that helps to make Jesus' story the reader's story. 

The scene of Jesus' Temptation is particularly powerful. The dialogue between Jesus and his Tempter is brilliant and will inform my prayer this Lenten season. What can often be read as a tw0-dimensional story finds flesh and bone at her hands, resulting in an arresting unfolding of what Jesus may have experienced. 

Practical points: this book is a very quick read. I managed to finish it in under four hours but, then again, I didn't have much else to do. It is very accessible, although it takes some time to get used to the wide array of characters and their names. 

I think that this would make a fabulous book for anyone contemplating making either an 8-day or 30-day retreat, as it offers an imaginative framework in which one might begin to situate Jesus. Rice's imagery and skill give many images that would enhance prayer experiences and deepen such prayer encounters. 

Although the book will not be out until next month, I commend it to my readers whole-heartedly. Do not read it as though it were scholarship on Jesus - it is not. Read it, then, with a heart open as you ask the question, "How did Jesus learn how to love?" This, I feel, is the great contribution of Ms. Rice: she recalls that Jesus also struggled with love and its implications. With reverence and sensitivity she penetrates into the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The fruit of this is the chance to re-think one's image of Jesus and to drink imaginatively with Christ the cup of his life as he walks along The Road to Cana.
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