Cover Story

Into the light

"Into the light" Continued...

Issue: "Into the light," Dec. 3, 2005

She began attending Mass again and participating in sacraments. In 2000, her husband agreed to remarry her in the church: Despite his own atheism, "he was very supportive about my writing [Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt], and he was fine with me going back to the church. It surprised him, but not that much. I don't think I had ever stopped talking about God."

Painstaking historical research has marked all of Mrs. Rice's novels. Interview with the Vampire, for example, is set in the 18th and 19th centuries. For her new series she wanted to bring to life the "Jewish milieu" in which the boy Jesus grew up: "I had to know what people ate, what they wore, about farming seasons in Galilee, how doors were made, what type of tiles were laid, how often fig trees break into figs-I couldn't have fig trees bearing figs at the wrong time of year!"

Mrs. Rice's research took her through the literature written by those she calls "the skeptical critics," beginning with the New Testament scholars of the Enlightenment. "I expected to discover that their arguments would be frighteningly strong, and that Christianity was, at heart, a kind of fraud," she writes in an author's note in her new book.

But she plowed on, "ready to risk everything," particularly her newly recovered faith: "The skeptical New Testament scholarship tries to prove to you that the Gospels don't hold up. It takes great fortitude to subject yourself to that kind of literature, to seriously take notes, to follow the arguments, to draw conclusions. You could come out destroyed." But she came out concluding that the skeptics were wrong, perpetrators and victims of some of the worst scholarship she'd ever seen, built with poor research and reasoning on a foundation that presumed the Gospels weren't true.

She was working hard-and then, in fall 2002, Mr. Rice showed the first symptoms of brain cancer. In just four months, after 41 years of marriage, he died. Mrs. Rice fought the pain by burrowing deeper, reading archeology books, studies of the Gospels, histories by Josephus, Julius Caesar, and Philo, and exegesis by Ellis Rivkin, Lee Levine, Joachim Jeremias, and others.

She also studied the Bible itself and now owns every translation she knows of, 200 Bibles in all. They are on the shelves of her new home in Southern California, because she also left New Orleans behind last year. She compares the two: "In La Jolla, you don't have the great big old oak trees, the drowsy, shadowy ambience of New Orleans . . . but you have the light from the Pacific. I wanted that. I wanted a new start."

She continued scouring the Gospels herself, not only to absorb the unfolding life of Christ, but to delve into the how of Christianity itself: "I could see that this was a great mystery. How could Christianity bust into the Roman Empire and take over the world in only 200 years? I was looking to see how this thing worked itself out, day by day, month by month, year by year." She came to understand that Christianity achieved what it did because Jesus rose from the dead: That was what made sense of Christianity's spread.

Understanding this, for Mrs. Rice, was a turning point, and there were others, such as the dawning in her mind of the Gospels' "unique coherence, their personalities-the inevitable stamp of individual authorship."

Whether caught up in the book-tour whirl, or padding barefoot in a flannel nightgown in the master bedroom of her 11,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style villa overlooking the Pacific, Mrs. Rice reads day and night. Last month she was grappling with Mere Christianity: "C.S. Lewis opens the door to all kinds of wonderful thoughts I didn't consider before. . . . That Jesus wants to bring us to perfection and that there's no stopping Him . . . and that theories of atonement are not the atonement. We live in a world where people want to spell out how Jesus saved you and that isn't always so helpful. The words are fine. I've understood the words since I was 6 years old. But I wanted to go further than that. I wanted to realize it."

When Mrs. Rice writes and speaks of these discoveries, you sense her heart soaring. Holding her faith dear, like a pearl of great price, she revels in the joy of being able to embrace Christ intellectually, of not having to compartmentalize a faith at odds with history. "I've never been this happy in my life before," she said. "I never expected things to come together like this, to be so completely unified in purpose and intent."

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