The Gospels are tight writing. They tell us what we need to know about Jesus, but not all we want to know. Desires can be dangerous, and many writers over the centuries have conjured up a Jesus that fit their imaginations but not the Gospel evidence. The test of faithfulness: Does the author make more vivid the biblical account or substitute for it a nonbiblical fantasy?
Eleven years ago, had someone suggested that Anne Rice, the unbelieving author of Interview with the Vampire and other bestsellers of a decidedly non-Christian cast, would be writing novels about Jesus, the betting line would have been that she'd make Satan the hero. But in 1998 she "began to be more and more concerned with my relationship with God" (see "Into the Light," Dec. 3, 2005).
She began attending church. She began reading theologians, including those who thought "Christianity was, at heart, a kind of fraud." She told WORLD that she "expected to discover that their arguments would be frighteningly strong." She came out concluding that the skeptics were perpetrators and victims of poor scholarship and reasoning.
She kept studying: archeology books, studies of the Gospels, Josephus, Philo, recent exegeses. In fall 2002, her husband of 41 years showed symptoms of brain cancer and died just four months later. She fought the pain by burrowing deeper. Her previous work had dealt with the supernatural, and now she concentrated on Jesus, whom she calls "the ultimate supernatural hero."
She told WORLD that "all of the novels I wrote before were a dress rehearsal for this. It helps you trust in God that there's a purpose for things even when you don't know what it is. Especially if you don't know what it is." She was filled with excitement: "I feel like I have this wonderful challenge ahead of me . . . that will fill up my whole life until I die. There's so much to study, so much to ponder, so much to write, so much to know."
The challenge was even greater because she had decided to write her series about Christ in the first person: How does a writer enter the mind of God? At least the first book of her new series, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, dealt largely with Jesus' childhood in Egypt, about which almost nothing is known. The tennis serves were coming at Rice fast, but she was playing without a net.
Her new book, though, and especially its second half, covers baptisms, temptations, and miracles described tersely in the Gospels. The net is up. Judge for yourself how she volleys in this excerpt from Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, her new book that will be officially published on March 4. Afterward, read Rice's notes for WORLD about what she was trying to achieve in this depiction of Satan tempting Jesus. -Marvin Olasky
Excerpt from chapter 22 of Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana . . .
Forty days and forty nights.
That's how long Moses remained on Sinai. That's how long Elijah fasted before the Lord spoke to him.
"Lord, I have done it," I whispered. "I know, too, what they expect of me. Only too well, do I know."
My sandals were falling to pieces. I'd retied the thongs more times than I could count. The sight of my sunburnt hands unsettled me, but I only laughed under my breath. I was headed home.
Down the mountains, towards the bright shimmering desert that lay between me and the river I couldn't see.
"Alone, alone, alone," I sang. I had never felt such hunger. I had never felt such thirst. They rose as if in answer to my own pronouncement. "Oh, yes, so many times did I devoutly wish for it," I sang to myself. "To be alone." And now I was alone, with no bread, no water, no place to rest my head.
It was a voice. It was a familiar voice, a man's voice familiar in timbre and pitch.
I turned around.
The sun was behind me, and so the light was painless and clear.
He was about my height, and beautifully garbed, more beautifully and richly even than Reuben of Cana or Jason-more like the figure of the King. He wore a linen tunic, embroidered with a border of green leaves and red flowers, each little floret glistening with gold thread. The border of his white mantle was even thicker, richer, woven as the mantles of the Priests are woven, and hung even with tiny gold bells. His sandals were covered with gleaming buckles. And around his waist he wore a thick leather girdle studded with bronze points, as a soldier might wear. Indeed a sword in a jeweled scabbard hung at his side.
His hair was long and lustrous, a deep rich brown. And so were his soft eyes.
"My little joke does not amuse you," he said gently with a graceful bow.
"You don't ever look into a mirror. Don't you recognize the image of yourself?"
A shock spread over my face, and then all of my skin. He was my duplicate, except I'd never seen myself in such attire.
He made a small circle in the sand so that I might better see the picture he made. I was fascinated at the expression-or lack of it-in his large puckering eyes.
"You might say," he began, "that I feel some obligation to remind you of what you are? You see, I'm aware of your particular delusion. You don't hold yourself to be a mere prophet or a holy man, like your cousin John. You think you're the Lord Himself."
I didn't reply.
"Oh, I know. You wanted to keep it a secret, and you do indeed often veil your mind quite well, or so it seems to me, but out here in this wilderness? Well, too often, you've murmured aloud."
He drew closer, lifting the edge of his sleeve so that he himself might admire the embroidery, the sharply pointed leaves, the flowers exploding in crimson thread.
"Of course you're not going to talk to me, are you?" he said with a faint sneer. I looked like that when I sneered. If I ever had.
"But I know you're hungry, dreadfully hungry. So hungry you'd do almost anything to have something to eat. You're devouring your own flesh and blood."
I turned and started to walk away.
"Now, if you are a holy man of God," he said, catching up with me, and walking alongside me, staring at me eye to eye when I glanced at him, "and we'll forget the delusion for the moment that you're the Creator of the Universe, then you can surely turn these stones, any of them here, into warm bread."
I stopped. I was overcome with the scent of it, warm bread. I could feel it in my mouth.
"This would be no problem for Elijah," he said, "or for Moses for that matter. And you do claim to be a holy one of God, don't you? Son of God? Beloved Son? Do it. Make the stones bread."
I stared down at the stones, and then I started walking again.
"Very well then," he said, keeping pace with me, the bells jingling softly as he walked. "Let's return to your delusion. You are God. Now according to your cousin, God can raise up sons of Abraham from these stones, or those stones, or any stones, no? Well, then make these stones into bread. You need it badly enough, don't you?"
I turned and laughed at him. "'Man doesn't live by bread alone,'" I answered him, "'but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"
"What a wretchedly literal translation," he said, shaking his head, "and may I point out to you, my pious and deluded one, that your clothes have hardly been preserved during these mere forty days, like those of your ancestors in the forty years they wandered, but that you are a ragged beggar who will very soon be barefoot as well?"
I laughed again. "Nevertheless," I said, "I'm going on my way."
"Well," he said before I started, "it's too late for you to bury your father. That's been done."
"Oh, what, don't tell me the prophet whose birth was accompanied with so many signs and wonders doesn't know that his father, Joseph, is dead?"
I didn't answer. I felt my heart grow big and begin to throb in my ears. I looked out over the sandy wastes.
"Since you seem at best to be a sometime prophet," he went on in the same calm voice, my voice, "let me give you the picture. It was in a toll collector's tent that he breathed his last, and in a toll collector's arms, can you imagine, though his son sat nearby and your mother wept. And do you know how he spent his last few hours? Recounting to the toll collector and anyone else who happened to hear all he could remember of your birth-oh, you know the old song about the angel coming to your poor terrified mother, and the long trek to Bethlehem so that you might come howling into the world in the midst of the worst weather, and then the visit of angels on high to shepherds, of all people, and those men. The Magi. He told the toll collector about their coming as well. And then he died, raving, you might say, only softly so."
I looked forward, down at the desert floor. How far was it to the river?
"Weeping! Well, look, you are weeping," he said. "I never expected it. I expected you to be properly ashamed that such a righteous man would die in the arms of a well-respected thief, but I didn't expect such tears. After all, you did walk off and leave the old man at the river, did you not?"
I didn't answer.
He whistled to himself, idly, a little song such as one might whistle or hum as one strolled, and stroll he did around me in a circle as I stood there.
"Well," he said, squaring off in front of me. "You are tenderhearted, we know that much. But a prophet? I think not. As for the delusion that you created the entire world, well, let me remind you of what you no doubt already know: a delusion similar to that cost me my place above in the Heavenly Court."
"I think you gloss it over," I said. My voice was thick with tears, but my tears were drying in the hot desert wind.
"Ah, you speak to me, not to quote Scripture, but in actual words," he said. He laughed in a perfect imitation of my earlier laugh, and flashed a warm smile at me that was almost pretty.
"You know, holy men almost never do speak to me at all. They write long sonorous poetry about my speaking to the Lord of Creation and His speaking to me, but they themselves, the scribes? At the mere mention of my name, they run shrieking in dread."
"And you do so love to have your name mentioned, don't you?" I said. "No matter what name it is." I went on slowly. "Ahriman, Mastema, Satanel, Satan, Lucifer . . . you love it, don't you, when you're addressed?"
He was silenced.
"Beelzebub," I said. "Is that your favorite?" I said it in Greek: "Lord of the Flies."
"I loathe that name!" he said with a flare of rage. "I will not answer to any of those names," he said.
"Of course you won't. What name could ever rescue you from the chaos that's your very purpose?" I asked. "Demon, devil, adversary." I shook my head. "No, don't answer to them. Don't answer to the name Azazel, either. Names are what you dream of, names and purpose and hope, of which you have none."
I turned and started to walk on.
He caught up with me.
"Why are you talking to me?" he asked in a perfect rage.
"Why are you talking to me!"
"Signs and wonders," he said, the blood flaring in his cheeks-or so he would have it seem. "Too many signs and wonders surround you, my miserable ragged friend. And I've talked to you before. I came to you once in your dreams."
"I remember," I said. "And you took on the raiment of beauty then too. It must be something you want so badly."
"You know nothing of me. You have no idea! I was the firstborn of the Lord you claim as your father, you miserable beggar."
"Careful," I said. "If you become too angry you may dissolve in a puff of smoke."
"This is no jest, you fledgling prophet," he said. "I don't come and go at whim."
"Go at whim," I said. "That will be sufficient."
"Do you know who I really am?" he asked, and his face was broken suddenly with grief. "Well, I will tell you." And in Hebrew, he spoke the words: "Helel ben-Shahar."
"Bright sun of morning," I said. I raised my right hand and snapped my fingers. "I see you falling . . . like that."
A terrific roar went up around me, and the sand went flying as if a storm had come out of the placid sunlight and was about to carry me down the cliff.
I felt myself drawn upwards with spectacular speed and suddenly another roar, more familiar and immense, surrounded me, and I stopped short at the edge of the parapet of the Temple, the Temple in Jerusalem, under the huge sky, and above the enormous crowds of those who wandered in and out of it. I was standing on the pinnacle. I was looking down into the vast lower courts.
The sounds and scents of the crowd rose up in my nostrils. I felt the hunger so deeply it was a pain. And out on all sides lay the rooftops of Jerusalem while the people swarmed below in its tangle of narrow streets.
"Look on all this," he said beside me.
"And why should I?" I asked. "It's not really there."
"No? You don't believe it? You think it's an illusion?"
"You're full of illusions and lies."
"Then fling yourself down, now, from this height. Fling yourself down into that crowd. We'll see if it's an illusion. And what if it is not? Is it not written, 'He will give His angels charge of you, and on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'"
"Oh, you have been a murderer from the beginning," I said. "You would so love to see me tumble, downwards, see my bones break, see this face you so clearly imitate bruised and shattered, but it's more than that you want, isn't it? The body's nothing to you, no matter how mercilessly you torment it. You want my soul."
"No, you are wrong," he said in a low voice, leaning as close to me as he could. "And we are here, yes, I've brought you here, not by illusions and lies, but to show you the very place where you must begin your work. It's you who claim to be the Christ. It's you whom others herald as the Son of David, the prince who will lead his people to victory in battle, it's you and your people who have celebrated your great power and eventual conquest in book after book, and poem after poem. Throw yourself down! I say, Do it, and let the angels sweep you up. Let your battle begin with that pact between you and the Lord you claim to serve!"
"I will not put the Lord to the test here," I said. "And that too is written, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'"
"Where then will you begin your battle?" he asked as if he sincerely wanted to know. "How will you raise your armies? How will you proclaim your message throughout the Jews of all this land and the next and the next after that? How will you get word to the far-flung communities of Jews throughout the Empire that it's time for them to buckle on sword and shield under your banner and in the name of your God?"
"I knew it when I was a child," I said, regarding him.
"You're the Lord of the Flies, but you're at the mercy of Time. You don't know what's to happen in time."
"Well, if that's true, than half the time, you're no better than I because you don't know it, and they are nothing, those vermin down there, those you call your brothers and sisters, because they know nothing moment to moment. At least you have visions, and schemes."
He reached out for me as if he'd take hold of me, and his face was twisted with malevolence.
"What have you known of time these dreary years you've spent in Nazareth? What is time in which you grind your aching muscles to dust, all of you? Why do you bear it? Why does He bear it? You claim to know His Will. Tell me, why doesn't He shut it down?"
-Excerpted from Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana by Anne Rice. Copyright © 2008 by Anne Rice. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
WORLD asked Rice why she gave Satan the same physical features as Jesus, and what else entered her thinking in constructing the scene you've just read. She responded, "I can't claim to know how the idea of Satan's appearance (the double of Christ) came to me, except it seemed right at the time, especially since I believed Satan would strongly tempt Our Lord to be the warlike Davidic Messiah that many expected the Messiah to be."
Rice also had the sense that "Satan would want to present Jesus with a lavish image of Himself in fine clothes, and the regalia of power. The Temptation has been done in any variety of ways in mini-series and film, but never to my satisfaction. The conventional film temptation scenes seem too easy. The Devil is always played too simply."
She thought Satan "would make a much more sophisticated approach" to Jesus, showing him "how very handsome and beautiful He might look, were He to 'take power over the whole world, and become a ruler of great wealth. He would offer concrete images to this ragged Galilean holy man. And this is how I played it while remaining strictly within the framework of Holy Scripture."
Rice emphasized, "It's important to note that Satan doesn't really know that Jesus is God. He knows Jesus believes He is God; but Satan doesn't really know the truth of it." She mentioned the debt she owes to historian Jeffrey Burton Russell's work on Satan in the New Testament, and also the opinions of the early Church Fathers: "Satan doesn't really know Who he is dealing with. He's baffled by the signs and wonders surrounding Jesus' birth. He knows he's up against something wholly new. And so he is really going to go all out to try to tempt this mysterious figure of Jesus."
She continued, "The temptation had to be complex, intense, something really challenging from the point of view of the Devil. Maybe that was my guiding principle: What would amount, in Satan's mind, to a real substantive temptation? His being 'the double' would be seen by Satan as a powerful and potentially confusing trick."
Rice concluded that by novel's end it's clear that others expect Jesus to be "the warlike Davidic Messiah. As Scripture tells us, Jesus will face this expectation again and again. John's Gospel tells us later that the people try to make Jesus a king. But Jesus refuses this. He is not the warlike Messiah at all. His Kingdom is not of this world."