This 2008 novel by the author is her second novel about the life of Jesus. It is narrated by Jesus himself, who is now 30 years old. Rice begins this volume by attacking the issue of his sexuality. For some, this may seem to be sacrilegious, but my initial impression is that this is a wise decision for a fictionalized telling of Christ’s life. For he must above all be human if this treatment is to work, and what better way presents itself in today’s society.
The novel begins with Christ waking from, in effect, a wet dream about his cousin Avigail. Then two boys suspected of an impure relationship are stoned to death. So sex is front and center, as it often was in the Bible. And Jesus’ sexual life comes under suspicion by family and friends, for he is 30 and has not married.
Rice then establishes the local political situation, with the Romans exerting more control, sending in more soldiers. She also establishes, in passing, that there is a drought. This creation of the political and geographic climate is one of the strengths of the early chapters.
Jesus is then challenged by his brother James (son of Joseph’s first wife) to end all rumors—to marry, for example, the beautiful Avigail, whom he admires and who likes him. Jesus adeptly dodges the issue, and then more sincerely answers his mother that he does not know all his future, but he does know that he must not marry.
Meanwhile, in the political arena, the young men of Nazareth, under Jason, leave town to go to Caesarea and protest to the governor about a new sacrilege in Jerusalem. This leaves the town defenseless, and brigands sweep in. One attacks Avigail, then drops her while escaping; and Jesus comes to her rescue. Which sets up a new round of sexual tension. In which Rice expands on the unfair treatment of women, how they are “protected,” and suspected, by their men.
Because he has rushed to aid Avigail, Jesus is accused by her father, Shemayah, of taking unfair advantage of her. So her father imprisons her in his home—until she escapes, and in despair confronts Jesus, who again becomes aware of his sexuality. Whereupon her father emerges from a crowd and once more accuses her of indecent conduct with Jesus. Violence is about to occur, when Jesus asks God for rain, and the deluge sends all scampering to their houses. It is a double-edged deus ex machina, for it also ends the drought.
And as this rain calms the crowd, and the mood changes, as the people come to their senses, realizing that nothing untoward has happened, and also as Avigail becomes betrothed, we wonder at the emphasis on the community, on a romance in this community, while there is no treatment of the mission that brought Jesus to this earthly life. Indeed, Jesus himself wonders for a moment what it would have been like if he could have married Avigail—which many had anticipated.
Here we are, more than halfway through this novel, and we are reading a novel of love, of prejudice (against women), of political and environmental hard times. There is a rabbi, but no spiritual concerns except references to the Bible. And there is Jesus, but also no spiritual concerns.
What is Rice trying to achieve here? A portrait of Jesus as a human? But he is too human for me. His concerns are too human. It is as if Rice is trying to fill that empty history of his life with the human quality that we need to perceive in him if we are to truly understand and accept the sacrifice he made for all mankind. Because only a true man can make that sacrifice work; and here, she is saying, is the evidence that he was a man, that he was human.
Whereas, what I want to know is the conflict within Jesus. There must be, if he is human, and he is there to save all humans. Might he not wonder how he will achieve this? Might he not wonder if he is capable of achieving this? Is this not where a novelist should go?
And now there comes a report from John the Baptist. And all the community wants to go forth and encounter him. Are we at last arriving at the spiritual mission of Jesus?
Yes. And, surrounded by the thousands descending to the river to be baptized by John, Jesus has a revelation. He is filled with the memory of the acts of his entire lie, both pleasant and unpleasant. And realizes that this compares to the anguishing experience of everyone being baptized. And as they experience this because God is experiencing it as he forgives them, Jesus wonders how they can endure it. He wants to help them, “to be with each one of them as he or she comes to know.”
As he sees all these anguished memories being entwined, Jesus says to God, “I will be with them, every solitary one of them. I am one of them! And I am your son!” However, the moments leading up to that knowledge, to that revelation that follows Jesus being baptized by John, are very impressionistic. It is partly Jesus being overwhelmed, but even more, one suspects, Rice being not quite sure how to handle this new awareness by Jesus.
And the answer from God is that “you are absolutely alone because you are the only one who can do this.” And so Rice has brought Jesus to the realization that “It was inside me. I’d always known who I really was. I was God.” For the lack of certain knowledge has troubled Jesus since the first volume. And Rice knew she had to bring him to this realization before he begins his public life.
The question is: has she succeeded? Is it convincing that Jesus was not aware of his mission before? And is it convincing how he receives this knowledge? I am, frankly, not sure. First, that he did not know his mission until now. And, second, that the knowledge came to him through an intellectual deduction, and an emotional awareness. Yes, there is a certain human logic here, and Rice’s purpose is to make Jesus human. But a spiritual action, a spiritual infusion, is lacking.
Has Rice attempted the impossible here? To create a human man whose mission in life is completely spiritual. Is being true to the needs of literature allowing her to be also true to the portrait of this spiritual man?
And then, after the meeting with John the Baptist, and Jesus’ new awareness, the novel changes. We have left Rice’s imagination, and enter with Jesus into the incidents of scripture. The Devil tempts him three times. He drives the evil spirits out of Mary Magdalene. He cures the mother-in-law of Simon, and invites Simon to become Peter and join him. Other disciples follow, including Matthew, who has cared for Joseph when he died. But there is no flow to these events, no cause and effect, no inevitability, no developing understanding in Jesus’ mind of their connection.
After gathering his disciples, Jesus says he must attend Avigail’s marriage. So in a sense we understand the earlier emphasis on Avigail. Indeed, Jesus has one last fleeting thought of what might have been with her. Then we are off to Nazareth for the betrothal, and then to the groom’s home in Cana for the wedding feast. However, this extensive ceremony is told by Jesus very matter-of-factly. There is no emotion in his description, except for that one fleeing thought of loss, and then a moment of happiness amid the music and celebration of the wedding feast. Whereupon…guess what happens? Right. Water must be turned into wine. It is the first miracle of Jesus’ public life.
So, has Rice spent the first 75 percent of her novel just to set up that first public miracle? More likely, she has wanted to explore Jesus’ private life as a mature man, just before he entered public life. And then realized how that relationship with Avigail could lead to her ending.
But that portrait of his private life does not succeed for me, because she has not given depth to the man Jesus, has not probed his emotions, has not challenged him to speculate on what his life is leading to. She has created a tangible world, reflecting both considerable research and considerable imagination. But she has enlivened it with an unoriginal plot and then framed it with modern issues of Jesus’ possible sexuality and the treatment of women in that distinct culture.
My understanding has been that Rice cut short her planned treatment of the life of Jesus when, after this book, she became disenchanted with events in the Church, especially at the Vatican under Pope Benedict. That she lost her inspiration. But after reading this novel, I am having second thoughts. That she actually lost her inspiration because she saw how difficult continuing his life was going to be.
I surmise this because of the final quarter of this novel, when it finally turns to the events of scripture. For here is where I sense a lack of originality. No new meaning is given to the events in Jesus’ life. Nor is there any deep emotion. Or any issue of conscience. Much less, any deep fear by Jesus of his life to come. And because she uses Jesus himself as her narrator, this type of probing is required if this is to be a work of literature, rather than simply another religious treatise on Jesus’ life.
So my initial regret that Rice would not continue this series has subsided. Her heart was in the right place when she started, but with this work she seems to reveal her own limitations. And I see no reason for still another book relating the life of Jesus. Yes, she writes from Jesus viewpoint, but the risk of that approach does not pay off. First, she cannot come up with created events that show Jesus in a new light. And, second, when she recreates scenes from scripture, she does not bring us to a new understanding of those scenes. They are embroidered, but they are not given a deeper meaning.
I note that my comments on the first volume, Out of Egypt, were much more positive. That I had looked forward to this volume. Unfortunately, while Rice had the imagination to follow the more reactive life of a young boy surrounded by significant events, she lacks here the imagination to follow the life of a grown man who is more in control of his life. For the mature Jesus, she concentrates on sex and romance, which may be typical for the ordinary man but it should not be for him. Yes, it has to be raised; but then it has to be discarded for more spiritual content. And the reader not diverted to the romantic concerns of other members of his family.
Overall, Rice shows a lack of the spiritual imagination required for a new approach to Jesus. And my assumption that there will be no future volumes leaves me grateful for the first volume, but not disappointed if there should be no more. (April, 2014)