"Who is Christ the Lord?"
With those words, Anne Rice opens her new novel.
The question is posed by Jesus, the narrator of the book. That Rice has chosen to write the book from the point of view of, well, God, is an artistic challenge and a gutsy move.
Spiritually, it is the question of the past 2,000 years — desperately needed in this day, where some theologians have rendered Jesus little more than the accidentally crucified socialist, and others as an aspiring head of the RNC.
The reality is that Jesus has been lost in the context of our time — reduced to an almost cartoonish amalgam of Cesar Chavez, Mister Rogers and Pat Robertson.
It is precisely this caricature of Jesus that Anne Rice undoes in her new book, The Road to Cana, the second in her Christ the Lord series. The novel is a wonder. Rice clearly revels in the artistic and spiritual challenge of creating a fully human Jesus. And she succeeds. This Jesus that she brings to life transfixes. In narrative pacing and character development, Rice's Jesus is — a revelation.
He is vulnerable, grasping at the contrasts of his life, the amazing stories of his birth — magi and shepherds and angels. He is an unmarried man "in a worn woolen robe" in a dusty, drought-stricken town.
He is fierce — confronting an accusing crowd and calling down torrential rains from heaven with an unspoken thought.
He is brilliant. An accusing Scribe who had marveled at his theological insights when he was a boy now despises him because he is a carpenter. Jesus reduces him to mere breath by saying a carpenter is exactly who God needs to work in this world of "wood and stone and iron and grass and air."
He is a man in love; in that love, we find the dramatic and theological core of The Road to Cana.
Her name is Avagail. She is the town's beauty, and she is tenderly crafted by Rice.
Jesus dreams of her in dreams he cannot control, dreams "all men dream." Dreams of "lips against lips."
But he cannot have her. This he knows, though he does now know why. The heartbreak over the loss of this very human love is profound. It reintroduces Jesus as a man of sorrows in an approachable way.
But Avagail is more than a love interest. She also serves as a metaphor for our own brokenness and the extent to which Jesus will go to heal that brokenness.
There is a scene that left me gasping at some points and crying at others. Avagail — victimized by the culture's violence and her bitter, broken father — goes out of her mind with grief. She appears in a hidden grove where Jesus rests, pleading with him to take her, to make her the harlot she concludes she must be.
He resists, but not because he is some asexual being. He does not take her because he knows who she really is — a precious and innocent soul in the midst of great anguish — and because he knows who He is: the sacrificial lover. To her, yes, but also to humanity. At tremendous personal cost, Jesus shields and shepherds her through the crisis and into the arms of a man who can give her what she needs and longs for.
We are all Avagail. We spin unaware, lost, reaching for comforts we do not really want. But in the midst of this occasional confusion and panic, Rice reminds us that there is one who knows the way of sorrow and confusion and loneliness and temptation. And who wants to comfort and shield us.
The Road to Cana is a masterful book written by an extraordinary writer at the height of her powers. It deserves to be read for that reason alone. But it also deserves to be read to better understand the most dynamic and important person in human history — Christ the Lord.
David Kuo is the author of Tempting Faith and the former deputy director of the office of faith-based community initiatives in the Bush administration.