Literary Convert Of the Year

LA JOLLA, Calif. — Best-selling novelist Anne Rice agrees her career has taken a sudden departure from her tales of vampires, witches and deviance. But the 64-year-old writer who became an atheist at age 18 says her latest book, a novelized biography of Jesus, makes perfect sense in the light of her other works.

So does her return to the Catholic faith, revealed to her readers in the book’s accompanying notes.

“My earlier books are more reflections of a long search for God,” the author of Interview With the Vampire and nine other vampire “chronicles,” said. “And they are dark books because when I wrote them I felt very far from God and I was mourning and grieving for my lost religion.”

Now that she has worked — and written — her way back to the Church, she has made “a commitment to Christ to write about him” with probably three more books on his life.

Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (Randon House 2005) is a kind of boy’s mystery novel about the hypostatic union. It tells how the youthful Jesus discovered the truth of his miraculous birth, “growing in understanding and stature” through experiences of divinity as well as study of Scripture and persistent questioning of his extended family.

The book is also a closely observed study of the impact of the mystery on a devout Jewish family of the first century, a mystery that plunged Jesus and his kin into the political intrigue of the murderous Herodian dynasty.

Rice said research she did on Servant of the Bones, set amid the Babylonian Captivity and published in 1996, helped turn her back to faith. “I was struck by the role of Jews in history. I felt I could see God’s purpose.”

Rice had been raised in an “intensely Catholic family” in New Orleans, where her faith was reinforced by parochial schools and churches filled with baroque art.

She described her childhood as one of waking up every morning “in a universe that was ruled by God, where you felt loved by God and you felt you had to love him back and it was a joy to do so.”

But it was also a Church that had placed on the Index of Forbidden Books many of the authors Rice as a college student desperately wanted to read.

“I wanted to find out what was going on. I wanted to explore all kinds of ideas, what existentialism was and who were Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. And it was a mortal sin to read all those books according to what I was taught. My faith cracked.”

Always Thirsting

Rice married an ardent atheist, Stan Rice, but insists she never abandoned the values instilled in her childhood.

“When you are an atheist you can almost be as religious about it as a person who is a Christian,” she said. “You think you are doing the right thing. You think you are facing things. You have to live an ethical life.”

That atheism was not entirely satisfactory was demonstrated even in Rice’s first novel, Interview with the Vampire, published in 1976. Coming out four years after the death of the Rices’ daughter Michele from leukemia, it tells of a girl doomed to vampirism by her tainted blood.

The book is about not only the loss of her daughter but the loss of her faith, according to Father Joe Cocucci, a friend of Rice’s and a fan since high school.

“Anne’s vampire heroes are always thirsting, always hungry, just as she in her life was always thirsting for something she once had — the Eucharist,” said Father Cocucci, who is vocations director for the Diocese of Wilmington, Del.

Rice believes her books have proved so popular (selling 50 million copies) because readers identified with her search. “They wanted to read fiction that expressed some of the serious questions they had.”

She said she always knew her books were about her own struggle to find meaning in a world without God. “I just didn’t believe I would ever find answers.” But by the end of the 1990s she had come gradually back to belief and then to the realization that she could return to the Church, despite her objections to its position on contraception and homosexuality (her son is homosexual).

“I realized I didn’t have to have the answers. I’m not a cardinal. I’m not the Pope,” she said. “I’m an individual, and God will help me figure out the answers to all these things if it’s necessary. And so I followed the instinct to go back. I went to a priest, I went to confession, and went back to the Church.”

That was in 1998. Husband Stan remained an atheist till his death in 2002 but happily agreed to remarry Anne in the Church. Rice’s own health problems have twice brought her near death since her conversion. Nonetheless she dedicated her writing to Christ with characteristic commitment, plunging into ancient history and biblical criticism, finding much in the latter field, itself warranting criticism.

“While I found a lot of really wonderful biblical criticism, especially among Anglicans, I also found the skeptics,” she said.

She charges skeptical biblical critics with scholarship “in bad faith” — entering into research with preordained conclusions.

She said, “The bias is so strong against anything miraculous, that’s not provable scientifically, that they are writing books really to slam Christian faith.”

Rice said she was particularly upset at the annual publicity one group of such skeptics called the Jesus Seminar are able to garner each year when they announce a different article of faith about Jesus to be mythological.

“These skeptical scholars seemed so very sure of themselves. They built their books on certain assertions without even examining these assertions,” she wrote in the accompanying notes of Christ the Lord.

Known for meticulously researching her own books, Rice calls the work of these critics “an abomination” not only to the faith but to the standards of historical scholarship.

Rice’s own efforts have been rewarded with generally positive reviews and brisk sales to a new audience comprising both Catholics and Protestants. Among her new fans, is Archbishop Philip Hannan, the retired archbishop of New Orleans, who is quoted on her website as congratulating Rice “upon the splendid novel you have written about the life of Jesus. ... I am confident that your writings will contribute to a great harvest of souls who need such inspiration today.”

Contacted by the Register, the archbishop said Rice “was one of those people who has driven herself back into the Church.”

He was not distressed, he said, by Rice’s well-publicized disagreements with Church teaching in such areas as homosexuality.

“She is somebody who needs a little bit of maturity,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the Church already who think that way. We don’t give up on them. We just believe there are some concepts we have to help them get straight on.”

Added Father Coccuci: “This book will bring people to Christ. That is why God gave her this talent.”

Steve Weatherbe is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy