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Wednesday, 08 April 2009 15:53

Anne Rice’s spiritual journey

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Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Anne Rice. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 256 pages.

The books are piling up around my desk, which means the time has come for a spring cleaning.

Several books, all read in the last three months, seemed suited to the Easter season. First off the pile is Anne Rice’s Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (Alfred A. Knopf, 978-0-307-26827-5, $24), in which the best-selling author of Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat tells us of her own transformation: her New Orleans childhood in a devout Catholic family, her falling-away from the Faith, her struggles as a writer, mother, and wife, her return to the Faith.

In many ways Rice’s journey reflects the via dolorosa traveled by many of her generation. She married young, spent part of the sixties in radical Berkeley, drank too much for a while, suffered travails as a wife and mother (her daughter died young, followed by her beloved first husband, Stan), and then slowly found her way back to a Faith which she could embrace. After writing some 20 novels about vampires and other otherworldly beings, Rice shocked many of her readers by shifting her focus to the life of Christ:

“From the summer of 2002 through the spring of 2005, my life was consumed with research. I studied not only the ancient historians Philo and Josephus, and all the New Testament scholarship I could lay hands on, but Scripture itself, reading over and over again the Gospels until the language, to which I’d grown so dead in childhood, came alive again, and the vital story of Christ’s life flowed through chapter and verse.”

Although the mawkish jacket cover detracts from Called Out of Darkness — a somber Anne Rice stands at the elbow of a statue of Saint Anthony holding the Christ Child — the worn adage about a book and its cover holds true. Rice fans old and new should enjoy this memoir.

•••

Riven (Tyndale Fiction, 378-1-4143-0904-0, $24.99) tells the story of two men: Brady Wayne Darby, a punk and a small-time criminal, and Thomas Carey, a pastor defeated by life who eventually takes a job as a prison chaplain. Jerry B. Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series, writes in a note on Riven that “This is the novel I’ve always wanted to write ...” Like some authors of another generation — Dreiser, for example, or James Jones — Jenkins writes with an acute eye on what he sees as true without worrying too much about style. He takes time developing his characters so that when they finally meet we are thoroughly acquainted with their lives.

Jenkins does a particularly fine job in sketching out the life of Thomas Carey. Many people doubtless know a minister like Carey, a good man, a man of Biblical principles, who nevertheless seems unsuited to the church or congregation to which he is called. Such a life, as Jenkins shows us, is fraught with perils: poverty, rejection, depression, a sense of aimlessness. We follow Carey as a wealthy church elder bullies him into leaving his latest post, the torments suffered by him and by his wife as they look for a new position, the grind of poverty in the face of middle-age and diminished powers. Jenkins’s Carey lets us feel his struggle and empathize with his mental and spiritual pain.

Darby, who will eventually meet Carey, grows up in a trailer park, abandoned by his father, verbally and mentally savaged by his mother, and torn by the needs of his younger brother. Here again Jenkins does a splendid job in sketching and then fleshing out a character. We watch Darby’s wounds fester, his small vices grow into cankers of hatred, his brushes with goodness and with his own talents—the owner of a laundromat does his best to befriend Darby, and Darby later displays gifts as an actor—left withered and dying. Even his honest attempt to find love and companionship with Katie, a wealthy girl who ends up in his AA group, blows up in Darby’s face.

Riven is not a novel in which all turns out well, and the ending itself is both shocking and unrealistic. Yet Jenkins has nonetheless built up a solid tale here of redemption and change.

•••

In The Shack (978-0-9647292-3-0, $14.99), Wm. Paul Young gives us a story in which Mackenzie Allen Philip, known to his friends as “Mack,” receives a mysterious summons to the isolated shack where his murdered daughter Missy was found. Mack, who has felt dead in his life and heart since Missy’s killing, ventures to the shack, half believing that there he will encounter God.

Not only does Mack meet God in the shack — the Almighty appears to him as a large black woman, which might seem shocking had that role not already been done in television and movies — but he meets Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well.

Mack’s pilgrimage then becomes a series of dialogues with each person of the Trinity, discussions which range from the nature of the Holy Spirit to the meaning of forgiveness and love. Many of these discussions offer food both for thought and for discussion with friends. Young is excellent, for example, in his examination of the Trinity and how it works both as a basis for family and for love.

The Shack is also a book, however, which seems designed to be hurled against the nearest wall. Young gives the obligatory slap, for example, to institutional religion, having Jesus say at one point: “I don’t create institutions — never have, never will.” (And yet Christ did obediently participate in an institution, his own Jewish faith; he also instituted the Eucharist, left many commandments for his disciples, and made Peter the keeper of his Church).

Of women Young writes: “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled.” Has this guy ever been in a church these days? Has he ever dealt with some of the women who today run most churches? Some general once said that there is no more vicious animal on the planet than a young American soldier. Right on the heels of that soldier is a 50-year-old matron who has just been denied her place on next year’s church decoration.

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