WHEN bestselling novelist Anne Rice was a good Catholic girl growing up in New Orleans, she dreamed of becoming a leader of the church. Instead, she abandoned Catholicism at 18 and stopped believing in God. She joined the Haight-Ashbury hippie milieu and evolved into the bestselling author who elevated the sexually ambiguous vampire Lestat to cult status. She wrote pornography under one pen name and erotica under another.
Now, she has come full circle -- and in a weird way, may finally be getting her childhood wish.
Rice has written a novel on the boyhood of Jesus called "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt." It is a bestseller. It has given her a high profile in the religious press and a platform for her ardently reformist views on the future of Christianity.
Her views will not please all of the devout. Rice favors gay marriage. She believes the church position regarding birth control is a grievous error that is not supported by Scripture. She repudiates what she sees as intolerant, "sex-obsessed" church leaders, and says she does not find support in the message of Jesus for their focus on sexual orientation or abortion. She argues for a more inclusive church.
"Think of how the church bells would ring and the pews would fill if women could become priests and priests could marry. It would be the great resurgence of the Catholic Church in this country," Rice said recently, seated in front of a roaring fire, in the La Jolla mansion she moved to after she left New Orleans.
Even Rice's new home has a monastic air. Saints on pedestals raise their arms to the sunlight that streams down on them from high windows. Gilt wood mingles with furniture deeply carved with learned robed men and other baroque motifs. The Pacific Ocean shimmers below. Here, as the Christian press besieges her with interview requests and urges readers to form study groups to read her book, Rice is revealing her own message about Jesus.
"He doesn't say anything about abortion," Rice said. "He doesn't say anything about gays. I abhor abortion too. But to make Christianity rise and fall on these issues is a great distortion of Christ's message."
The reception in the religious community to her book has been positive, though not unanimously so -- a few religious bookstores have refused to stock or advertise "Christ the Lord." "Christianity Today" published a warm profile of Rice, "Interview With a Penitent," a tone that is echoed by conservative commentators who praise Rice for vividly bringing to life a 7-year-old boy named Jesus.
"This is a conversion story on the level of Augustine," said Christian columnist David Kuo, a former aide to President Bush who was the deputy director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "Anne Rice was a daughter of darkness."
"Rice sold [millions of] books that explored the darkest realms of the spiritual world," Kuo wrote in an online column for beliefnet.com. "She dressed all in black. She glorified the night and her atheism. But look at pictures of her now.... Look most of all at the sparkle in the eyes -- at the light. It isn't the Bible, but it is inspired by God."
But St. Augustine renounced his earthly "sins." Rice, 64, isn't renouncing anything. She's proud of her son, novelist and gay activist Christopher Rice, who lives in West Hollywood.
The Broadway-bound musical of her work, "Lestat," opened in San Francisco the weekend before Christmas, with a score co-written by AIDS activist Elton John, who exchanged vows with his longtime partner in London last week.
To Rice, the path from the Vampire Chronicles to Jesus was steps on a continuous lifelong spiritual quest, which, like a seemingly predestined love, has led her to this moment, to fulfill her role as a modern "apostle" of Jesus.
Her God, she said, "is all-merciful, all loving."
Fascination with Jesus
AS Rice immerses herself in Scripture, many of the things she finds there do not jibe with the dictates of the Vatican or conservative Christians. Like many modern scholars of the Koran, Rice is pointing to her religion's holy book itself to criticize what she views as its misuse to justify long-held cultural practices.
For example, she said, there is no biblical dictate forbidding women to use birth control.
"I think that's a mistaken notion," she said. "There's a lack of vision about how much better the world would be if women could control their reproductive rights. We have all these street children in underdeveloped countries. We have to bring these countries into the modern era. I think the church has been sex-obsessed too long."
Rice says her fascination with Jesus began with a devoutly Catholic girlhood. Born Howard Allen O'Brien in October 1941, Rice grew up on the edge of New Orleans' Garden District, where "my environment was just saturated with religion," Rice said, her gaze direct and forceful under a gray bob reminiscent of silent movie star Louise Brooks. "The great thing about a childhood like that was everything had meaning."
As a child, Rice said, "I felt the love of God. I wanted to be a priest. When I found out that being a girl meant I couldn't be, I was so disappointed. I didn't understand why."
When Rice went away to Texas Woman's University in 1959, she found that the church's rigid doctrine was at odds with the growing complexities of her new life. "My background was so sheltered it didn't seem to sit with the modern world," Rice said. "I felt I had to deal with my faith and reconcile it with the world around me. My childhood was very sex-obsessed and repressed. I felt when I accepted a world without God, I accepted reality, and stopped believing in illusion."
Rice also viewed church dictates on sin to be harsher to women, though "I have never taken misogyny personally," she added briskly. "Most people hate women, including women. There are reasons: Fear of women, of the power to give birth."
Instead, she became fascinated with the existentialists, reading Sartre and Camus. She met Stan Rice, a poet, artist and atheist, and they married in 1961.
Rice's husband, who was on his way to becoming an acclaimed poet, enrolled at San Francisco State University, where he would eventually chair the creative writing department. They moved to the Haight-Ashbury, but when their apartment filled with hippies, "I was the square. All around me people were taking acid. I had no intention of ever taking it."
Still, "It was a fascinating time to be alive," she said. "All of these people rejecting secular materialism. They did not believe in greed and vanity. Even taking drugs, they were destroying their ego. A lot of Christ imagery cropped up."
Then the Rices were dealt a mortal blow: Their daughter, Michele, born in 1966, died of leukemia at 5. Stunned with grief, Rice sat down and began to write. Five hazy weeks later, she says, she finished a first draft of "Interview With the Vampire."
"I think that book perfectly reflected the grief I felt about my daughter and the Catholic Church," Rice said. "I wrote an incredibly strange novel about a vampire seeking God, trying to find out if he was a child of God or a child of Satan. I was seeking answers. It's a strange novel because it's so nihilistic, yet it's filled with potentially redemptive issues.
"You can save yourself with art to some extent. With art, you can cull all your answers into a magnificent synthesis."
The book made Rice a nationally known author. The Rices moved back to New Orleans, where she began her road back to God. It began with small questions: The complexity of the world hinted to her of a greater plan. She delved deeper into her fascination with the contributions of Judaism to world culture. By the time she and her husband remarried in the Catholic Church in New Orleans, in 1998, she was already thinking of writing about Jesus. Then in 2002, her husband died of a brain tumor, ending a 41-year marriage she says was "a love affair until the day he died."
That year, Rice was praying at New Orleans' voluptuously beautiful St. Mary's Assumption Church, and "I realized I didn't have to write the books I had been writing forever."
Praying to Christ, she told him, "Thy will be done. I'm going to write about you. I'm going to be your apostle." She finished the first Christ book just before she moved to La Jolla in March 2005.
Rice realizes some people think she's lost it.
"People perceive that I'm putting my whole career at risk," she said. "I don't care if my books don't sell."
But at a time when Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has marked a resurgence in fascination with Jesus, "The Da Vinci Code" has become a cultural phenomenon, and the movie version of C.S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles has even Hollywood celebrities opining on the Gospel, Rice's book made it onto the bestseller lists. Perhaps that should not be a surprise in a country in which as many as nine out of 10 people say they believe in God -- but it was to Rice. "I expected to be diminished and ignored, but I never expected to be embraced," she said.
'I want to speak out'
WHETHER her unorthodox opinions on the church will be embraced is another matter.
"I think it's sad that the strident voices of Christianity have cemented in the public mind that we are dumb," she said. "I feel I have to play my role as an artist and creator. But like many Christians, I want to speak out for what I believe in."
Her son, Christopher, a slender, delicate-looking 27-year-old, said he knew his mother had gone back to the church and was writing a fictional biography of Jesus, but "I didn't realize she decided to dedicate her work to Jesus Christ until she told a real estate agent in La Jolla a year ago. I was in the room. I was like, 'Oh.' "
Since then, "people have come up to me to express their sympathies and condolences, because they assume it goes hand in hand with homophobia, and I'm gay," he said, with evident amusement. But "in Leviticus, Jesus himself didn't say anything about homosexuality."
Christopher did not have a religious upbringing. He attended an Episcopal grade school after his family moved back to New Orleans when he was 10, and then a Jewish high school, but "my dad was a total Bible Belt atheist."
He believes his mother's books have always wrestled with spiritual issues, but "it wasn't taken seriously, vampires discussing faith and spirituality and religion," he said. "What people don't seem to understand is she explored the darker side of the spiritual realm because she thought there might be some truth there, not to hurt people. Even in her erotica, she says she went there to explore whether there was a spiritual dimension in the flesh. It's part of the same search.
"A lot of her darkness came out of losing Michele, her daughter, a huge spiritual loss," he said. "It wasn't an adolescent wandering. There was something much greater behind it: If there is a God, why did he take a 5-year-old daughter from me?"
By the time Rice returned to the church, she said, she had realized that she could embrace her faith without answering all the questions about how it fit into her life. For one thing, her studies of the Scripture have convinced her that many church dictates were created by mortals, not God.
Rice thinks one of the most prominent women in the Bible, Mary Magdalene, for example, was shortchanged by a patriarchal church that for years underplayed her role and defamed her, until recent years, as a prostitute.
"It didn't have a damn thing to do with Scripture," Rice said vehemently. "All we know is that she saw the rising of Christ before anyone else, and she was at the foot of the cross. She was probably an apostle. All the stuff about prostitution was folklore and misogyny."
She believes the Vatican's birth-control ban too is a patriarchal anachronism. "It was an obvious advantage for men for women to be passive with regards to procreation," she said.
Such views are unlikely to endear her to people like the conservative Christian who e-mailed her that morning, saying: "You're a sexual libertine, and you just mouth words about abortion, and you don't really care."
"A very tiny minority of Christian e-mails are very negative," Rice acknowledged. "Those people can be very un-nice. For them, loving Jesus does not mean loving anyone else, apparently."
In some ways, Rice's criticisms of religious fundamentalism are part of a wider backlash coming from such unlikely quarters as former President Carter, who, in his new book, criticizes religious fundamentalists' involvement in national politics and takes issue with the Catholic Church's exclusion of women from the priesthood.
Rice believes that conservative Christian politicians are distorting Christ's message by politicizing such issues as abortion. While abortion is "tragic," Rice said, "Millions of women are having abortions. They have control of their reproductive powers, and they do not want to relinquish that control. Abortion is at the heart of that, because it's at the core of women having control of who they are. I think it's killing. But I think it's a woman's choice."
Gay marriage, she said, "is another classic example. It can only strengthen our society to have gay people in committed relationships rather than going to bars."
She said the church sex scandal has unfairly focused on homosexuality rather than the true culprit, pedophilia. "The sex scandal has set us back on gay rights. Call off this homosexual thing: It's molesting children."
The religious attacks on gays, to Rice, get to the heart of the flaws she sees in modern religion: the scapegoating of those deemed "sinners." Jerry Falwell's statement blaming gays, lesbians, abortion providers and feminists for the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, "was a dreadful thing to say. It's so crazy to say God will punish our enemies."
Christ, she said, was "the ultimate scapegoat."
"The mystery of that is so vast," she said earnestly. "It's almost like he showed us the story so we could understand, what it's all about, and stop doing it to people.
"People are always going to misuse things. And some Christians are going to misuse Christianity. They are going to use Christianity to hit someone over the head because they frighten them or threaten them," she said. "We Christians have to get back to our roots as a people of love. Now we're associated with a religion of intolerance and hate. We have to come forward and speak about love."
Today, Rice said, she believes in God in the most literal sense. "I think he's transgender, but it's easier for me to think of him as a man because of acculturation," she said. She believes in the afterlife "absolutely ... I feel it profoundly. I felt it as a child. I'm certain of it now. There's no conflict in me. It's a fleeting fear that it may not be so. I always thought that it was completely logical we were immortal, even as an atheist. The energy has to go somewhere."
She fully expects to meet her husband and her little girl in the afterlife. But "I think a lot about how we live here now. I think about how to live, how Christ wants me to live.
"I think he wants me to tell his story. I think he wants of all of us that we love and that we share," she said, as she prepared to travel to Jerusalem on Tuesday to research her next Christ book.
"Love your neighbor and know God. It's a serious command."