Anne Rice, Lestat and Jesus Part Two

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Katherine Ramsland says that writing Interview with the Vampire was a cathartic experience for Anne,

“Anne admitted that writing the novel had been cathartic for her. She had dealt with her pain and guilt by projecting them into the first person point of view of Louis. People close to her believed she had “saved” herself from her grief. She’d felt guilty over her impotence and the possibility that she’d made a bad decision somewhere along the line with Michele, just as Louis had regretted his brother’s visions. She had denied, however, that she had been consciously aware of any connection other than superficial between Claudia and Michele. Death by leukaemia is hardly the sensual experience described by her vampires. If she thought about a connection, she assured people who asked, she would not have written it. She would not have exploited her daughter in that manner. Friends were incredulous that she had not seen the obvious relationship between her character and her child, but she insisted that the book was about sensuality, pleasure and satisfaction, and also had a strong moral purpose.” (Katherine Ramsland, Prism of the Night, Plume, New York, 1994, p 166)

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Anne must have the only person who could not seen the connection between her daughter and her character.

Anne stopped identifying with the character of Louis who personified her grief over Michele and her despair for her lost faith. She appears to have gotten it out of her system. Katherine Ramsland writes,

“Anne soon grew to dislike her central character, Louis, having identified with him in a time of grief. The sale of her novel, she felt, had cured her more surely than any amount of psychotherapy,  and she was able to move away form him as she had moved away from Claudia. “He was me at that time,” she admitted. “I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for a person who’s that dependent and that vengeful toward people who won’t fulfil his needs. To me the starting point is where he was on the steps of the Theater of the Vampires after he’s met Armand and he realizes, ‘I hated Lestat for all the wrong reasons.’ ” ” (Prism of the Night, p 166-167)

In The Vampire Armand Louis is described as “perhaps the weakest vampire yet walking in the great world.” ( Anne Rice, The Vampire Armand, Arrow, London, 1999, p 24). She had moved on.

On the other hand, Louis does seem stronger and more adaptable than Lestat. He may have been a misery guts, but he did not self-destruct like Lestat did at the end of Interview with the Vampire. He does not get himself and others into trouble like Lestat does.

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The second novel of The Vampire Chronicles, The Vampire Lestat (1985), was written from the perspective of Lestat. Anne now identified with Lestat, rathe than Louis. In an interview with Michael Riley she said, “When I write those books, I’m Lestat. If any character speaks what I believe and feel, it’s Lestat.” (Michael Riley, Interview with Anne Rice, Random, Sydney, 1996, p 22-23)

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Katherine Ramsland writes,

“Lestat’s mother had said to him, “You are the man in me, and Lestat quickly became the “man” in Anne, as Elliot [a character in another novel Exit to Eden] had been. He had the physical appearance she desired for herself, his characteristics were motivated by repressed assertive impulses that she expressed best in fictional form, and she made him do things she longed to do …. He was a reflection of a new growth and independence, of a new edge to her sensuous imagination, with a fierce mischievous rebelliousness.” (Prism of the Night, p 245)

The Vampire Lestat begins when Lestat wakes in 1984 after spending 58 years asleep in the ground. Lestat likes what he finds. He sees no place for God and Christianity in the modern world. Lestat sees a secular utopia of progress, prosperity, art, fashion, sexual freedom and “a vigorous secular morality as strong as any religious morality I had ever known.” (Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat, Warner, London, 1999, p 16) It’s like watching an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It appears that Anne is coming to terms with her atheism. The novels shift from Louis and despair without God to Lestat and fun without God, however the fun and promises of a secular world without God do not deliver.

Lestat decides to join a heavy metal band, Satan’s Night Out. (It’s an improvement on chasing high school girls. I’m looking at you, Angel and Edward.)

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The band thinks he’s pretending to be Lestat because they’ve read Interview with the Vampire. Lestat reads the book too, doesn’t like how he is portrayed and decides to give his side of the story, explaining that he really wasn’t that bad.

Lestat tells us he was the son of a struggling aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France. He says, “No one in my family much believed in God or ever had.” (The Vampire Lestat, p 56)

Like Anne, Lestat is disillusioned with religion, but he still struggles with the meaninglessness of existence without God,

“We’re going to die and not even know. We’ll never know, and all this meaninglessness will just go on and on and on …. We’ll just be gone dead, dead, dead, without ever knowing.” (The Vampire Lestat, p 66)

“There was no judgment day, no final explanation, no luminous moment in which all terrible wrongs will be made right, all horrors redeemed.” (The Vampire Lestat, p 66)

These comments apparently reflect Anne’s realization of the hopelessness of atheism (Prism of the Night, p 101-102, 247).

Nevertheless, Lestat still hopes there can be goodness without God,

“I can live without God. I can even come to  live with the idea that there is no life after. But I do not think I can go on if I did not believe in the possibility of goodness.” (The Vampire Lestat, p 83)

Many atheists are relativists. They argue that if there is no God, there is no absolute truth, no right or wrong. This may be the logical conclusion of an atheist worldview, but a lot of atheists seem to instinctively reject their own worldview and still believe there must be truth, right and wrong, good and bad. Anne’s novels and her characters reflect her own struggle with the implications of atheism.

After he becomes a vampire, Lestat has to kill people to survive. He cannot be good as he once understood. He does not agonise over this like Louis later would. He decides to be good at being a vampire (The Vampire Lestat, p 367). I do not speak French, so I am not sure if this alternative definition of “good” would have still  worked in the French they would have been speaking.

Lestat moves to Paris with his “friend” Nicolas to become an actor. One night Lestat is abducted by a vampire Magnus who turns him into a vampire and then commits suicide by going into the fire.

Lestat has inherited Magnus’ fortune, but the knows nothing about being a vampire and how he is expected to behave. He is lost and adrift, much in the way Anne would have found herself emotionally adrift after she abandoned her Catholic faith.

Lestat returns home where he “saves” his dying mother by turning her into a vampire. Anne’s mother was an alcoholic so she must have had a lot of baggage and mother issues. Katherine Ramsland observes  that her novels “revealed the need to regain her mother’s presence and a desire to conquer death.” (Prism of the Night, p 47)

We never the name of Louis’ mother. She is a distant figure who moves away and dies a few years later. Armand was separated from his, again nameless, mother and the rest of his family when he was abducted as a  child. They are briefly re-united when he returns to Kiev as a vampire. The name of Lestat’s mother is only revealed to be Gabrielle after he turned her into a vampire. Mother issues.

Lestat hoped to save and keep his dying mother by making her into a vampire. In the end he is disappointed and they gradually drift apart. Gabrielle seems disconnected from everyone, including Lestat and other vampires. In The Queen of the Damned Akasha tells Lestat that his mother “hated her children” (Anne Rice, The Queen of the Damned, Warner, London, 1999, p 336).

Gabrielle does not share Lestat’s interest in learning about their origins and prefers to go off on her own. They lose contact with each other until the are re-united in the 1980s. She does not come to his aid after the disastrous events of Interview with the Vampire.

Still, I found Gabrielle an interesting character and I would like to have seen a Vampire Chronicles novel written from her perspective. What does she really think of Lestat? Would such a book have been too confronting to write?

There still appears to have been something of Anne in Gabrielle. Becoming a vampire was a liberating experience for a woman in pre-revolutionary France, enabling her to get out of the house (castle actually) and live an (undead) life which would otherwise have been beyond her. Anne described herself as growing up with no sense of gender (Anne Rice, Called Out of Darkness, Chatto and Windus, London, 2008, p 78, 114, 116). This is reflected in Gabrielle when she becomes a vampire and also become androgynous and dresses in male clothes. Lestat describes his mother as having “the figure of an unearthly young boy, an exquisite young boy” (The Vampire Lestat, p 207). Mother issues.

Katherine Ramsland comments that “Gabrielle and Lestat are two sides of a single soul, as he describes it, just as Anne felt about her mother” (Prism of the Night, p 253). This is odd since Gabrielle is absent from Lestat’s life for about 200 years, which would make Lestat a fractured. divided person. Before she leaves, Gabrielle tells Lestat that she still believes in God (The Vampire Lestat, p 306). Perhaps, Gabrielle represents the Catholic part of Anne, when her mother was still alive, which she was separated from when she became an atheist and is later re-united with.

Before all this, Lestat and Gabrielle are attacked by other vampires, led by Armand from Interview with the Vampire. They are more traditional vampires, afraid of crosses and churches and call themselves the Children of Darkness. They believe in God and believe by serving Satan as vampires, they are ultimately doing God’s will.

The Children of Darkness are shocked to find that Lestat and Gabrielle are not following the rules. They have not made vows to Satan. They try to live like mortals. They dress better. God has not punished them for their blasphemy. Lestat has shown that their beliefs are not true. This results in a crisis of faith among the Children of Darkness. Their leader Armand kills many of them by driving into the fire.

I suspect the Children of Darkness symbolize the Roman Catholic Church in which Anne grew up. They are in bondage to superstition and false belief. They think they are doing God’s will, but they hurt a lot of innocent people in the process.

Popular beliefs about vampires are largely Catholic. What is a Protestant, who is not into crosses as much, supposed to do when he meets a vampire?

Then, along comes the enlightened Lestat who sets them free from their superstition, which perhaps reflects the way Anne the atheist hopes the religious will be set free from their superstition.

The survivors form the Theatre of the Vampires which Louis and Claudia encounter about 70 year later.

Armand tells Lestat and Gabrielle his story, how he was abducted from the Russian steppes as a child and sold in Venice to Marius, a vampire and artist, who looks after Those Who Must Be Kept. A few years later Marius turns Armand into a vampire. Then they are attacked by the Children of Darkness who are angry with Marius for not following the rules. Armand is taken and believes Marius is dead.

Armand reluctantly swears allegiance to Satan and joins the Children of Darkness. He becomes leader of their Paris coven for about 400 years until Lestat shows up. Having gone from the enlightened creativity of Marius to the darkness and superstition of the Children of Darkness, Armand strikes me as the most tragic character in the novels.

In The Vampire Chronicles, there are basically  two classes of vampires, the masses, including the superstitious Satan-serving Children of Darkness, the Theatre of the Vampires and  their modern equivalents, and the more enlightened Children of the Millennia, which include Lestat, Gabrielle, Armand and Marius. It seems a bit elitist.

Lestat and Gabrielle leave Paris to search for Marius. Gabrielle loses interest and keeps going off on her own and they eventually lose contact with each other. Like Louis and Claudia in Interview with the Vampire, Lestat is on a search for meaning, to understand his origins. They are not satisfied with their new way of life, like deep down Anne was not satisfied with atheism. Even though Louis wanted to know the truth, Lestat never told him during their 65 years together. Likewise, Armand never Louis about Marius during their years together.

Nobody tells Louis anything.

Lost people can find no help from equally lost people in their search for truth.

Eventually, Marius finds Lestat and takes him to his island. Marius believes they are on the verge of a new world, leaving the old world of religion and superstition behind,

“Completely new things are happening in Europe. The value placed upon human life is higher than ever. Wisdom and philosophy are coupled with new discoveries in science, new inventions which will completely alter the manner in which humans live.” (The Vampire Lestat, p 415)

Vincent Perez as Marius In Queen of the Damned (2002)
Vincent Perez as Marius In Queen of the Damned (2002)

This presumably reflects Anne’s hopes for atheism, secularism and modernism.

Marius explains to Lestat his origin. He became a vampire during the reign of Augustus and travelled to Egypt where he found the original vampires, Enkil and Akasha who had been king and queen in prehistoric Egypt. During an assassination attempt a demon entered through their wounds and the became the first vampires. Thousands of years later they are in a trance-like state and rarely move. Marius has looked after Those Who Must Be Kept for 1800 years.

Marius tells Lestat he cannot stay with him. Lestat had not lived or long as a human before he became a vampire. Marius suggests Lestat should go to New Orleans where his father had fled following the French Revolution. Like Anne in San Francisco, significant events bypass her characters. There, he should live out one complete lifetime so he will not succumb to despair and madness.

Marius and Stuart Townsend as Lestat in Queen of the Damned (2002)
Marius and Stuart Townsend as Lestat in Queen of the Damned (2002)

Before Lestat leaves, he recklessly drinks the blood of the vampire queen Akasha and is almost killed by Enkil in the process, but her blood empowers him.

Marius and Akasha seem to have surrogate parents for Lestat, meeting the needs which his real parents could not.

Lestat travels to New Orleans where the events of Interview with the Vampire take place. Lestat would have us believe he really wasn’t that bad, yet Louis and Claudia still tried to kill him and escape. Most of us think we are good people. The Holocaust was carried out by people who thought they were good. We suffer from a “good delusion”. We may think we are good but those, who have been hurt by our actions, would have a different  view. Lestat seems somewhat delusional, believing things are fine when they are very wrong.

As Interview with the Vampire relates, Lestat’s attempt to live out a complete lifetime ends in disaster with Lestat scarred and crippled. Armand refuses to help him, blaming him for the destruction of their way of life,

“We had our Eden under that ancient cemetery …. We had our faith and our purpose. And it was you who drove us out with a flaming sword.” (The Vampire Lestat, p 553)

Marius and Gabrielle are nowhere to be found.

Lestat spends the next four decades a broken recluse, with Armand occasionally showing up to torment him, until he decides to go down into the earth in 1929 and sleeps until he wakes in 1984.

To be continued.

 

Anne Rice, Lestat and Jesus Part One

Anne Rice is the author of Interview with the Vampire and its sequels, The Vampire Chronicles. Her web site can be found here. Anne was raised a Catholic, but became an atheist. In her autobiography Called Out of Darkness Anne writes that although she did not realise it at the time, her “books transparently reflect a journey through atheism and back to God.” (Anne Rice, Called Out of Darkness, p 147) This is the first of a series of posts which will explore how her journey and struggles were manifested through her characters .

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Anne was born Howard Frances O’Brien in New Orleans in 1941. As one might suspect from a girl being given a male name, her childhood was somewhat unusual. Her mother was an alcoholic. She died from the effects of alcoholism when Anne was fourteen.The web site of Adult Children of Alcoholics is found here. At home there was a clear lack of boundaries and discipline. The children were allowed to sleep in any bed in the house they wanted (Katherine Ramsland,Prism of the Night, Plume, New York, 1994, p 16-18). At the same time she was attending a Catholic school, so there was a dichotomy between her strict Catholic education at school and her chaotic home life (Prism of the Night, p 20-22)

One of the results of her unusual upbringing was her lack of gender identity. Anne writes,

“I came out of my education with no sense at all of gender, and no liking whatsoever for being a child.” (Anne Rice, Called Out of Darkness, Chatto and Windus, London, 2008, p 78)

“I came out of childhood with no sense of being a particular gender, and no sense of being handicapped by being  a woman because I didn’t believe I was a woman or a man.” (Called Out of Darkness, p 114)

She would later describe herself as “a gay man trapped in a woman’s body.” (Prism of the Night, p 105).

My first experience with Anne Rice was reading the graphic novel of The Vampire Lestat. I actually wondered if “Anne Rice” was a pseudonym for a gay man. When I read that last quote, I thought, “Well, that explains a lot.”

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Anne appears to have been somewhat isolated from the rest of the world in her early life. This changed when she enrolled in the secular Texas Woman’s University.  Anne writes,

“I left this church at age eighteen because I stopped believing it was “the one true church established by Christ to give grace.” No personal event precipitated this loss of faith. It happened on a secular college campus; there was intense sexual pressure; but more than that there was the world itself, without Catholicism, filled with good people and people who read books that were strictly forbidden to me. I wanted to read Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus. I wanted to know why so many seemingly good people didn’t believe in any organized religion yet cared passionately about their behaviour and the value of their lives. As the rigid Catholic I was, I had no options for exploration: I broke with the Church. And I broke with my belief in God.” (Anne Rice, Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt, Arrow, London, 2005, p 430-431),

When many young Christians move away from home and go to university and there are no parents or home church around to tell them how to behave, their newfound freedom often leads to their rejecting their childhood faith. Growing up, they are not encouraged to develop the intellectual side of their Christian belief, but to “just have faith”.  They rarely read Christian books. Then, they come to university and encounter people with reasons for what they believe. They decide that Christianity is not intellectually defendable when they never tried.

Anne married her “high school sweetheart” Stan Rice in 1910 and they moved to San Francisco. There, she struggled with the implications of her atheism. In her biography of Anne, Prism of the Night, Katherine Ramsland writes,

“In college Anne had loosened herself intellectually from what she regarded as religious superstition, but not emotionally. Now she felt the implications of that rejection of absolutes and divine purpose, magnified by the surreal experiences of pot; she felt it to the heart of her being and it hurt; she was swimming in the agony of loss …. She called her friends to tell them of her negative epiphany, but they failed to see why it was such a devastating insight. They already felt that way most of the time. So we don’t know, they said. So what? Why was it such a big deal? But for Anne, the sense of consuming dread and emptiness had a major impact on her perspective.” (Prism of the Night, p 100)

Anne writes,

“After a few months of dismal grieving for my faith, I began to feel a new relaxation, and a new  passion  for life. But I felt a certain bitter darkness too. The world without God was a world in which anything might happen, and there would never be justice for the millions who died at the hands of tyrants or the poor who suffered in neglected parts of the world.” (Called Out of Darkness, p 127)

In 1966 their daughter Michele was born. In spite of the changes of 1960s San Francisco going on around them, they “kept to their own little world” (Prism of the Night, p 107). One of their friends commented that Michele was their ultimate perfect creation…. They literally adored her every move ad gesture. Her drawings, photos, and quotes were posted as important artefacts. They both seemed obsessed with the cultivation of her purity and virginal genius. They perceived her as a living art form.” (Prism of the Night, p 107)

When Michele was four years old, she was diagnosed with leukaemia. She died in 1972. Katherine Ramsland writes,

“Had any vestige of Anne’s Catholic faith survived the death of her mother, her intellectual doubt, then her emotional crises from years before, it was utterly destroyed now. The prayers of her family had been useless, empty. There was no God, or at least not one who cared. She rejected any heaven that demanded the sacrifice of  a child -especially her perfect, beautiful little girl.” (Prism of the Night, p 130)

Surprisingly, there is no mention of Michele in Anne’s autobiography Called Out of Darkness.

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Both Anne and Stan numbed their grief in alcohol. Katherine Ramsland writes,

“They had already been drinking for many years, but now they threw themselves into it with the same energy with which they had cared for their sick child. They poured bottle after bottle into the vacuum of their souls, seeking numbness from the realization that life’s essential goodness was no longer a viable assumption …. Anne started the day with two tall cans of beer and drank until she went to bed, sitting in morose, staring sadness and anger.” (Prism of the Night, p 132)

Anne channelled her grief over her lost faith and the death of Michele into her novel Interview with the Vampire. She writes.

“The novel was also an obvious lament for my lost faith. The vampire roam in a world without God; and Louis, the heartbroken hero, searches for a meaningful context in vain.” (Called Out of Darkness, p 138-139)

“The novel reflected my guilt and my misery in being cut off from God and from salvation, my being lost in a world without light.” (Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt, p 431)

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Interview with the Vampire is told from the perspective of Louis, a New Orleans plantation owner, who became a vampire in 1791. Louis is overwhelmed by despair and guilt over the suicide of his brother whose religious visions he did not take seriously. He wants to die, but is instead made into a vampire by Lestat.

Louis became a vampire when he was 25 years old, a young adult. Other characters, Lestat and Armand, became vampires when they were in their late teens and becoming adults, the same time when Anne lost her childhood faith. A later character Quinn Blackwood  became a vampire when he was 22. There seems to be a connection between becoming an atheist and becoming a vampire.

Louis does not make a very good vampire. He does not want to kill people. He clearly did not think this through beforehand. Like Anne and her despair over the lostness of her atheism, Louis cannot embrace his new identity and way of life. He “begged Lestat to let me stay in the closet.” (Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire,Warner, London, 1994, p 28) Gay subtext?

Unlike most other fictional portrayals of vampires, Anne’s creations are androgynous and bisexual, which presumably reflects Anne’s lack od gender identity and her identification with gay men.

Katherine Ramsland writes,

“Lestat was loosely based on the physical appearance and attitudes of Stan. While Stan was flattered to be the physical model, he also perceived that the novel revealed Anne’s reaction to his tendency to exert control … and it is clear that her relationship with Stan provided intense emotional tones for the book.” (Prism of the Night, p 152)

I hope there was not too much of Anne and Stan’s relationship in Louis and Lestat. After having read the rest of The Vampire Chronicles, often written from Lestat’s perspective, it is something of a shock to go back and re-read Interview with the Vampire and see how Lestat was originally portrayed. If there is anything of the “brat prince” or the coolest vampire ever in the original Lestat, I am missing it. Lestat was simply a nasty villain and clearly a weak person. He and Louis are in a dysfunctional and abusive relationship and they hate each other.

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Anne’s portrayal of vampires and their drinking of and union with blood and their eternal life appears to have its roots in her old Catholic beliefs (Prism of the Night, p 146).

Her family’s struggle with alcoholism also manifests in The Vampire Chronicles. Vampires are addicted to blood in much the same way that alcoholics are addicted to alcohol and their addiction inflicts suffering on others.

Just as children of alcoholics suffer as a result of their parents’ addiction, Louis’ addiction to blood leads him to harm a 5 year old child and take her blood. Lestat turns her into a vampire and names her Claudia. There is something of both Anne and her daughter Michele in Claudia. Later Claudia angrily says, “Which one of you did it which of you made me what I am?” (Interview with the Vampire, p 120), which perhaps reflects the anger of how we are the product of our parents’ upbringing and not necessarily for the better.

The influence of Michele in Claudia is obvious. The character of Claudia appears to be an attempt to bring Michele back or to work through her grief over her death. Claudia became a vampire about the same age Michele died. They are physically alike. When I saw a photo of Michele in Prism of the Night, I thought, “That’s Claudia.”

Photo of Michele Rice in 1969 taken from Prism of the Night by Katherine Ramsland
Photo of Michele Rice in 1969 taken from Prism of the Night by Katherine Ramsland

(Several times when I have meant to write “Michele”, I have written “Claudia” and had to correct myself.)

As Claudia ages, she matures emotionally and mentally, but her vampire body remains the same. She becomes an adult woman trapped in the body of a 5 year old girl. This perhaps reflects Anne’s own unusual childhood attitude when she did not think of herself as a child and identified more with adults even though they still regarded her as a child (Called Out of Darkness, p 78-80, Prism of the Night, p 154).

Likewise, some adult children of alcoholics can spend their adult lives enslaved by their experiences  as a child.

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For 65 years Louis, Lestat and Claudia lived together in their own little world. This is reminiscent of Anne, Stan and Michelle living together in “their own little world” (Prism of the Night, p 107).

Both families were somewhat isolated from the changing world around them. Even though she lived in San Francisco during the 1960s, Anne admits she was not interested in the hippie, anti-war, feminist and civil rights movements which were emerging at the time. She says, “I was too focused on the past.” (Called Out of Darkness, p 133)

A recurring theme of The Vampire Chronicles is how vampires, who were born hundreds of years ago, struggle to relate to the modern world. I actually find the characters more interesting when they are set in the past, In the present they seem to lose their way and get a little boring.

65 years after making Claudia a vampire their dysfunctional family implodes and Louis and Claudia attempt to kill Lestat and flee to Europe. They explore Europe  on a search for meaning and the origins of the vampires. We learn in the next book The Vampire Lestat that Lestat knew about their origins all along. He just never told Louis,

Louis says that “in Europe I’d found no truths to lessen loneliness, transform despair.” (Interview with the Vampire, p 299)

In Paris they meet Armand who looks 17 years old and nothing like Antonio Banderas.

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And I don’t want to even think about Matthew Newton in Queen of the Damned.

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Armand is the leader of a coven of vampires who call themselves the Theatre of the Vampires. They pretend to be actor portraying vampires, hiding in plain sight. Armand claims he is 400 year sold, the oldest living vampire, but he does not give Louis the answers he is looking for. He does not know if God exists or not (Interview with the Vampire, p 256-258).

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Lestat shows up and tells the other vampire what Louis and Claudia did to him. We later learn that Lestat and Armand are old frenemies. Armand and the other vampires kill Claudia, which perhaps signifies that it was now time to let go of Michelle. Louis and Armand travel together. When Armand later admits to Louis he was the one who killed Claudia by exposing her to the sun, he hardly cares.

Years later, they come across a broken, pitiful Lestat back in New Orleans. After over 60 years of being under Lestat’s thumb, it looks like Louis has emerged the winner. In the end Louis concludes that it is all hopeless,

“I wanted love and goodness in this which is living death,” I said. “It was impossible from the beginning, because you cannot have love and goodness when you do what you know to be evil, what you know to be wrong. You can only have the desperate confusion and longing and the chasing of phantom goodness in its human form. I knew the real answer to my quest before I ever reached Paris. I knew it when I first took a human life to feed my craving. It was my death. And yet I would not accept it, could not accept it, because like all creatures, I don’t wish to die! And so I sought for other vampires, for God, for the devil, for a hundred things under a hundred names. And it was all the same, all evil. And all wrong. Because no one could in any guise convince me of what I myself knew to be true, that I was damned in my own mind and soul.” (Interview with the Vampire, p 362)

in the end, Daniel, the interviewer, does not want to accept that Louis’ story ends in despair. He is enthralled by Louis’ account and the prospect of being immortal as a vampire. Like Anne’s unbelieving friends, Daniel did not appreciate the meaninglessness. Louis has failed to convey the true despair of it all. Daniel doesn’t get it and I suspect many of Anne’s readers didn’t get it either.

To be continued.

 

New Atheists and the existence of Jesus

 

Some new atheist writers claim that Jesus did not exist.

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Richard Dawkins writes, “It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Books, London, 2006, p 97)

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Christopher Hitchens writes about “the highly questionably existence of Jesus” and “there was little or no evidence for the life of Jesus”. (Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, Allen and Unwin, New South Wales, 2008, p 135, 152)

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MIchael Onfray writes, “Jesus’s existence has not been historically established” and “The ultra-rationalists – from Prosper Alfaric to Raoul Vaneigem – were probably right to deny the historical existence of Jesus.” (Michael Onfray, The Atheist Manifesto, Melbourne University Press, Victoria, 2007, p 115,117)

Okay, I have no idea who Prosper Alfraic and Raoul Vaneigem were, but name-dropping cannot cover up how weak the new atheists’ arguments against the historical existence of Jesus are.

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Bart Ehrman, who describes himself as an “agnostic with atheist leanings” (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 2) is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and has written several books critical of conservative interpretations of the New Testament. We can expect him to be neutral and objective. He writes,

“I should say at the outset that none of this literature [denying the existence of Jesus] is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world.) Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed.” (Did Jesus Exist, p 2)

The only academic, which Richard Dawkins cites for Jesus’ non-existence is “Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London.”(The God Delusion, p 97) However, he does not tell his readers that Wells is a Professor of German.

If I have a question about ancient history, a Professor of German is always the first person I would ask.

The fact ,that Dawkins and the other new atheists cannot find a single academic in a history department anywhere in the world who will agree with them, should give us an idea how credible their ideas are. I could find more scientists with Ph.D.s from accredited universities who believe the world was created in six days than the new atheists can find historians who agree with them.

The new atheists seem to “think” that because they do not believe God exists, Jesus also did not exist. This does not make sense. I am not a Muslim or a Buddhist, but I still believe that Muhammad and Buddha existed. I am not aware of any new atheist who challenges their existence, only Jesus.

Not every historian, who believes there was a Jesus of Nazareth who founded Christianity, believes in God or that Jesus was the Son of God who died for their sins and rose from the dead. For over 200 years historians and theologians have been engaged in a quest or search for the “historical Jesus”, trying to determine whether Jesus really said and did the things attributed to him in the Gospels.

If some historians do not believe in the supernatural and do not believe the supernatural events attributed to Jesus happened, they do not conclude that Jesus did not exist, like the new atheists do. They are more likely to assume they were made up by the early church.

I have argued here that the Gospel accounts are historically reliable.

There is early historical evidence for Jesus other than Christian sources, however Michael Onfray says that “we know that most existing documents are skillfully executed forgeries.” (The Atheist Manifesto, p 116)

Onfray may “know” this, but no one who works in an ancient history department in a university does.

Nevertheless, he continues,

“Nothing of what remains can be trusted. The Christian archives are the result of ideological fabrication. Even the writings of Flavius Josephus, Suetonius or Tacitus, who mention in a few hundred verses the existence of Christ and his faithful in the first century of our era, obey the rules of intellectual forgery. When an anonymous monk recopied the Antiquities of the Jewish historian Josephus (arrested and turned into a double agent, a collaborator with Roman power) when that monk had before him the Annals of Tacitus or Suetonius’s Lives of Twelve Caesars (and was astonished to find no mention of the story he believed in), he added a passage in his own hand and in all good faith, without shame and without a second thought, without wondering whether he was doing wrong or committing forgery.” (The Atheist Manifesto, p 117)

Onfray’s account of an “astonished” monk finding no mention of Christ in Jospehus, Tacitus and Suetonius and adding them “without shame or a second thought” exists only in his imagination. It seems that because he does not believe Jesus was a historical figure, then any historical reference to Jesus must be fake.

The only partial truth to his claim is a passage from Josephus which reads,

“Now, there was about this time Jesus,a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:5:2)

Because Jospehus was a Jew, he was not likely to have said Jesus was the Christ, however the majority of historians do not believe this passage is a complete forgery. They believe there was an authentic reference to Jesus by Josephus, but it was altered and made more Christian by a later Christian monk (John Dickson, Investigating Jesus, An Historian’s Quest, Lion Hudson, London, 2010, p 74).

There is an Arabic version of this passage which is not so explicitly Christian and it may be the original,

“At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to crucifixion and death; but those who had become his disciples did not forsake his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; he was therefore, perhaps, the Messiah concerning whom the prophets had recounted wonderful things.”

Jospehus mentions Jesus in another passage referring to the execution of his brother James,

“He [Ananus the high priest] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” (Jospehus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:9:1)

Tacitus mentioned Christ when he described Nero’s persecution of the Christians,

“To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called.) Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But, in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition broke out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15;44)

This passage is critical of Christians and I do not know of any historian who thinks it is a Christian forgery.

Suetonius briefly mentions Nero’s persecution of the Christians,

“Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.” (Suetonius, Lives, Nero, 16)

Suetonius also wrote about Claudius.

“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.” (Suetonius, Lives, Claudius, 25)

Some historians think “Chrestus’ is a garbled reference to Christ and it refers to clashes between Jews and Christians in Rome, but it is not conclusive. However, Onfray claims even this passage is a forgery. Surely, if a later Christian copyist were to forge a reference to Jesus, he would make it clearer and spell “Christ” correctly.

There is only one other group I know of which behaves like this towards historical evidence – Holocaust deniers or revisionists who claim the evidence for the Nazi gas chambers is forged, unreliable or misinterpreted. Both new atheists and Holocaust revisionists are motivated by their ideological bias and refuse to accept the evidence.

Onfray further tries to cast doubt on Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius when he writes they are “manuscripts copied several centuries after they were written. (The Atheist Manifesto, p 117)

Our earliest manuscript of Suetonius was copied 800 years after it was written. Our earliest manuscript of Tacitus was copied 1000 years after it was written. However, Tacitus and Suetonius are our main sources for the Roman Empire in the first century. If we were to reject them because of the time between the originals and our earliest copies, we would know very little about that period. Modern historians do not have a problem with Tacitus and Suetonius, only the new atheists.

In contrast, our earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament is from John and is dated to about 30 to 40 years after it was written and our first complete manuscripts are from about 300 years after it was written, but we will not hear any new atheists saying how the text of the New Testament is so much more reliable than Tacitus and Suetonius.

The Gospels, the rest of the New Testament and other early Christian writings also contain evidence for the existence of Jesus. When these are taken into account, there is more historical evidence for Jesus than any other person in the ancient world.

In The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus Gary Habermas and Michael Licona estimate that Jesus or Christ was mentioned by 42 Christian and non-Christian writers within 150 years of the crucifixion, while Tiberius, Roman emperor at the time, was only mentioned by nine writers, including the New Testament’s Luke, within 150 years of his death. (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Kregel, Michigan, 2004, 127-128)

However, Christopher Hitchens writes,

“Well, it can be stated with certainty, and on their own evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly not literal truth. This means that many of the “sayings” and teachings of Jesus are hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay, which helps explain their garbled and contradictory nature.” (God is not Great, p 142)

Richard Dawkins says about the Gospels,

“Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard The New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened…… The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.” (The God Delusion, p 97)

I am not sure what Dawkins thinks a “reputable biblical scholar” is, presumably one who agrees with him.

In the last 30 years the “quest for the historical Jesus”, the attempt to work out how historically reliable the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus is, has come to see the Gospels as more accurate than previous generations of scholars. The majority of New Testament historians do not agree with Dawkins’ rhetoric.

The consensus among historians is that the New Testament Gospels are similar to other ancient biographies and were intended to be biographies of Jesus, describing what they believed happened. This consensus is largely a result of Richard Burridge’s What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2004.

To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, it can be stated with certainty, and in their evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly literal truth. They are biographies of Jesus and intended to describe what the authors believed actually happened. That is the consensus of New Testament scholarship, as opposed to the dogmatic opinions of the new atheists.

Hitchens’ claim that the Gospels are “hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay” is hardly accurate. Matthew and John were traditionally believed to have been written by eyewitnesses. According to Papias, who wrote around 130 AD, Mark wrote what the eyewitness Peter told him (Eusebius, The History of the Church, 3:39, Penguin Classics, London, 1989, p 103-104).

Most New Testament scholars believe Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. Paul died in the mid 60s and because Luke’s sequel Acts ends with Paul still alive in Rome, it was presumably written before he died, Luke must have been written before then.

Admittedly, many scholars believe Luke and Acts were written later, some as late as the 90s, but this is largely because Luke contains Jesus’ prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem in 70, and they do not believe prophecy is possible. But if an account of someone’s life ends with them still alive, it is safe bet it was written before they died, not 25 years later.

Both Dawkins and Hitchens claim the Gospels contain errors and contradictions which are supposed to mean they are not true. Hitchens claim the Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.” (God is not Great, p 132). Is he serious? What about Jesus coming from Nazareth, being the Son of God and Messiah, travelling and preaching, having disciples, performing miracles, offending the Jewish leaders, being arrested, tried and crucified and rising from the dead?

Hitchens also claims. “The contradictions and illiteracies [?] of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” ” (God is not Great, p 136)

I am not sure how the “Christ of faith”, which usually means the alleged difference between what Christians believe about Christ and the historical Jesus of Nazareth, can explain any supposed contradictions in the Gospels.

Likewise, Dawkins claims, “The resulting contradictions are glaringly, but consistently overlooked by the faithful” and asks “Why don’t they notice these glaring contradictions?” (The God Delusion, p 94)

The truth is there are numerous Christian books devoted to explaining the supposed contradictions in the Bible, e.g.,

Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of BIble Difficulties, Zondervan, MIchigan, 1982

Norman Geisler, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties, Baker Books, Michigan, 2008

John Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Whitaker House, Pennsylvania, 2004

Ken Ham, Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions, Master Boooks, Arizona, 2010

Walter Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, IVP, Engalnd, 1996

Sometimes these “contradictions” are just different ways of saying the same thing and both can be true. On the subject of the women who visited Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning, Matthew says Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went (Matthew 28:1), Mark says Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Salome went (Mark 16:1), Luke says Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women went (Luke 24:10), John says Mary Magdalene went and she tells the disciples “we don’t know where they have laid Him” (John 20:1,2), suggesting there were more.

These accounts are different, but they can all be true. They only mean the authors only mentioned some of those who went. They also mean that the Gospel writers were not copying each other and we have multiple attestations to the resurrection.

Even if the new atheists could prove there is an unexplainable contradiction in the Gospels, that would not prove the events in the Gospels did not happen and Jesus did not exist. It would only challenge Christian ideas about inspiration and inerrancy.

Historians and others, who deal with eyewitnesses, like the police, lawyers and journalists, know that eyewitnesses can get it wrong, but that does not mean the events they described did not happen. They just made a mistake.

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In Gospel Truth, Answering New Atheist Attacks on the Gospels, Paul Barnett gives the example of the siege of Jerusalem in 66-70 AD. Tacitus says there were 6000 Romans. Jospehus says there were 600,000 (Paul Barnett, Gospel Truth, Answering New Atheist Attacks on the Gospels, IVP, England, 2012, p 93). This contradiction does not prove the Roman siege of Jerusalem never happened.

Real historians do not conclude that an event did not happen or a whole book is not true because of a mistake in the details. Again, the only other group, I know of which behave like this, are Holocaust deniers who look for mistakes and contradictions in the eyewitnesses’ accounts of the gas chambers and the extermination of the Jews and use these mistakes to argue that the eyewitnesses are wrong and the Holocaust did not happen.

Paul Barnett also makes an interesting point in that although Matthew and Luke are believed to have used Mark and sometimes said things differently than Mark, they did not accuse him of getting it wrong, while in the cases of other ancient historians contradicting each other, they often claimed they were right and the others were wrong (Gospel Truth, p 84-85). This suggests that although Matthew and Luke may have said things differently, they did not think Mark was wrong. It is possible for two or more people to describe the same event differently and all be true.

Some of the mistakes and contradictions which the new atheists raise are nothing of the sort.

Dawkins, citing Tom Flynn, argues that Luke made up the “worship by kings” at Jesus’ birth because of “Luke’s desire to adopt Christianity for the Gentiles.” (The God Delusion, p 94) While it is true that Luke appears to have been writing for a Gentile audience, the visit of the magi (wise men or astrologers, not kings) only occurs in Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels.

Hitchens claims that “all four Gospels were based on a lost book known as Q by scholars.” (God is not Great, p 133)

Q is a hypothetical source which many scholars believe was used by Matthew and Luke who also relied on Mark. No one (apart from Hitchens) thinks Mark and John used Q. Personally, I believe Q was an oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings, rather than a written source. Many modern scholars seem to assume that because they rely on written sources, so did the Gospel writers.

Onfray claims the Gospels were wrong to call Pontius Pilate a procurator,

“That same Pilate could not have been a procurator as the Gospels call him, for the title of procurator was first used around the year 50 of our era. Pilate’s title was prefect of Judaea.” (The Atheist Manifesto, p 128)

The only problem is Pilate is not called “procurator” in the Gospels, but by the more generic term “governor” or “hegemon”.

Onfray also claims that Jesus could not have been crucified because “History again bears witness: at that time Jews were not crucified but stoned to death.” ( The Atheist Manifesto, p 128)

I looked up “crucifixion” in the index of my Penguin Classics edition of Josephus’ The Jewish War and found eleven references to Jews being crucified. If Onfray has not consulted Josephus, what “history” does he think “bears witness” that Jews were not crucified?

If these are the sort of arguments which atheists out forward for the non-existence of Jesus, are their arguments for the non-existence of God any better?