Book Review - Called Out of Darkness
Of all genres of books, memoirs may be the toughest to review. After all, how is a reviewer to evaluate the life experiences of another person? What is the measure of a good memoir and what is the measure of a poor one? Ultimately, as a reviewer, I can judge only the power and effectiveness of the writing, the truthfulness of what the author claims as fact, and, more subjectively, the personal impact of the person’s life-story. And with these criteria in mind, I turn to Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by novelist Anne Rice.
The fact that Rice has rediscovered the faith of her childhood is well-documented; it is seen most clearly in the transition of the subject matter of her novels. Gone are the stories of vampires and in their place is her multi-volume account of the life of Christ (click to read my review of the most recent entry in the series, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana). In this book, a confession of sorts, she explains why she walked away from her faith to begin with and how, decades later, she recovered it. She says in the first chapter, “I want to tell, as simply as I can—and nothing with me as a writer has ever really been simple—the story of how I made my decision of the heart. So here is the story of one path to God. The story has a happy ending because I have found the Transcendent God both intellectually and emotionally. And complete belief in Him and devotion to Him, no matter how interwoven with occasional fear and constant personal failure and imperfection, has become the true story of my life.”
Called Out of Darkness gets off to quite a slow start, buried in the details of Rice’s earliest days growing up in ultra-Catholic New Orleans. She was raised in an extremely devout Roman Catholic family and she expends a great deal of effort in describing this period of her life. Though I found the first few chapters burdensome, I understand their importance; Rice wishes to set the stage, really clearly set the stage, for the return of her faith later in life. Despite the Church playing a crucial role in her early life, she soon pushed it aside. It was as a young adult that Rice walked away from her faith, not because of scandal or deep-rooted doubts, but because she wanted to know more of the modern world than her church would allow her to see and to experience. Like so many young people, she found that her faith could not survive her college years. It was not until she was fifty-seven that she would find it again.
As we’d expect from Anne Rice, Called Out of Darkness is largely well-written though it is perhaps a tad verbose or melodramatic or unnecessarily atmospheric at times, and especially so at the beginning (e.g. “The sky during these trips was often bloodred, or purple, and the trees were so thick that one could only see hundreds of fragments of the sky amid clusters of darkening leaves. The color of the sky seemed to me to be connected with the song of the cicadas, and the drowsy shadows playing everywhere on the margins of what was visible, and the distinct feel of the humid air. Even in winter the air was moist, so that the world itself seemed to be pulsing around us, enfolding us, holding us as we moved through it.”). But Rice is a gifted author and she more than compensates for occasional verbosity with prose that is at times good and at times even exceptional.
Some of the most interesting passages in the memoir have Rice describing her own books, explaining and interpreting the characters and the themes. There is much of her and much of her life story in these books and she does a great job of showing how her characters have always been a reflection of herself. In this context we understand that, once she rediscovered the faith of her childhood, she was able to retire her faithful old characters and turn to new subject matter.
In the book’s final pages, Rice describes what her faith looks like today and how she lives it out. She bewails the way Christians disagree among themselves about what she considers petty issues. This was of particular interest to me. A few weeks ago I reviewed Crossbearer, a memoir by Joe Eszterhas. One thing I noted in that review was that Eszterhas had discovered Roman Catholic faith, but had done so in a pick-and-choose manner, accepting what resonated with him and rejecting what had not. To some extent the same is true with Anne Rice; she found herself unable to consent to the Church’s teaching on several issues. Of great concern to her are the issues of gender, sexuality and homosexuality (though, ironically, she says that Christians ought not to have such an interest in these matters). “Try as I might,” she says, “I can find nothing in Holy Scripture that supports this contemporary obsession with sex and gender on the part of our conservative churches.” She makes the rather audacious statement that “Jesus Christ Himself cared nothing about gender at all” and that he insisted upon equality for all people. This is true, in a sense, and Jesus did revolutionize the way men and women were to perceive one another. However, while Jesus insisted in equality of worth and value, this does not necessarily mean that men and women are to have identical or interchangeable roles. A look to the New Testament epistles will reveal what Jesus says through His people about how men and women are to serve in the church and it will reveal what Jesus says about sexuality. The emphasis on these subjects in both Catholic and Protestant circles proves their critical importance; the emphases on these subjects in Rice’s own book proves their importance.
Called Out of Darkness will undoubtedly appeal to the bona fide card-carrying Anne Rice fans and to those who are interested in spiritual memoirs. Even to me, one who has read her works only sparingly, this was an enjoyable memoir and one I am glad I read. It is an interesting glimpse into an interesting life and, at least to this reader, sounds a warning against what seems to be a natural human tendency. It shows once again a faith that submits to some kind of transcendence and that gives its adherent peace and comfort but that, at one point or another, resists the extrinsic authority that seeks to shape and define it, whether it be the authority of Scripture or Church or, in this instance, both.