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."