Monday, August 02, 2010

I'm Not Sure It Works That Way, Anne Rice

You may have heard about best-selling Vampire/Jesus novelist Anne Rice's Facebook outburst about leaving Christianity. If you aren't, here it is:

For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

(Quick backstory: Rice grew up Catholic, but left the church when she was 18. She returned to the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1990s, and her reclaimed faith influenced her subsequent novels.)

Like Rice, I refuse to be anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science, etc. Unlike Rice, I have no plans to leave the church. In fact, I'm not sure that faith in Christ works outside of Christ's body, the church. I could give you a laundry list of concerns and complaints about the universal church, about my denomination (The United Methodist Church), and about any congregation I've ever been a part of. Despite these concerns and complaints, I love the universal church, I love The United Methodist Church, and I love every congregation I've ever been a part of. These bodies aren't supposed to be perfect.

I don't want to be too critical of Rice's comments because a) I suspect they were impulsive, and one of the curses of the Internet age is the inability for any public figure to be impulsive without her impulses being over-analyzed, and b) because I can relate to her. About ten years ago, I left Christianity for a time, and frustration with the church as an institution was a factor in my decision. But my love of the church, with all its flaws, brought me back and helped me reclaim the faith I'd walked away from.

In reclaiming my faith, I also realized that Christianity is a communal religion. Christianity traces its roots back to the Hebrew scriptures in the Christian Old Testament, where God establishes a covenant relationship with a nation, rather than with individuals. And much of the New Testament was written to early Christian communities, giving them instructions on how to be the church, the "body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Granted, Rice claims to be a follower of Jesus, not Paul, and Jesus said far less on the subject of church than did the writers of the New Testament epistles. The word "church" only appears in the Gospels four times, all in Matthew. A scholar could probably make a convincing argument that Jesus never actually said the word, but that it came from the author of Matthew's reconstruction of teachings that had been kept alive orally. Still, nothing in the Gospels suggests that faith in Christ is an individual endeavor. Much of Jesus' teaching deals with how his followers should live in relationship with one another and with those whom they consider enemies or strangers. Jesus sent his disciples into the world as a group, and his final words to his disciples in Luke (24:44-49) anticipate the birth of the church in Acts.

I say all of this as a Protestant. Rice is/was a Roman Catholic. So she has less wiggle room than I do when it comes to disagreeing with the church on social issues. That said, the Catholic Church is far from monolithic, and I don't think that Rice would have much trouble finding a parish of like-minded believers on the West Coast (where she lives).

Speaking of wiggle room, I am a part of the ultimate wiggle-room denomination. The United Methodist Church notoriously avoids taking hard stands on most controversial matters; as a result, United Methodists who are (for lack of better adjectives) very conservative or very liberal often get frustrated with the church and consider leaving. On several occasions, I've heard United Methodists, unwilling to leave the church they love despite its flaws, announce their intention to "stay and fight." I'd prefer they stay and love.

See also: Scot McKnight on Anne Rice.


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