Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Anne Rice on Leaving the Church

Earlier this year, the blogosphere was abuzz with the news that Anne Rice had re-departed the Roman Catholic church. The author, who is best known for her series of vampire novels, had a spiritual experience about 10 years ago which had led her back to the faith of her childhood. But she simply could not live with the contradiction between her most deeply held beliefs and the commitments that being an orthodox Roman Catholic requires. She broke up with her church in that most thoroughly classy, postmodern fashion, via Facebook:
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. My conscience will allow nothing else.
Hours later, her "Dear Church" letter continued:
As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, 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.
I read those words back in July and I have been pondering since then how I, as a Christian, ought to respond. My initial reaction is a bit prickly, especially with respect to her second post. It seems that her most significant reason for her departure from Roman Catholicism has to do with the fact that its teachings do not conform to the deeply held convictions of the Democratic Party platform or align with its talking points. She seems to lack any understanding of the fact that the Christ she claims to follow is the Christ who came to set people free from sin and death, and that some of those sins from which we need freeing are nevertheless currently popular. Being gay is not the worst of sins, but sin it remains. I do not see how opposing abortion and embryonic stem cell research gets you labeled "anti-life." I'm not sure what she means by "anti-science," though science does seem to me to be less a sure foundation for certain knowledge than many of its practitioners seem to believe. "Anti-feminist"? Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by "feminist," but the Church is still the world's leading exponent of the idea of the dignity and equality of women, though it does recognize that women and men aren't interchangeable. And while I'm not a Democrat and believe that their policies, if followed, are disastrous for the future of the country, that belief isn't central, or even peripheral, to the Christian faith I profess. Nor is opposition to birth control. As far as secular humanism goes, I guess I'm not sure how to be both a Christian and secular humanist? That's like being a Buddhist Muslim. The two are competing ideas, not complementary ones. Understanding that not nearly all of these things are biblical ideas, or even accurate characterizations of the faith, I guess I wish she had the courage to allow her thinking to be conformed by the Scriptures rather than trying to do it the other way around. I'm sure that was a frustrating experience, but it isn't an unanticipated one for anybody paying attention to what the Scriptures actually call us to do.

On the other hand, a part of me resonates with her first post. I know what it is to be disappointed with the other people with whom I am in community in the Church. Within the Church I have seen its leaders fall into egregious sin, building for themselves personality cults, ill-gotten fortunes and even personal harems. I have been betrayed and abandoned by people I considered friends. I have seen raging conflicts, nasty divorces, severe addictions, and weird perversions. I have seen every one of the 10 Commandments broken in every way it is possible to break them. Moreover, looking back through history, there are episodes which bring me shame (the burning of Servetus, the witch trials, the 30 Years War, and so on).

But these things have never divided me from the Church. Why? Because within the Church there is also Christ, His Word, and His people. I'd be the last to say that the Church is full of perfect people. Far from it, in fact. To be a pastor as I am is to know that better than most. But in the midst of all the sinning, there also is the reality of the Gospel of the Jesus who came to save exactly such people from sin and death and Hell. The reality of life in the church, in other words, points out the truth of the things we profess: We are all sinners deeply in need of saving. Moreover, there is another side to Church life, which I have also seen more times than I can count, and which Ms. Rice seems to have either forgotten or deeply discounted. And that side is much better: Lives are really transformed, marriages really are healed, addictions are really recovered from, needy people really are served and loved, the Gospel is really preached as really Good News to all people-black, brown, white, rich poor, talented and disabled, Western and non-, to all people of every tribe, tongue, and nation. This is why the Church is worth it; because, despite her flaws, the Church and the Christ who rules as her head really is the only hope of humanity.

One final reaction, this one a question: Is it really possible to be a Churchless Christian? The New Testament seems to think that Leaving the Church = Leaving the Faith and Jesus with it. Are the Scriptures simply wrong at this point?

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