On Giving Up

I see that many — including many clergy leaders — are impressed with Anne Rice’s decision that Christianity doesn’t meet her standards, so she’s moving out. There’s much to be said about this, but if I criticise her decision, I lend credence to her picture of Christians as quarrelsome, judgmental, exclusive types. I cannot think of a coherent way to applaud her, and I admit that I’m mystified that anyone with more-than-rudimentary instruction in the faith would find her proclamation anything but a sad commentary on the state of the church’s ministry of making itself understood.
 
First, and most obviously, Ms Rice is describing only some Christians when she categorises Christians as “anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat, anti-secular humanism, anti-science, anti-life” and she knows it. I am at a loss to devise a charitable explanation for someone self-consciously misrepresenting people in order to justify their own supposedly antithetical (but only to the very limited extent to which the misrepresentation itself is true) position. It’s a nasty rhetorical stunt at best, and I decline to think worse of people than they oblige me to.
 
Second, although she knows there are in fact large communities of Christians who don’t fit her characterisation, she separates herself from the whole movement. She could have sought refuge in an expression of Christianity that didn’t fit her caricature — but she didn’t want to. Now, what I’m about to say depends on a distinction that many people don’t like, but not liking it doesn’t make it go away: this mind of gesture illustrates the precise hollowness of a particular kind of cultural identity, whereby the equality of each person before the law, and the equality of all souls before God, is quite fallaciously trotted out as an argument that no one could possibly understand more about theological truth than anybody else. Anne Rice’s trumpeted departure depends on people not asking just how deeply she understands what she’s talking about. If her understanding of Christianity is all about each separate individual making a separate peace with God, she’s got a complicated job of justifying that theology.
 
And third — well, I’ll put it this way: I don’t understand how anyone with Anne Rice’s presumably deep faith in Jesus comes to the point of making her own self the spotlit centrepiece of resistance to what she calls Christianity. I could see it if she stopped attending church, sorrowfully, and no longer made a best-selling big deal out of her somewhat idiosyncratic heterodoxy; if she redoubled her charitable efforts, and perhaps quietly sought conversation from church leaders in order to make sense of the discrepancy between what she thinks about Jesus and what some church leaders say. I don’t understand why she needs to call attention to herself in making this act of deep renunciation.
 
A great many Christians invest way too much in “Which celebrities call themselves Christians?”, a risky marketplace with at least as many downs as ups, and which is utterly irrelevant to the proclamation of the gospel. It would be imprecise to say I don’t care what Anne Rice thinks; I do, and it saddens me (for her sake) that she willingly gives the impression of such spiritual superficiality. But the take-away from this promotional event should be that churches that don’t fit the image she paints of “Christians” don’t do an adequate job of making that difference visible and intelligible; and that churches that do fit her picture of “Christians” don’t do an adequate job of making clear the reasons that they advocate causes she finds repulsive (their cases are clear to people-who-already-think-as-they-do, but that’s not the same thing); and that I feel even less obligation ever to read anything by this novelist. I’m giving up fiction, in the name of Flannery O’Connor.
 

10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I have to admit, though reluctantly, I often fall into the “celebrities who are Christians” camp. So, I was not happy to see Ms. Rice’s retraction. But after reading through it a few times, it did sound like the age-old cliché “I’m not a Christian because they’re all hypocrites.”

    Unfortunately, there are mean, closed-minded Christians. And like the bumper sticker says, “Mean people suck,” no matter who they are. But to your point, I don’t associate with those. The Christians I spend time with are thoughtful, kind, reasonable, rational folks who help to make me a person less and less like those Ms. Rice describes. So, the very kind of Christian she implies as the ideal, is out there. In force.

    Talk about a classic “throw the baby out with…”

    Thanks for a great, centering piece.

  2. I am guessing that something happened and this is reaction to whatever that is, something we may never know. Such reaction often isn’t logical or even reasoned because hurt isn’t logical or even reasoned. Sometimes folks have to pass through this phase, sometimes more than once in their relationship with Church, and many of us live with a love-hate relationship with Church. If you have been spared this, count yourself blessed. In either case, Christians cannot be Christians alone, and I hope a good Benedictine will gently reach out to her and invite her to a stay for a while. At any rate, I wouldn’t necessarily chalk this up to a “nasty rhetorical stunt, as something raw oozes in her words, inaccurate, unfair, or over-sweeping though they may be. I am reminded her son, Christopher, is gay, for example. Who knows. Having been on the receiving end of several anti-gay sermons when I was RC, maybe that set her over the edge. Maybe it was something else.

    Unfortunately, I have to differ somewhat, as your choice of qualifier “some.” Depending on the matter, like say, being anti-gay, she is describing a majority of Christians that has been written tightly into recent cultural wars not just in the US but across the globe–sometimes by exportation from England, the US, and such. “Most” or even “many” would be more accurate. I am thankful I belong to a big tent tradition where at least in the city, I can find a parish that will treat me human. Anne is always welcome at The Episcopal Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Mission District, San Francisco. And I’ll write to her to let her know just that.

  3. @David — sure, of course (good to hear from you!).
     
    @Christopher — Yes, point sympathetically taken. And believe me, although I wouldn’t use the modifier “love-hate,” I do not subsist in a state of romantically rapturous infatuation with the church. But then, I don’t take the mission of the church to be “pleasing AKMA,” though I should confess the temptation to give a tediously long-winded and carefully-reasoned disquisition to the effect that it should understand its mission as something more like “the way AKMA understands that mission.”
     
    But there’s a huge difference between saying, for instance, “I’m leaving [fill in name of specific Christian body] for Christ, whom I recognise among [alternative specific Christian body],” and saying “I have been wounded by [specific Christian body], so I’m no longer a Christian.” The unwillingness or inability to make that distinction may bespeak a sharp, hurtful experience, but I would hope that someone who professes continuing commitment to Jesus might have borne in mind his some of his pertinent teachings at a time such as this.
     
    At any rate, I wish her well — as you so wisely say, “Christians cannot be Christians alone, and I hope a good Benedictine will gently reach out to her and invite her to a stay for a while.” Indeed, I’d fill in the “Benedictine” slot with any of a variety of alternatives: Mennonite, or Episcopalian, or Congregationalist, or MCC congregation, or whatever. I don’t regard all of these as interchangeably satisfactory expressions of Christian faith (by any means), but I’m not the Judge, and I’m inclined to trust that one learns Christ better in community than when relying on one’s own judgment.
     
    Yes, in at least one category (and quite likely more than one), my “some” could honestly be replaced by “most” — but Ms Rice made no distinctions whatsoever, and my point is that the set of all “Christians” is characterised by a great deal more diversity than she allowed (ironically, since she seems to be speaking out on behalf of a kind of positive diversity).
     

  4. Sad to see that she feels the need to go public with her abandonment, but perhaps she believed that it would make a difference to do so. And she’s right that the public face — official or unofficial — of most Christian denominations is in fact anti-gay, anti-feminist, and stridently in favor of controlling people’s sexual behavior (which means controlling women, because it’s mostly about birth control). My own church (Methodist) reaffirmed at its last general conference a few years ago that homosexuality is incompatible with a Christian lifestyle — i.e., that a genetic variance over which the individual concerned has no control, an act of God if you will, disqualifies you from being one of the faithful. This from a denomination that trumpets the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of scripture informed by reason, experience, and tradition. And in the recent New Yorker profile of your own Archbishop Rowan Williams, we see a rising tide of young Anglican traditionalists demanding a “men only” clergy. These are no places for reasonable, open-minded people of the 21st century.

  5. While my views of the church and sexuality are quite a bit different than yours, AKMA, I still resonate with much of what you say here. In our SS class at church we’ve been working through Dan Kimball’s series “They Love Jesus but not the Church”–it’s a study series about the sorts of impressions that non-Christians have of the church. A couple of our recent topics were “Does the church oppress women” and “Is the church anti-gay”. While there’s plenty to discuss there, I’ll just offer up that even within conservative, complementarian churches, there’s no reason why the answers shouldn’t be “no” and “no”, and why we shouldn’t work to reduce or ameliorate those impressions.

    I’m tempted to react to Ralph’s comment above, but it is probably better if I don’t.

    It would be fun as well to explore the relations between the terms “believing in Jesus”, “Christianity”, and “the church” and how they might relate to Rice’s statement, but I’m not really up for it. I’ll just highly recommend Peter Leithart’s book, Against Christianity to all concerned. The whole text available online here:
    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=F54VD0XoqJIC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

  6. Thanks for the post. I was always turned off by her ads in the xian century a few years ago it was her conversion that was front and center. It seemed then as now that she is pawning her faith as some way to draw attention to herself.

  7. I don’t have a dog in this hunt, being an atheist in all but name since nine years of age (and in the last half-dozen years admitting to myself that trying to stretch the concept of god into an acceptable shape was in fact creating something so nebulous as to be meaningless), I came to this post after reading it on a blog mostly about the Internet, and I don’t think Rice’s apostasy any more genuine than her conversion (by which I mean I think her perception of what she thinks Christianity is changed, but not her heterodoxy, as you put it; to paraphrase a forgotten politician, she didn’t move away from “Christianity”, it moved away from her). Also, I haven’t read any of her books after I slogged through the over-indulgent and under-edited Queen of the Damned and Asher.

    But I think that if I am right that it was her perception of broadly brushed Christianity that changed rather than her personal beliefs that this is important for Christianity.

    By way of tortured analogy, I’m going to bring in Mel Gibson’s recent abusive language and racist statements, but only as the backdrop of something Whoopi Goldberg said on The View: basically that he couldn’t be a racist because he’d been nice to her, visited her house, played with her kids and so on. This is, I think, the flip side of something I’ll call the “not like the others” mindset. When people of older generations say “he’s colored, but he’s the best neighbor we’ve ever had” or “I’m not talking about all of them, but there are good (insert epithet here) and bad ones” and the like. (All the college parties I attended where drunken boys would talk about ignorant, lazy, kleptomaniac and rapist blacks while listening to rap and R&B the entire night fall in there somewhere, surely.)

    And when you’re the favored one, when you’re not like the others, there are basically two ways to go: with your people or with those who praise you (blessed should be those who take a third: supporting the dignity of their people while educating their praiser that there is little difference between these arbitrary groups). Whoopi, for whatever reason, defends her friend.

    There is a situation that often occurs where someone in your group denigrates a person or group (or groups) unfairly, especially if it seems that the denigration is supported by the rest of your group, but you know it to be false. “Boy, that Whoopi Goldberg has five kids by seven fathers. But what would you expect from one of them, eh, Mel?” Maybe Mel keeps his mouth shut; it’s easier, safer and less stressful. But maybe he says, “No, I know her, been to her house, played with her kids. She’s not ‘one of them’. Besides, you can’t have five kids by seven dads. Without divine intervention, of course.”

    What the hell does all this have to do with Rice’s removal? Glad you asked. One of the several outcome of the second situation is for the observer of the denigration to find that (explicitly, implicitly or tacitly) approval too distasteful to remain part of that group. Obviously there can be individuals and sub-groups and whole swaths of the main group that do not endorse said denigration. But when the leaders, the rules or the noisy (and combinations thereof) are supporting or perpetrating the denigration, an option is to make an exit and to reach out to others in the hopes that either they will join in creating a group that doesn’t denigrate those others or that the original group will fear dissolution and change it’s support for denigration.

    Again, I’m not saying that’s what Rice did entirely–I’d be very surprised if a large part of this wasn’t attention-seeking behavior–but parts of it would be a human response to finding that a group you were a part of doesn’t believe what you believe and is not willing to accommodate more than silence that implies consent (and sometimes not event that).

    Plus there’s a further discussion of how little theology gets down to the masses (not preaching, but theology) that I won’t undertake now, and another about whether you can be Christian (by which, I’m assuming, most here mean as “following the church that grew out of the sides of schism that were later deemed orthodox”) without community.

    Anyway, hope I’ve given you something to talk about.

    Pierce

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