As news of Anne Rice’s un-conversion (to Christianity, not Christ) ricochets around the media, I find myself also reflecting on what she has done. And on the larger questions her action raises to my mind about speaking up, staying in, or getting out of the places we belong but find ourselves in disagreement with.
First thoughts, first reaction to reading Rice’s words: admiration. She said:
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.
The next day she added,
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 10 years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.
And then she explained further,
My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.
(Source for Rice quotes, The Guardian).
I know little about Anne Rice beyond the facts that she is the author of hugely successful vampire novels, turned Christian, turned author of novels about Jesus and a conversion memoir. I have no idea if I need to be cynical about her words or not. What I hear in her statements is a list of refusals I resonate with completely “in the name of Christ” (except for the Democrat one, as I’m Canadian and have no need of either Republican or Democrat), and I hear the word “conscience” and then, in an NPR radio interview, I hear Rice saying this was no quick or easy decision, no flash in the pan, and that it’s “painful.” So I take her at her word, and find myself thinking, “Thankyou! That took courage!”
Second thoughts: more admiration. Especially as the push-back comments begin to collect: Joseph Bottum over at First Things with his tone of derision (testy because it’s his particular Church she’s leaving?), Debra Dean Murphy (whose opinions I enjoy and otherwise usually agree with) in a bit of a parental-tone scold, and Cal Thomas, reminding that no individual Christian gets to make the rules. Others are more sympathetic. I especially appreciated Brian McLaren‘s take on it. He may not agree with her decision to leave but he sure understands the discouragement behind it.
So yes, amidst the chatter, further admiration, because Rice wanted to make a difference and she believes following Christ has to mean something about social issues and that it’s wrong for good people not to speak up about injustice. Surely we’ve got to realize that we — Christians — botched it completely when it came to the Jews at the mercy of Nazism, and then, more often than not, resisted the civil rights movement, and next fought – with ongoing skirmishes – the freedom of women, and are still, in so many cases, on the wrong side (that would be the oppressing side) of gays.
So when Christians speak up, when they act, it’s important. When someone like Rice, who has celebrity, who will be heard by millions (though she’ll be vilified and hated in great numbers as well), is willing to make public her conscience on matters, maybe the rest of us in our small ways, within the specificity of our own situations, might be encouraged to name and nail our convictions to the wall as well.
Third thoughts: questions – wonderings – which pull away from Anne Rice and the larger church to the small house of Mennonites in which I live, and the Mennonite Brethren room within that house. What’s the relationship between community and conscience? In the room of which I speak, we often refer to community hermeneutic as the way we make decisions about our beliefs and practice, and we treasure community life, which provides a place to belong and nourishes our faith. And I’m mostly glad about that.
But, in one particular “issue” whose decades of debate have paralleled my own adult years of growth and discovery, namely, the issue of the equality of women in church and society, I have some experience of how tedious such a process can be, how political, and what it’s like to come personally to a “knowing” of conscience, a certainty of God’s generous presence in the direction of freedom, while others prefer to withhold it. Local and “specific” communities of similar-mindedness and freedom are a haven then, but when the denominational ethos remains cramped and predominantly male and Caucasian, remains uninvested in the diversity represented by the membership, how does protest interact with process and mutual submission? In the room of which I speak, we say we agree to disagree. But it seems we forget that the relative proportions of agreement and disagreement create power structures, and that certain kinds of disagreement are rendered within that structure at considerable cost.
And we haven’t even begun to really talk about movement in the “issue” of gays in our room.
Are there times when the process needs to be shorter, the “right thing to do” seized in more individual ways? Is there room for prophetic impatience? To say, “No, I will not discuss, dialogue, plead any longer, this is a matter of conscience?” For leaving as leverage?
Fourth thoughts: confession. It’s scary to say “I refuse to be…” At least it’s scary for me. In my small room.
Fifth thoughts: more questions. Do we need to find better ways of thinking about church and culture? Looking at Jesus’ example and context, it seems to me that most of his ministry against (abuses) and his ministry for (newness) happened in relation to his religious community, to his “Christendom.” Perhaps, in fact, the arena of “persecution” for many Christians may be the church communities with which they disagree. It may take, at times, Anne Rice-like nerve.
Or there’s Daniel and his band, in Babylonian captivity, becoming captivated, secularized as it were, serving that society and what God was doing through and in it, but with one significant difference, a demanding difference to be sure, emanating from to Whom one bowed and prayed. So instead of beginning with our backs up, thinking it’s the “world” out there bringing us all this black, women’s, and gay liberation, could it be that we’re intended to make ourselves thoroughly and purposely at home in this global captivity of ours, to serve what God is doing also in these secular/sacred liberations? Not fighting against them but filling them with God’s redemptive story, and assuring them their rightful place within God’s bigger story as well?