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?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Dora. I am, of course, particularly drawn to your application of some of the questions/insights of Rice’s deconversion to the MB world. I share many of your frustrations with our “community hermeneutic.” At times, it seems like a good and biblical and necessary thing. At other times, it seems like a vague process with no terminus in view—a spiritual concept that allows us to justify continuing to spin our wheels and ignore or speak badly of those who don’t think like we do, yet still claim to be part of the same family. As you rightly say, “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.” It can be very hard to know how to live and speak with integrity and responsibility in this context.
All this is to say, I suppose, that I, too, find it scary to say “I refuse to be” in this small room.
Thanks, Ryan, for the company! — One of my FB friends noted to me privately that she’s just begun Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist and thought perhaps he might, to some extent at least, also agree with Rice. I mention this because you know that book backward and forward by now, having blogged about it.
Well, I’m not sure I know Murray’s book backward and forward, but I can certainly see some potential similarities between Rice and Stuart Murray. I suspect that at least some of the things Rice refuses to be “anti” in the name of Christ would align with Murray’s broad rejection “Constantinian” Christianity.
I like what you wrote and I agree with Rice when she said:
“Following Christ does not mean following his followers.”
Although I still have a limited understanding of Christianity on the whole, I grasp that Christ invites us to follow him — and him alone. (Matthew 16:24). God’s been showing me that very clearly these days.
It’s tempting to want to follow other believers at times – and difficult to discern if we are following Christ in them or the human attributes we love in them…
Converesely, in our desire to “make a difference,” we may want others to follow us because of our conviction of what is right — but our motivation may ultimately be for the wrong reasons.
Personally, I feel like I’ve been saying, “I refuse to be” quite a bit lately and yes, it can be unnerving – even scary, especially knowing that I might fail in my conviction. Still, having discovered where some non-refusals can lead leaves no room for compromise and so we set the mark.
I think the courage to refuse comes from the perception that I’m in a larger room than I actually might be in and somehow if I aim for the mark with enough conviction, it will be enough and Grace will take care of the rest.
Having said all that, sometimes “refusing to be” may appear to be a lack of choosing to take a stand on or for anything, which of is not at all like the Christ I know at all.
There are so many wonderful insights in this comment, Tracey. I especially appreciated your note that we also try to compel others to follow us in our convictions, but not always for the right reasons. And I really like the reminder that we’re in a much bigger room than we sometimes suppose, and how this gives us courage to express our convictions. That’s so true. Thanks so much for your helpful words! And all the best as you head to Japan.
Dora: Bravo to you for laying out your various reactions and not taking Anne Rice to task for just storming off in a wave of individualism. There’s so much else going on here. We need to learn from her and other converts who think through their faith so thoroughly (often more so than their critics) that they end up being severe but prophetic critics. I think of others, like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, who may not have left the church, but in their stubborn and at times individual refusals helped to open new doors for the Christian community. In the long view, Rice might be another one. And you raise a great question about how this all might apply in a Mennonite tradition where community hermeneutic is a great hedge against individualism but at the same time can kill the gift of prophetic refusal. God grant us wisdom to know how and when to exercise the latter, and maybe the courage to choose the latter if we can’t decide.
Thanks for this, Byron, so wonderfully summarized. There really is so much else going on, and God grant us wisdom, indeed.
Hi Dora, you provoked my thoughts to the point of blogging about it myself:
But in summary, a question I’m led to ask is this: is there a way we can affirm both individual conscience and community values? (And actually mean it in word and practice?)
I’m working on a answer…
David, I enjoyed your post, and appreciate the way you pulled my questions next to Phil Rushton’s to summarize the question that has long engaged you. I look forward to the “answer” you come up with.
As a bit of a tease in that direction, perhaps, but more in terms of my own further thoughts in light of comments by Ryan, Tracey, Byron (such responses also a form of community) above and also my subsequent reading of Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir, Hannah’s Child: wondering about using the words/concepts of “company” or “friends” as a substitute for or elaboration of “community.” Hauerwas absolutely insists on “church” as central but in his own narrative, he is quite critical of capital C Church, and yet would not be where he is without the local congregations he’s been part of (of various denoms) and friendship seems a constant and compelling theme of his story. Anyway, just that for the mix, and will look forward to your further writing on the subject.
Dora, good points on Hauerwas’ memoir – I have only a few pages left to go myself!
As I work towards an answer, a thought that strikes me from what you’ve described is the problem of community becoming institutionalized, creating countless negative stereotypes that hinder any productive discussion for how individuals fit into community (and vice-versa).
And while I haven’t personally read her rationale, my guess is Anne Rice hasn’t totally given up on christian community (small c’s) – she must have some friends who follow Jesus, no? Her disdain, as you summarize, is against Christian Community (big “C” institution). And so to avoid confusion, she’s chosen to avoid the term “christian” altogether.
I trust you realize, David, that we’ll be watching for the definitive answer. No pressure, though! 🙂
Absolutely Dora. And if all goes well I’ll be able to gather a bunch of like-minded (i.e. like-me-minded) people and start a “real” community. 🙂
Great post, Dora! I had lunch this week with another frustrated and stepping back MB leader whose concerns could be superimposed over yours. On top of that the current atonement/MBBS debate in BC has discouraged him. We have lost some of the best for a variety of reasons. I hope we don’t lose him. I hope we don’t lose you. I wished I would have something encouraging to say but I share his frustration and yours. I didn’t even tell him to hang in there- though I pray that he does.
For some of us, Anne Rice-like actions come easily [speaking autobiographically 🙂 ]. As a result admiration doesn’t come easily. I admire those who, like Daniel- just don’t quit. It seems to me that Daniel’s “refusal” is different than Anne’s. Anne isn’t leaving my church and her critique rings true [except for the Democrat bit, even as a Canadian:) ] but on the surface it just looks too easy. Besides what did she sign up for when she became a Catholic? She’s a researcher, isn’t she?
On the community hermeneutic, IMHO the problem is we have barely paid lip service to it for the last 20 years. Now suddenly we’re talking about it as if statements about it are the solution. These are good but for it to be real a community hermeneutic needs to move off of the discussion circuit and into practice again.
By the way your last paragraph is one of the best re-statements of the Anabaptism I love, that I’ve read.
Hi James, I agree with your assessment of community hermeneutic. As if saying a phrase about unity creates unity – no way.
So I’ve been wondering lately how we can move beyond this “lip service” to a community hermeneutic. Part of the problem, as I see it, is many of our churches don’t know about or don’t practice a community hermeneutic in leadership of their own congregations (I’m sure we can all think of a few – or many – examples. I’m challenged myself with how I lead in my church). How can we expect to discern together among various churches if that’s not the model we practice within each church? What motivation do pastors/leaders have to prescribe to a community hermeneutic if their own leadership practices present a different approach? All this to say, I think we’ll only begin to get what a community hermeneutic looks like as MB’s when our local churches practice it ourselves.
“All this to say, I think we’ll only begin to get what a community hermeneutic looks like as MB’s when our local churches practice it ourselves.” That’s it in a nut shell! The same thing as Dora’s last paragraph. Grand analysis is important but in the end if we have to make it work “on the ground” in our local churches.
I wish my generation was leaving your generation better models- but maybe it’s not too late and voices like Dora’s are important to listen to.
I hope it’s not too late. Otherwise we’ll just split into generational models of leadership instead of collaborating together. No one should be “stuck in their ways” (young or old) when it comes to this whole community hermeneutic thing.
I was taught- “where there’s life there’s hope.” How about you and I agree to get to work?
As long we invite a few others along with us on this hopeful journey ;)…
Thanks James and David, for your comments and the exchange. I was going to jump in but didn’t get around to it earlier and have now have enjoyed listening in to your conversation — now that you’re both hopeful and back to work!?
H. and I are part of a small church and while there are disadvantages in small churches, there are advantages too, and I think that in many ways, there is the practice of “community hermeneutic” going on in ours. Not very formally, perhaps, or given that fancy name, but generally in the ongoing life of the church, which is where theology is practiced and in which most of us in a small church have some say here and there. — So I think I’m actually quite optimistic on that score. Which doesn’t mean there’s not differences or fears in expressing our convictions. — I’m still mulling on the role of the individual within community of any kind, however, when it comes to matters of conscience, whether local or more widely denominational. On the one hand, “community hermeneutic” is a good check against those who want to run off in their own directions with their own ideas, but at the same time one sees in the early Church how Peter was given the vision of something new pertaining to the Gentiles and so on, and how although the council gathered and shared and debated, that certain individuals were unusually persuasive. So I appreciate those who are unafraid to speak what they are convinced is right, and to seek to persuade, whether by words or action, whatever the cost. (But of course that’s easy to say now that I am retired and do not have employment that might be affected by my opinions!) — I’m not holding up Anne Rice’s leaving as an example so much as her courage. However, I do recall Paul Tournier talking about discerning both the right time to join and the right time to leave. We tend to view the latter as less “led” than the former, but I think he was staying that’s not necessarily the case.
Glad to hear about your church Dora. Sometimes we can make theology and faith – in this case, community hermeneutic – more complicated than it needs to be. As you describe, a community hermeneutic is about the “ongoing life of the church.” It’s this type of grassroots, local expression of community that gives me optimism for the future of the church.
It may not sound safe for me to say as a pastor ;-), but besides advantages you mention of a smaller church practically, I think in many instances a small church (or dare I say, even a shrinking one) is just as faithful (or more) as a large church. J Janzen preached at our church last Sunday and challenged how we often put God in a box – we get “bossy” with God and how he works in the world. In particular he challenged us to consider what this means for our church, our expectations and our practices. Challenging stuff.
Oh, and I really like your conclusion: “I recall Paul Tournier talking about discerning both the right time to join and the right time to leave. We tend to view the latter as less “led” than the former, but I think he was saying that’s not necessarily the case.”
I am a 50 year old in the Mennonite church and except for a teenage and young adult rebellion period, I always have been. I suppose I am a little older than the crowd speaking out on these issues, but I feel a kinship with Anne Rice and the rest of you. I too am disilllusioned about the “evangelical” branch and about fundamentalism in general. From what I have witnessed Christians would be still burning each other at the stake if the secular state allowed it. In fact it is the “secular” state in the last few hundred years, with a few exceptions, that has made the most significant progress in being compassionate toward our fellow human beings. I wonder, is this the fruit of a good tree Jesus talked about? What then, does our church bickering, back-stabbing, in fighting and power struggles make us?
Hello Rick, thanks so much for taking the time to comment… In terms of age, and the “crowd speaking out,” if you mean here at this post, I can tell you that you’re older than three of them, but definitely younger than I am and perhaps about the same age as two others! I don’t necessarily know the ages of those who respond of course, but just happen to in this case. So kinship regardless! — And all I can say, instead of repeating them, is that I resonate with both your observations and questions. I hope you’ll stop by again.