Here are the words and the interview questions that have created the latest firestorm! These are not new objections, it is simply an aspect of our media-driven world that when some person of social, literary or intellectual prominence declares a controversial outlook or makes what could be considered a radical new stand, it garners the notice of more people.
I choose to look at this incident as another important challenge and another gracious opportunity to speak about the contemporary questions and the active, bold and sincerely religious questions being placed before us today…
After providing this background, I will forward some of my own, no less controversial views and conclusions…
The Los Angeles Times published an interview with the vampire writer — namely Anne Rice, who has stirred up a great deal of debate and emotion with her recent public expressions regarding faith and religion. Here’s an excerpt from the article that ran this weekend…
The author Anne Rice, best known for her vampire novels, made waves last week when she declared on her Facebook page that she had “quit being a Christian.” Twelve years after her return to Catholicism, Rice said she still believed in God, but that, “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.”
Rice spoke to The Times by phone this week from her home in Rancho Mirage.
Q) You were raised Catholic, became an atheist, then returned to Catholicism in 1998. Why are you quitting now? It’s not as if the church has suddenly changed.
A) Well, I’ve been living with this now for 12 years, and I’ve come to the conclusion from my experience with organized religion that I have to leave, that I have to, in the name of Christ, step away from this. It’s a matter of rejecting what I’ve discovered about the persecution of gays, the persecution and oppression of women and the actions of the churches on many different levels. I’ve also found that I can’t find a basis in Scripture for a lot of the positions that churches and denominations take today, and I can’t find any basis at all for an anointed, hierarchical priesthood. So all of this finally created a pressure in me, a kind of confusion, a toxic anger at times, and I felt I had to step aside. And that’s what I’ve done…
Two days before you announced on your Facebook page that you were quitting Christianity, you praised the Lutheran Church for welcoming gay pastors. So why not become a Lutheran, or a member of some other church that shares your views?
A) I feel much more morally comfortable walking away from organized religion. I respect that there are all kinds of denominations and all kinds of churches, but it’s the entire controversy, the entire conversation that I need to walk away from right now.
Q) The United Church of Christ even started a Facebook campaign to get you to join. How can you say no to that?
A) I respect completely people who want to find a church that’s more in accord with what they can morally accept. But for me, walking away is the thing right now. In the name of Christ, in the name of God.
I wanted to ask you about that, because you have said that you quit Christianity “in the name of Christ.” From a practical standpoint, what does that mean, how do you follow Christ without a church? Are there rituals that you intend to maintain?
A) I think the basic ritual is simply prayer. It’s talking to God, putting things in the hands of God, trusting that you’re living in God’s world and praying for God’s guidance. And being absolutely faithful to the core principles of Jesus’ teachings.
Q) You’ve said that there are rituals of the Catholic Church that you’ll miss.
A) Well, I will. I’ll very much miss going to Mass, and I’ll very much miss Holy Communion, the Eucharist. But it’s a communal meal and I don’t feel that I’m part of the community anymore, and I don’t feel that I can go to a Catholic church and partake.
Q) You’ve written before about your love of churches, even during the time you were an atheist. Do you see yourself going back in a church?
A) Oh yeah, I would certainly go to a church to pray in private…
One contemporary Christian minister from the Washington DC area, The Rev. Bill Shuler, offers some reactions and some cogent remarks on her declaration. I have excerpted a few for your consideration:
Miss Rice’s words should not be quickly dismissed. She is not alone in her views and trends show that people have stepped away from established religion in increasing number. Scandals within the church and political agendas that have been placed on par with church doctrine are partially to blame.
Another factor pertains to those within the church who identify more with religion than with the true Jesus. The Pharisees were very religious but they rejected Jesus and his methods.
One’s reaction to the words of Anne Rice is a litmus test as to whether one responds in condemnation or Christian love. Miss Rice is, after all, pointing out the disparity that can be found between Jesus and his followers.
At its core, Anne Rice’s statement is a challenge to the modern church to look and act more like Jesus. Her message is muddled in political tones and her conclusion is regrettable but the church would be amiss in dismissing the essence of her words.
By Rev. Bill Shuler
Published August 08, 2010
Rev. Bill Shuler is pastor of Capital Life Church in Arlington, Virginia. CapitalLife.org.
My Response to Anne Rice’s declaration….
Similar to The Rev. Shuler, I think that it is vitally important to take her dissatisfactions seriously, and to not dismiss her critique as mere personal petulance or as some insatiable desire for media attention.
Many, if not all, of her points are well taken and can be seen as compelling.
I think the best use of her public rejection is to collectively and personally examine just what she feels is worthy of rejection, and just what parts of faith, belief, and practice transcend or go beyond her feelings of frustration, disappointment and disdain. And let’s be clear- she is making a self proclaiming statement, not a sweeping indictment. Specifically, in accord with her current life experience, what appears to be the target of her anger are retrogressive social policies, stolid theological outlooks of patriarchal fundamentalists, and the abusive scandals of the Roman Catholic Church.
First a little background speculation, in an effort to find a larger context for her remarks. Ms. Rice is a long established, nationally well regarded writer. Previous to her return to Catholicism of her childhood, she was a practicing atheist, and she has stated that it was from that non-religious point of view that she wrote her famous novels about vampires and other macabre and scary topics.
I actively wonder about that conclusion– that she was non-religious. If that meant that she did not actively or publicly belong to any organized institution called a church, then this seems accurate enough. However, given that her writing dwells on the archetypal, and that through her writings, we can see that she is steeped in the magical/metaphysical, and actively and skillfully seeks out a paralogical context for her characters and story plots, I do not think that we can confidently say that it means that she is does not engage herself in a spiritual kind of searching or at the very least metaphysical musings. The vividness of her prose, and the metaphorical skill she brings to her writings seems to point to a larger reason for her obvious and disturbing dissatisfactions with institutional religion.
I would speculate that there is a link to the collective unconscious yet to be known or regarded. If I can use some of my own pre-Vatican II experiences as a useful guide, the Roman church that Ms. Rice, and millions of others like me experienced during our formative years thrived on the magical and the symbolic. It was certainly arcane, and mysterious, since most of us were not fluent in Latin, but there was an undeniable sense of drama, and a deeply infused sense of reverence that touched many of us- carving a mystical hunger deep within our psyches.
It was equally true that there was very little concern for the outside world, or the call to social justice, equality and equanimity, sexual freedom, or gender inclusive language that would have certainly changed the moral and ethical context for our faith and would have definitely expands our search for greater understanding. However, that impulse or seismic shift arrived dramatically during the 1960’s, Vatican II, etc., and its lasting effects on clerical hierarchy, theological interpretations, and social policies have been that many, if not all the constructive changes that were promoted have been insistently discouraged, denied, or defended against ever since!
IF, and I understand that this is a big IF since I do not have the pleasure of her friendship or access to her inner most thoughts, if Ms. Rice was expecting to find any measure of the same symbolic solace, any access to the “mysterium of faith” and the invitation, through liturgy and church life to a more reflective nature of that earlier generation of Catholicism, she could not help but be disillusioned!
When she returned, not only did that brand of Catholicism disappear, but in its place was a more blatantly corrupt religious institution. Now any historian or student of church history can readily point out this glaring fact: That scandals, deceits, and abuses were always a part of the shadow side of Western Christianity. Even though it has been ever more entrenched and self protective, we can give generous thanks to having more media exposure and for the gracious courage of the abused to come forward.
Now the ethical slime that has been uncovered and it has been given the cleansing light of day! But the terrible truth found in these many incidents and ongoing revelations is that this quagmire of dishonesty, hierarchical protectionism, and out and out denial has been seen as spreading, and growing to cover and corrupt even the best intentions of its more noble, honest and compassionate leaders.
In the place of the transcendent possibilities of the Latin Mass, (not that that many of us ever did receive any more than glimpses of this transcendent reality, but at least there was a glimmer of its possibility that appears totally absent today) we have a flimsy, febrile, and feeble faith that is directly designed to breed convention, require obedience, encourage complacency, and by way of its institutional greed, eagerly align itself with corrupt national governments, and the immoral aspects of corporate capitalism as it generously serves its own ethical lapses in order to acquire wealth and power for its internal use.
And not to ignore the point, but Protestantism fares a little better because it lacks the extent of global media coverage and because the peccadilloes we can list do not center on ecclesial cover ups and the heinous exploitation’s of young children.
Looking quickly through American popular religion over the last ten to twenty years, we can quickly compile an impressive list of base and blatant transgressions. So it is not that Ms. Rice lets them off the hook by any means, but it is clear that her greatest experience or exposure has been to Roman Catholic culture.
Without making this into a lengthy diatribe, what is most cogent in Ms. Rice’s actions, and the public inquiry that it has set into motion, is the two pronged objection to current church policies and practices: The first can be best summarized as our individual need to separate Christianity from Christendom, and the next to address the quandary brought on by all the dissonance in faith and practice, where millions of people now describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
The chasm that exists and that spans the gulf between professed belief, traditional liturgy, and patriarchal language and the words of the synoptic Jesus, the Biblical Wisdom tradition, and the altruistic compassionate examples of the saints throughout history is immense. Yet, despite this being true and operating in our culture, the paradox is lost or more accurately is largely being ignored by quietly rebelling Christians who bring their prized sense of individuality, broad education, and the media driven wide knowledge of their commercial culture and their secular world with them as they enter the church’s doors. While they might still feign genuine regard and practice regular attendance, it is often accompanied by a quiet disregard of the magisterium’s proclamations, a convenient “cafeteria” style of ethics, and a the lackadaisical approach to the importance of theological reflection. All this adds up to a superficial experience of going through the motions of worship where the congregation either responds in rote, or remains passive sacred observers with no real investment or involvement in spiritual growth or without being given much if any encouragement towards taking greater adult responsibility for their own search for deeper understanding.
( I recommend Matthew Fox’s book, Creation Spirituality, Liberation for the First World’s People, gives us a cogent retelling of the parable where Father Abraham examines the chasm between beliefs and practices… )
Probably the most helpful distinction between the Christianity that remains worthy of faith and devotion, and the institutional morass and dysfunctional miasma that that Ms. Rice centers her objections on is the need to be aware of the clear discrepancy between Christianity and Christendom.
I first was taught this very useful distinction in my doctoral research when I encountered the writings of Jacob Needleman, and specifically in his book, Lost Christianity. In those pages, Needleman earnestly seeks out a greater sense of the Spirit and esoteric understanding as having a rightful and necessary place in a genuine Christianity. Borrowing the word from Kierkagaard, He also outlines the various contradictions and provides the context that Christendom more directly refers to the institutional church, its hierarchies, bureaucracies, its regressive policies…
(And I would add, from my perspective, its intention to maintain its earthly power and prestige- at what seems to be any cost! )
Here is one of many observations by Needleman:
There appears to be insufficient concern for the inertia that plagues most versions of the Christian Church.
This lack of concern for the transition of Christianity into Christendom, and the replacement of magic for religion
seems to insure that either a convenient or a superstitious Christianity will surely be an opiate or at least an effective diversion for its members in order to maintain its status quo ineffectiveness.
This derogatory process is, at its base, the effects of a loss or a misappropriation of the Spirit as the “initial aim”
or prime source of vitality, worship, organization, and for the “equipping the saints” for community empowerment for God
and human salvation. Additionally, I would suggest that until we replace the dominant approaches to Christology and the reigning power of creeds, councils, and cathedrals, these tendencies will continue to rob us spiritually.
Now to begin to address the second point- with a brief response to the assertion that so many people in our Western and American culture has adopted: “Being spiritual but not religious.” Most definitions agree that the meaning behind such a statement is a reaction to being oppressed by the moralisms, contradictions, hypocrisies, and all those behavioral injunctions of previous generations of church life, AND it also refers to the growing unwillingness to support the institutionalization of spirituality, truth, and salvation as being exclusively found within a traditional church and its teachings.
While it can be seen that this outlook is incomplete, it is completely understandable. The central reason for its incompleteness lies, in part, with the quality of interaction found in many church communities, the shift in theological emphasis away from being a place of inquiry and introspection, character education and ethical development, to being a more superficial social institution where one goes to church to see one’s friends, to argue politics, to making business contacts, or at the best, to do some marginal charitable work if one has the extra money and time! The wholesale devaluing of the church experience in our culture mirrors the devaluing of family and faith, community and conscience as a whole- and so what is the sincere seeker to do?
There are a few challenging options- and not the least of those options that are gaining in popularity can be seen in the rise of atheism or secularism, now approaching 20% in our culture, and the replacement of church attendance with the Sunday talk shows, sports, or the shopping mall as being more enticing, and tragically speaking, more fulfilling than spending an hour or two at church!
Among the constructive or participatory alternatives include the creation of “house churches” or forming small groups of people worshiping and reading, caring and supporting one another. Some people will, by temperament and choice, choose to remain isolated individual readers, who embark on their personal search… Some others who miss what church had promised, find outside groups of shared common interest, and meet their spiritual or soul searching needs in that way.
Then there is, as a larger, alternative movement, how our culture has responded to the over all lack of satisfaction or opportunity to learn, experience, and grow that they found in the various churches they visited or were raised in as children. This wider and growing response is generally classified as The New Age movement. The emphasis in this cultural phenomenon is that it encourages people to find satisfying answers, and supports the quest for personal enrichment and pathways to spiritual discovery that are, by in large, not available in any of the traditional churches one might attend! As I see it, this creative alternative only follows a natural and predictable pattern of loss and emptiness- if the churches refuse to feed the soul, then I, the hungry person who is seeking truth, wholeness, salvation, etc., will go on a journey to find the food I need anywhere the new path might lead me!
While deeply respecting the reasons and rationales for so many people turning East to find their answers and sense of community, my focus needs to be kept within the Western critique of culture and the unresponsiveness of churches to this crying need and cultural imbalance.
With this said, the transitory nature of being “spiritual but not religious” is apparent and even as it has matured over these last thirty years or so, by in large, if it is to exert its deeper possibilities or extend it greater influences, it remains in need of finding a resilient, adaptable centering point.
This reality, along with the exponential influence of the mass media and the undeniable transition from being a 19th century aural culture to being either an oral or 21st century visual culture, also requires addressing on a serious and sustainable level. The admission that ” its just not working… It’s broke, and let’s try to fix it, and if it parts won’t work, lets build something new” points directly and hopefully to our personal and cultural capacity to create new forms of community, new centers for study and worship, new paradigms for church and life.
What are some of these new paradigms? Ah, that’s another essay!