A few years ago Gothic novelist Anne Rice made big news when she quit vampires and took up with Jesus. She wrote Christ the Lord (two installments) and a spiritual memoir with a revealing title: Called Out of Darkness.
Rice’s return to Catholicism was intriguing to her fans and to outside observers alike, given her decades-long rejection of the faith of her childhood–a rejection fueled partly by the vigorous atheism of her long-time husband, poet and artist Stan Rice. (Stan died about the same time that Anne returned to the Church).
So it was big news again last week when Rice announced on Facebook that “in the name of Christ” she was quitting Christianity. In a status update she wrote that “it’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” A few hours later she clarified the announcement, insisting that “my faith in Christ is central to my life . . . but following Christ doesn’t mean following His followers.”
To criticize Rice is to appear out of touch with the messed-up Church she has left. It is to risk coming across as defensive of some pretty despicable things: misogyny, homophobia, orchestrated cover-ups of pedophilia, just for starters. Recent publicity about a church in Florida that plans to burn copies of the Q’uran on September 11 just seems to confirm Rice’s decision: Jesus is awesome but most of his followers are nutcases.
But I think there’s something a little precious about Rice’s assessment of Christians and Christianity. She seems honestly surprised and disappointed that the sprawling, unwieldy, global collective known as the Church is full of hypocrisy and corruption. And she takes this state of affairs as a kind of personal affront in ways that only newcomers to a flawed institution can. One feels the urge to pat her on the head and say, Grow up a little, Anne. What did you think it meant to join a body, this body, the Church–a community made up of human beings and all of their insufferable, um, humanness?
There’s nothing new or interesting about Rice’s revelation, or her decision to act on it. Anyone who’s been in the Church for five minutes has felt the compulsion to leave it, to be rid of its wearying, demoralizing, sometimes poisonous effects. As Garret Keizer has noted, Christians have to confront “the difficult truth of how a religion founded by an itinerant healer should make so many of its members ill.”
Does that mean that those of us who stay are just resigned to the fact that we’re a sick bunch? Of course. But for those who stay long enough, there’s also the dawning realization that Christian discipleship is a life lived into and out of the mystery of the cross–the sacrificial love that meets and saves us where we are and to which we have no access apart from Word and Sacrament, mediated by and encompassing of the whole people of God.
Contrary to Anne Rice’s tidy announcement–divorcing herself from all that is unpleasant about the Church–there is no Christ without Christianity; no Jesus without his stumbling, bumbling followers; no faith apart from the Church. This is the bad news. And this is the good news.