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Christianity for the Rest of Us

This week, best-selling author Anne Rice renounced Christianity on
her Facebook page, “For those who care, and I understand if you don’t:
Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out.” 
She continued:

“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 ten years, I’ve
tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

A few hours later, she followed with a second post:

“As I said
below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. 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.”

There is much that could be said about Ms. Rice’s spiritual
journey.  Born to an Irish-Catholic
family and attended Catholic schools. 
At 18, she became an atheist.   In 1998, a health crisis caused her to rethink faith
and she returned to the Catholic Church despite her continuing reservations of
the Church’s political and social stances.  She wrote of rediscovering faith in her 2008 memoir, Called Out of Darkness:

In the moment
of surrender, I let go of all the theological or social questions which had
kept me from [God] for countless years. I simply let them go. There was the
sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything I did not have to know
everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life,
missing the entire point. No social paradox, no historic disaster, no hideous
record of injustice or misery should keep me from Him. No question of
Scriptural integrity, no torment over the fate of this or that atheist or gay
friend, no worry for those condemned and ostracized by my church or any other
church should stand between me and Him.

Her Facebook posts this week do not substantially differ
from this passage where she separates the person of Christ and God from human
theology and social issues.  In
2008, she wrote that issues could no longer keep her from the reality of
God.  This week, she announced that
theology and social issues would also keep her from Christianity but not
Christ.  Rice is rejecting the
institution of the church–and the larger historical religious phenomenon known
as Christianity.

Rice’s comments have generated both praise and criticism
around the web.  But two things
stand out to me.  First, there’s a
lot of this sort of thing going around right now.  Polls, surveys, and other sorts of research indicate that
increasing numbers of Americans are rejecting organized religion of all sorts
and that the Catholic Church is taking some especially big hits right now with
membership loss (their reported gains are not
true–mostly because they never remove anyone from church rolls).  Not only are people rejecting church,
but there are also rejecting the labels “Christianity,” and “Christian” as Ms.
Rice has done. 

Second, Ms. Rice is rejecting Christianity because it is
illiberal.  For almost four
decades, the standard narrative is that Christianity in the West is dying
because it is too liberal, not conservative enough, not theologically or
ethically demanding.  Rice’s
comment moves in the exact opposite direction.  She’s rejecting the toxic admixture of conservative ideology and Jesus-faith. She has been aching for a faith that is open–and not “anti-”
everything; a faith that demonstrates the love, kindness, and mercy of its
founder, not the “quarrelsome” disputations of Jesus’ all-too-human
followers.   If Anne Rice is any indication,
Americans are hankering for a new sort of liberal faith the actually resembles
that which Jesus taught and embodied. 

There is quite a problem here for churches.  Conservative churches will, as they
have been for several years now, continue to decline as their message of
exclusion fails to address the most pointed questions of the day.  However, the traditionally liberal
churches can’t really grow because they are too caught up in “quarrelsome”
disputations of the very issues that seekers like Ms. Rice want to move
past.  So, sadly enough, there are
very few faith communities where Rice and her like-minded travelers can find
respite from either narrowness or meanness. 

In Christianity for
the Rest of Us
, I wrote of the need to return to authentically liberal
faith:

Once, not so long ago, liberal
was a good word meaning generosity and openness.  It implied a host of positive things: reform, freedom,
toleration, thoughtful inquiry, and lack of prejudice and absence of
bigotry.  Liberal meant opposition
to dogmatism, authoritarianism, inquisition, and theological intolerance.  Historically, religious liberality–theological
generosity–sparked much of the energy, passion, and intellectual liveliness of
American [Christianity].

Well, Anne, I’m with you.  I refuse to be anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-all-those-other-things.  I reject mean-spirited, stupid arguments.  But I want to change Christianity, not reject it.  It is time for a new reformation–a reformation of generous and open faith–a sort of Christianity that loves God and neighbor as Jesus commanded.

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