02 August 2010

Anne Rice and the Failure of the Church

Big news last week: Anne Rice has left the church.

Everyone's got their take on it, of course, and I'm no different. Pretty Good Lutherans has a good comment thread going, numerous bloggers are weighing in, and in one of the most crassly opportunistic grabs I've ever seen, the UCC is actively campaigning for Rice to join their flock.

I find myself in the “understanding but not agreeing with Anne Rice” camp. I find the institutional church an exhausting, frustrating, maddening bunch of hypocrites and powermongers far more often than I would like. During the Unbloggableness, a person involved in the situation said, "There are lots of good people here." Unfortunately, there is a threshold over which it doesn't matter how many good people are present: one can only exist in a toxic environment for so long. It appears that for Ms. Rice, that threshold has been crossed, at least for the time being.

I’m forced to wonder how closely connected Ms. Rice was to her local parish/congregation. Did her fame and notoriety keep her from forming the kind of spiritual friendships which carry us through those times of spiritual struggle? Or, on the flip side, was she deeply involved, but spurned or turned away by a cadre of power elite in her local community? It seems, from her description, that this isn't over one issue, so I'm betting on my the former, but we won’t know the answers to these and other questions unless Ms. Rice tells us. Frankly, I hope she keeps it to herself; adding more church gossip to this situation would be gasoline on an already-merrily-burning fire.

Regardless of the actual facts of this particular case, once again the church has failed one of its own. This one’s on us, at least partially, no matter what flavor of Christianity Rice called her home. Until the church acknowledges that we are part of the problem, and takes action to correct those contributions we are making to the dysfunction and dystopia of the life of faith, we will continue to hemorrhage members in increasing numbers. True, every believer must struggle to reconcile the sinner/saint nature of existence for herself, but this in no way excuses the church from its responsibility to deny sin within its power to do so.

The whole thing is saddening. I hold many of the same beliefs as Ms. Rice, according to her original posts, as do many of my friends in faith. The polarizing forces within the church are becoming so abhorrent that the rest of us suffer as a result. We're forced to wonder if we'll be defined by our fringe elements for the foreseeable future: how can we be louder about who we are without sounding the same strident tone as those who are often caricatured as "the Christians?"

We can't. That's just the thing. The way of Jesus doesn't allow us to attempt a hostile takeover of the church, from any political, socio-economic or moral perspective. When any of us attempts to do so, we become the Christians Anne Rice is leaving and Christopher Hitchens despises. We are called to co-exist with fellow sinners in the church - period. Yes, sometimes sin and evil need to be called out, but it seems to me we draw that particular circle far larger than Jesus does, and we don't always have the same things in the middle.

Gordon Atkinson wrote a wonderful reflection on the church a few years ago. If I were advising Ms. Rice, I'd suggest she read it, and take her time considering her next step. I hope her self-imposed exile doesn't last long, as I can't imagine being without a community of believers with whom I can pray, laugh, sing, shout and weep. As for the church, the call remains the same: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God. The rest is not up to us.

Grace & peace,


ps: One commentary from the Philadelphia Atheist Examiner claimed that Rice's Interview with the Vampire series is "decidedly atheistic." I'm thinking he didn't read The Tale of the Body Thief or Memnoch the Devil, both decidedly not atheistic. Details, people!

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