August 13, 2010
Anne Rice's Renunciation
How do we respond when someone quits the faith?
Best selling author Anne Rice has quit Christianity. She is not quitting on Jesus Christ or the Bible, she says, but she is quitting organized Christianity.
Ms. Rice announced her quit-decision not through a resignation letter (where would one send it?) but through her website and TV interviews.
Anne Rice’s decision to go public with her decision is not the only way people quit Christianity. Some do it quietly, gradually dropping out of the programmatic activities of religious institutions and out of personal contact with people whose devotion to the faith seems solid. One day someone notices an empty seat in the sanctuary and says, “I haven’t seen Bob (or Jennifer) around for a while. Wonder what’s happened to him (or her)?”
Sometimes people quit the faith entirely.
The first time I heard of anyone quitting Christianity I was incredulous. The quitter was a boy in my prep school class, and as long as I had known him he’d been the model Christian in our student body. He arose every morning at 5 a.m. for his quiet time. He knew the Bible from beginning to end. He was the first to call for prayer meetings in the dorm about this issue or that. And he was always active in chapel leadership.
Then on the first day of my senior year, we had a class meeting. The model Christian made an announcement. “This summer I gave up my faith in Jesus,” he said. And he formally disassociated himself from all Christian activity on campus.
Since then I have seen more than a few men and woman do the Anne Rice thing.
A few quit when they became involved with someone outside their marriage.
Some quit because they said that Christianity was intellectually untenable. Then there were those who quit because they said they saw something in church life that repelled them: congregational squabbles that left blood on the carpet; leaders who lived a persistently double life; an atmosphere of self-assured “Phariseeism” that licensed antipathy and exclusion toward various groups in our world.
If you’re a parent, like me, you do have to sympathize with Ms. Rice when she asks why she should put money into the offering plate of a church that uses part of her gift to support political action that is incompatible with her gay son’s welfare.
I remember one person who had the courage to come to me and simply say, “I’m leaving Christianity because it doesn’t work for me during the week. It only works on church property.” If I’d been older, more mature, I think I could have helped him.
Among my most vivid memories of people quitting Christianity was a youngish husband/father, a doctoral student who had been—some said—“marvelously converted” at the age of 18 or 19 out of a drug culture lifestyle. Then for ten plus years he lived a highly admired and respected Christian life. Many looked to him, young as he was, as a lay pastor. His somewhat quiet, modest persona was unthreatening, even inviting. So lots of people found him approachable and very insightful as they tried to sort out personal issues of one type or another.
Then one day his wife called to say that her husband had left the house that morning and said on his way out, “I’m not coming back.” And he didn’t. He walked away from his marriage, his family, his friends, and his Christianity. He refused all attempts to get together and talk things through. Whether or not he quit on Jesus, I honestly don’t know. I should add that there were no obvious mental problems, no signs of external stress, no unusual patterns of unrest in home or church relationships.
I will irritate some when I state my diagnosis of his situation: his experience of conversion (and there is an experience) wore out by not being renewed or deepened. It was only a conversion with a twelve-year-old date on it.
It was this man’s sudden abandonment of everything that seemed life-defining to him that caused me to begin asking hard questions about the traditional view that I had maintained about Christian conversion. Was it possible, I asked myself, for a person to establish a serious commitment to follow Jesus yet cancel that commitment somewhere along the way? Is there an experience that might be called deconversion? Is this Judas’s experience and nearly Simon Peter’s?
I wasn’t satisfied with old explanations for this man’s sudden quitting behavior: “Well, he really wasn’t sincere . . . he wasn’t genuinely repentant . . . the fruits of faith weren’t there. He was a tare that we thought was wheat.” In the case of the man I’ve described, I had reason to believe that, at the time he committed to Jesus, he was sincere and he was repentant. If I ever saw the fruits of faith in anyone at the time, they were in him.
As I struggled to understand what had happened, I came to the conclusion that there is an experiential sense in which commitment to Jesus remains vigorous only if one re-believes and renews his/her conversion every day. As Paul writes, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” and as my friend the alcoholic says, “It’s one day at a time, baby.” To my professional theologian friends: have fun with what I’ve said.
In my own journey with Jesus Christ, I have been caused to adopt a daily discipline which I most often carry out while standing in my shower each morning. There, assisted by a personal liturgy pasted to the shower wall, I reaffirm or renew my commitment to Jesus on a one-day-at-a-time basis . . . not because I’m uncertain but because I want to sharpen the edge of my intention to follow Jesus.
The shower is an appropriate place to do this, actually, since it’s reminiscent of a baptism (just kidding, mostly). Seriously, on the other hand, in these latter years of my life, my daily renewal of conversion has been an important foundational function in my ever-growing loyalty to Jesus.
Now to repeat myself: Anne Rice says she is not quitting Christ, but Christianity. She remains, she says, a follower of Jesus, one who is devoted to the Bible. For her, Christianity is something else. It’s the institutional or the religious system she has been a part of for a number of years. She has found herself unable to identify with what she perceives is its ugliness of attitude toward gay/lesbian people, toward some of certain political persuasions, and toward women in general. She says that she’ll continue to follow Jesus, but not his followers.
May I be frank? I get her point even if I’m not prepared to do like her. But I don’t feel constrained, as some will feel, to critique her either. I’m more inclined to want to weep, to be humbled, even to feel a bit of anger, since I am an obscure participant of the movement she condemns by her quitting. Nevertheless, I think a lot of us would be wise to listen to her and to make sure we hear everything she is saying before we form our rebuttals.
My last thought. I don’t think Anne Rice is alone. She just knows, more than most, how to get her thoughts out to a larger, admiring public. What worries me is that there are lots more people who feel similarly and who may be doing the same thing: exiting what they call institutional religion and choosing what they believe is a more private, customized relationship with Jesus whom they claim they revere. They think it is enough to keep in touch with the Christian movement through religious TV and occasional arena-sized weekend conferences featuring celebrity speakers and singers.
If I were to meet Anne Rice, and if she were open to discussing her decision to quit Christianity, I’d want to know how so-called Christians in her world managed to mangle the gospel of Jesus so badly that they caused her to leave in disgust.
Then, even if I presume myself to be not guilty of the things she thinks she sees in organized Christianity, I think I would offer an apology. Finally, assuming she’s interested, I’d tell her about some mini-communities of Christ-followers I know of who are neither pejorative nor prejudicial, but people who love to worship the Lord, to help each other grow spiritually, and to encourage one another to live servant-like in the larger world.
I think, if she met them, she’d “de-quit.”