A month ago novelist Anne Rice surprised readers by posting a message on the online networking site Facebook, announcing that she’d “quit being a Christian.”
Citing numerous objections to the teachings of the bishops of her own Roman Catholic Church, Rice also described Christianity as a whole as a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious” faith.
Since recommitting her life to Christ in 1996, Rice has by turns lauded and criticized the faith into which she was baptized as a child.
Her heated comments last month, however, seemed to pronounce the final verdict on her long-running struggle to reconcile her personal convictions with the teachings of the church.
“I’m out,” said Rice in the post on July 28. “My conscience will allow nothing else.”
Though she broke ranks with Christianity, Rice vowed to remain committed to Jesus.
Some ministers around Northeast Mississippi say the author’s statements express a growing disquietude among Christians that has become more evident in recent years.
However, those ministers maintain that being a follower of Jesus Christ means being part of a church, even when one disagrees with some of the church’s teachings.
Faith in context
President Herbert Hoover coined the phrase “rugged individualism” in a political speech in 1928, and since then it’s been used to describe the American pioneer ethos.
The image of the heroic individual has deep roots in American culture, and it’s become ingrained in our collective psyche.
“It plays well, and we see it all the time in movies, like Rocky, or Erin Brokovich, or in the movies of John Wayne,” said the Rev. David Eldridge, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo.
Eldridge wonders, however, if American culture, and Christianity along with it, hasn’t suffered from the deification of the individual.
“The healthy Christian was never meant to exist alone,” said Eldridge. “There’s something wrong with this idea of me and my Bible and my Jesus apart from everybody else. I believe a lot of heresy develops that way.”
Along with evangelicals, Baptists often speak of the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Eldridge said that shouldn’t be misinterpreted as suggesting an individualistic approach to faith.
In fact, said Eldridge, knowing God intimately, as the phrase implies, reveals that God exists as a Trinity, as three-in-one, perhaps the most fundamental Christian model for community.
The Rev. Bob Dalton said that in many ways the Christian life mirrors human life. According to Dalton, pastor in residence at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Houston, people are never fully human, nor are they ever fully alive, in isolation.
Just as what we call humanity emerges out of relationship with others, communion with other believers, said Dalton, is the context within which faith develops.
For the Rev. Tim Green, inside the communion of believers is where the Christian learns to understand himself as well as his role in God’s plan.
“The church matures us, helps us discover who we are and how to contribute to the whole,” said Green, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Saltillo.
Dalton said there are numerous instances in scripture where community takes precedence over the individual.
“We have this rich, biblical account of God reaching down and establishing a covenant with a people,” said Dalton.
“God wanted to bring salvation history through a covenant with a people, and in the church we see ourselves as heirs in this promise.”
It’s important to understand, however, as Eldridge pointed out, that “people,” taken to mean the church, isn’t what saves a person.
The church does, however, form the context within which salvation becomes possible.
“Ultimately, we are saved for community,” said Eldridge.
“The word of God comes to us through the church,” he added. “The church is an essential means of grace. We don’t have the option of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus and saying ‘no’ to his bride, the church.”
In her Facebook post, Rice said, “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-science.”
To Dalton, Rice sounds like a lot of people who struggle to reconcile their faith with life in the 21st Century.
“I think Anne Rice’s comments speak to a deep spiritual longing for more than our churches and denominations are providing,” said Dalton.
“It’s a hunger for wholeness,” he added. “A desire to be connected to a group that’s passionate about justice, passionate about the rights of women and about the dignity of every human being.”
Sister Pat Hinton, who works alongside Dalton in Houston, said she’s concerned about the role of women in the Catholic Church, particularly about the role of women religious, such as herself.
On the other hand, whatever changes Hinton would like to see made won’t come, as she put it, “from the outside.”
“It’s always easier to leave than to stay and fight,” said Hinton, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.
“We have to be steadfast in love and patience,” she added. “And, that goes not just for followers of Christ but for Jews, Muslims, Hindus and everybody.”
Dalton sees a lesson in Rice’s unfortunate and highly public break with her faith, one that reminds Christians to reflect upon the teachings of their religion’s central figure.
“In people’s frustrations we can sometimes hear the call for the church to be truly church,” said Dalton.
“We hear the call for the church to be more than rituals and rules, for it to be an expression of mercy, compassion and love for all people.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal