The tipping points behind the novelist’s departure from the institutional church, and why she still reads D.A. Carson, Craig Keener, and N.T. Wright instead of ‘Twilight.’
Author Anne Rice made waves across the Internet when she posted a short message on her Facebookpage:
For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. 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.
Rice returned to the Roman Catholic Church in 1998, a decision she began openly speaking about in 2005. She spoke with Christianity Today about her recent decision, the enormous response, and how she plans to follow Jesus outside the church.
It’s been a few weeks since you made an announcement on Facebook. How have you felt since your decision?
I feel good and relieved about my decision, and I’ve felt a new spirit of energy creatively for my writing. I was so conflicted and disillusioned about organized religion that I couldn’t write.
Do you think your decision will explicitly affect your writing?
I think my writings will go on being the writings of a believer in Christ. I think I’ll be less frustrated and freer to write about the full dimension of what that means. But I write metaphysical thrillers, and how this works out in fiction is always mysterious: characters confront dilemmas. The worldview of the novel is certainly optimistic and that of a believer. What character will say what, I don’t know until I start writing.
What did you hope to accomplish by announcing this? Were you hoping people would join you?
Not at all. Because I had written Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, I had become a public Christian. I wanted my readers to know that I was stepping aside from organized religion and the names Christian and Christianity because I wanted to exonerate myself from the things organized religion was doing in the name of Jesus. Christians have lost credibility in America as people who know how to love. They have become associated with hatred, persecution, attempting to abolish the separation of church and state, and trying to pressure people to vote certain ways in elections. I wanted to make it clear that I did not in any way remain complicit with those things. I never expected anyone beyond my Facebook page would be interested. I was doing this for my readers to let them know.
Did you consider becoming a mainline Protestant?
No, I didn’t. I know that’s an option for many people with whom you find compatibility, and I respect that, but I’m going to step away from the whole controversy.
Recently, you told NPR that the last straw was the Catholic Church’s attempts to prevent same-sex marriage. You told the Los Angeles Times that the last straw was when a bishop condemned a nun for authorizing an abortion for a woman whose life was in danger. Was there a tipping point?
There were a number of last straws. It was a mounting discomfort with the public face of Christians and Catholics. I have no quarrel with any priest or bishop who doesn’t want to marry gay people or doesn’t want to have gay clergy. That’s fine, that’s the church’s decision. When you step into the secular culture and attempt to interfere with people’s rights, that’s something else.
The damning of the secular culture is upsetting and embarrassing. Secularism in America has done great things. It’s allowed people to live here whether they’re Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim, and it has protected people from the extreme beliefs of their neighbors.
It seems like the things you are frustrated with about the Church have to deal with external perceptions. Did you ever feel personally hurt by someone in the church?
No, it was more the public face of Christianity. I’ve gotten personal e-mails from different types of Christians that have been upsetting. But my experience of going to church week after week was largely pleasant until the public persona of Christians began to conflict with what I experienced at church. I couldn’t hide out in the pew anymore. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to live with this kind of dissention and pressure. I’ve always been a public person. I didn’t foresee I would become a public Christian.
Do you regret returning to the Catholic Church in 1998?
No, I really don’t. For me personally, it was a good, rich experience. I was brought up in the Catholic Church. I felt I needed to go back to this church and investigate what it was, what it stood for, and to leave it again.
What will it look like follow Christ without being part of the institutional church?
The most important thing Christ demands of all of us is to love our enemies as much as our neighbors. That is the radical core of his teaching. If we do that, we can transform our lives.
Christ reaches out to us individually. He’s saying “Come follow me; I am the way, the truth, and the life.” These are beautiful things. I read Scripture every day, I study it every day, I’m mindful of it every day. I don’t claim to have the right interpretation of every passage, but I wrestle with it, and that’s what I think he wants us to do.
Within the larger church there have always been people with diverse views, since the history of the church is a history of contention for the truth. Why do you find it untenable to be a part of a church that is so very pluralistic in its very process?
I don’t feel called to examine various denominations and decide what is the most comfortable or the best. I don’t feel called to have to defend that kind of decision publicly. I feel called to declare that I’m a believer. I have my Bible, and I’m deeply committed to Christ. I don’t contest people who do it the other way.
There may be a time in the future when I’ll feel the necessity to join a community. Keep in mind that I am 68 years old. I live in a Christian household. My two assistants, members of my family, are believers, so I’m not isolated at all. I am with people for whom Christ is the center of their life. I also have a community online. Since I made the decision, it’s become very clear to me that there are thousands of believers who have walked away from organized religion. The body of Christ is much bigger than any one organized church. The decision to walk away from the church is just as valid as shopping for a denomination that you feel more comfortable with.
You said earlier that you were surprised by Christians’ reactions to your announcement. What had you expected?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised that so many people have taken the time to offer their support. There’s sadness with the realization that so many have walked away because they have been hurt or could not connect with organized religion. There was some nasty criticism, there’s always going to be someone who’s going to be aggressive and unpleasant, but most of the criticism was very substantive and responsible. I never expected generous, gentle, kind e-mails from clergymen, priests, and ministers that I’ve received.
Your son, Christopher, is a gay activist. Was he influential in your decision at all?
I do think the press in some instances has tried to reduce my decision to that. He really had nothing to do with it.
Some might say that your decision was a publicity stunt, noting that you have a book coming out in the next few months.
There will always be that kind of cynical attack on your motives. I’m an author who doesn’t have to do much of anything to sell books. I didn’t call my publishers and tell them about this. If I expected anything, I expected it to hurt. I have a Christian audience, and I’m running the risk of alienating them.
You have a book coming out in December, but are there other books you are working on?
I’m finishing this series called the Songs of the Seraphim. After that, I have another big book in mind about immortals who have lived on the planet since the time of Atlantis. I would like to go back to the Christ the Lord books if possible, but there are real theological difficulties with going back to that series. The first two books had to do with the childhood and private life of Jesus, but it’s very difficult to deal with his public life without getting into theological hot water with a lot of people. Inevitably the book will reflect my theological decisions, and I’m not sure I can do it. I don’t want to get into the fights.
You still have a fan base for your vampire books.
I will never return to that. Those were books I wrote when I was an atheist and they reflected my feelings of being lost in a world without God, and I’m not that person now. I’m proud of the books I did. I love those characters, but that’s over for me since 2002. I’m much more interested in different characters who are trying to do positive and constructive things. I don’t want to write about people who kill and drink blood to survive.
Did you read the Twilight novels?
No. I did see the movies, mainly because people were asking me. I thought they were entertaining and they were for young people. The movies were fairly superficial, very touchingly naïve, traditionally romantic, and they had to do with a young woman with mysterious figures in her life—like Jane Eyre. I do love the series True Blood. I don’t always like the way they handle things, but they have a great sense of humor.
Do you have any regrets about anything you’ve written, or things you wish you could do over?
No, I really don’t. I think all of the books I wrote were sincere. I’m not going back to any of them, but there isn’t anything out there I want to disown. Life is a spiritual journey. I don’t really regret things. It’s important to say that you’re sorry every day of your life. But I think regretting books is a fruitless exercise.
Are there any other religious authors you read?
I read theology and biblical scholarship all the time. I love the biblical scholarship of D.A. Carson. I very much love Craig S. Keener. His books on Matthew and John are right here on my desk all the time. I go to Craig Keener for answers because his commentary on Scripture is so thorough. I still read N.T. Wright. I love the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. I love his writing on Jesus Christ. It’s very beautiful to me, and I study a little bit of it every day. Of course, I love Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
You mentioned D.A. Carson, Craig Keener, and N.T. Wright. They are fairly conservative Protestants.
Sometimes the most conservative people are the most biblically and scholastically sound. They have studied Scripture and have studied skeptical scholarship. They make brilliant arguments for the way something in the Bible reads and how it’s been interpreted. I don’t go to them necessarily to know more about their personal beliefs. It’s the brilliance they bring to bear on the text that appeals to me. Of all the people I’ve read over the years, it’s their work that I keep on my desk. They’re all non-Catholics, but they’re believers, they document their books well, they write well, they’re scrupulously honest as scholars, and they don’t have a bias. Many of the skeptical non-believer biblical scholars have a terrible bias. To them, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, so there’s no point in discussing it. I want someone to approach the text and tell me what it says, how the language worked.
Is there anything that would convince you to go back to the Church?
If we put God and Christ at the center of our lives, we have to go where that leads us. If that leads us from an organization or a group, we have to go. I think many of the arguments that people in churches raise are circular and dishonest when they attack a conscientious person who leaves the group. I don’t expect people to agree with me, but I hope they respect my moral integrity.
I affirm my faith in Christ every time I get the chance. It’s what’s transformed my life. I’ve affirmed it over and over again. I get occasional e-mails from people who say, “How can you turn away from God?” but they just haven’t Googled.
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