Author Ann Rice, opened her heart to God in 1998, returning to her faith after years of describing herself as an atheist. She explained her journey away from faith and back again in her 2008 memoir, Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession.
Now she has decided to leave Christianity, renouncing her claim to be “Christian,” though she has not renounced her claim to Christ. She wrote on her “Facebook” page: “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.”
As a pastor working in an institutional church I cannot advocate for or agree with Ann Rice’s decision, but I certainly understand it. In a lot of institutional Christianity (both traditional and non-traditional, both conservative and liberal) there can be very little of “Christ” in it; that is, little of the Christ we know in the Gospels as a friend of sinners, welcoming of all—especially the rejected and marginalized, challenger of the status quo (meticulously maintained by the powers that be), and champion of the poor and the oppressed.
The church in all its denominational and institutional forms and expressions desperately need pastors who are not afraid to engage in the work of a prophet, calling the church to actually follow in the way of Jesus. For only when Christians begin to take seriously the life Jesus lived and the teachings he imparted will there be real renewal and authentic transformation.
I do not for one minute doubt Ann Rice’s experience with the church as a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” I, too, have experienced some of this contentiousness and animosity. Maybe I’m too hopeful, but I believe the church is capable of changing. But change will not come easy. Pastors must be willing to risk their jobs, good standing, reputation, even friendships in order to engage in the prophetic work of deconstruction and reconstruction. This work is not for the timid and fainthearted; it will require a boldness of Spirit.
Many Christians in our Western culture have no intention of changing and they want their pastor or priest to confirm what they have come to believe and the particular manner in which they have come to practice their faith. They are not interested in “living the questions.” They do not wish to face their doubts. They have no intention of confronting the Great Mystery. They want certitudes and assurances that reality is just the way they have been socialized to see it and believe it.
The problem is that there seems to be just as many pastors and priests who like it that way, for this makes the Christian faith and the church manageable. They are like the big shots in the movie, The Truman Show, whose financial well being and social prominence depended on keeping Truman’s world circumscribed and confined.
Jesus believed that the kingdom of God would come on earth and he instructed his disciples to pray, serve, love, and give of themselves that God’s good, just, and righteous will might take root and grow. (Think of all the parables involving seed growing.)
The question which those of us in Christian leadership must ask: Do we still believe this is possible? If not, we should find some other line of work. If change is to occur we leaders must first and foremost seek to embody and express God’s unconditional, inclusive love through our words, deeds, and kindness to others (all others, especially the “quarrelsome, hostile, and disputatious”). And then we must not shun the prophetic task of confronting the status quo, preaching, teaching, and manifesting an inclusive gospel. We have chaplains galore, but prophets few.
I still believe that we need the church. Not the “infamous group” that refuses to change, but the church that serves as an outpost for the kingdom of God on earth. And it falls on all of us who exercise leadership in the church to give our very lives for this cause.
When the church functions as an inclusive, healing, being transformed and transforming community then the church can be a vital instrument in bringing peace, hope, justice, and redemption to our world.
Harvard professor Harvey Cox argues in his book, The Future of Faith, that before Christianity entered into an Age of Belief with its insistence on creedal conformity and doctrinal correctness, the earliest expressions and communities of the Jesus movement were known for their commitment to “the way” (way of life) of Jesus in the world.
The need is great for courageous pastors, priests, and church leaders to call the church out of a theology of “hell evasion” and a lifestyle of ego avoidance and personal security into a “new and living way,” the way of Jesus of Nazareth.
It is possible! For the Jesus who lived, taught, and modeled “the way” is the church’s living Lord and Redeemer, “God with us,” whose Spirit is at work shattering illusions, opening minds and hearts, inspiring suffering love, and ever wooing and drawing us into a new stage of Christ consciousness and compassionate community.