The worst part of a big family are some of the people in it — eccentric uncles, hypercritical aunts, lewd grandpas, and gloomy cousins; there are divorcees, perverts, swindlers, and moralists. Yep, every family has its weirdos. And make no mistake about it: God’s family is BIG. So big that, in the Book of Revelation, it is described as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9).
Can you imagine the number of weirdos in a group that size?
Several years ago, my essay “The Ark” received the Editors Choice Award for Issue 2.3 Issue of Relief Journal. It is a bittersweet chronicle of my time in the ministry and why I left. Throughout, I used Noah’s ark as a metaphor for what the Church is like. Here’s an excerpt:
Author Frederick Buechner wrote that God chooses “…for his holy work in the world… lamebrains and misfits and nitpickers and holier-than-thous and stuffed shirts and odd ducks and egomaniacs and milquetoasts and closet sensualists.” I had never mistaken God’s family for the Cleaver clan, but becoming the default arbiter between the Beave and Wally got to be taxing. Apparently, it wasn’t enough that I could recite Calvin’s Tulip from memory, articulate eschatological timelines, and construct a killer three-point sermon. I also had to indulge a dysfunctional flock.
But is any flock not?
Perhaps a more seasoned minister would have been unfazed by the tedium. But the nagging drip of discontent and indifference, petty squabbles and cultural quirks, became like water torture, with each successive droplet eroding my inspiration. Like the crew on Noah’s ark, I spent a lot of time shoveling shit.
If you’ve been a Christian for any time, you must admit that some parts of the Church reek. I think that’s what Anne Rice, in part, was reacting to. Whether it’s a televangelist pronouncing the end of the world or a militant calling for the execution of homosexuals, things are often done and said in the name of Christ that are a flat-out embarrassment. Face it: Apologizing for people on the fringe is a regular part of the Christian life.
Just like it is part of a big family.
Of course, some will say that ALL mainstream Christians are extremists. But while that caricature may add strength to their argument, it’s just not true. Besides, is it right to respond to the fringe by leaving the fold? Which is precisely what some in the “Follow Christ / Quit Christianity” crowd suggest to do.
Despite this, if Anne Rice is really a Christian it is impossible for her to really “quit Christianity.” She might “quit” the institutions and organizations that claim to represent Christianity. She could stop publicly identifying herself as a Christian. Yet a genuine Christian can no more leave the Body of Christ than I can free myself from my biological family. Sure, I can move to another continent, change my name, and break off all communication with my siblings. But I can never, ever, change my genetic makeup.
The only way for someone to really leave Christianity is if they were never really part of the family. (And before you start teeing off on me — I’m not inferring Anne Rice isn’t a Christian.)
And here’s something else: The person who quits Christianity to follow Christ is forced to construct their own individual version of Christianity. By renouncing this version or that version of Christianity they are, in fact, defining what they think Christianity should look like. But this can become a slippery enterprise. I mean, are we the individual arbiters of what it means to follow Jesus? Like it or not, “quitting Christianity” to “follow Christ” tells me as much about your version of Christianity as the versions you are rejecting.
And just to further irritate the matter, it always amazes me that those who reject Christianity because of the nuts on the fringe, do not apply the same measurement to those on their side. Take for instance the gay divide. Apparently, some of what has propelled Ms. Rice’s decision to “quit Christianity” is a perceived anti-gay bias (read:. homophobia, bigotry, hatred, etc.) among Christians. Problem is, there are extremists on the pro-gay side as well. (Like NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association which advocates for legal sex between adult males and consenting minors. Or is their position mainstream?) Point being, Christian extremists are used to indict ALL of Christianity. Liberal extremists are not.
I could go on.
As I responded to one of the commenters yesterday, “I love Anne Rice.” I don’t agree with her indictment of Christianity, and I think she potentially perpetuates a harmful stereotype and response. I agree with some of her feelings. Organized religion can be oppressive and certain individuals therein can be jerks. And, out on the fringe, are all manner of oddballs. But the answer is not to “quit Christianity.”
I am no longer a pastor, in part, because of the problems with Christianity. Nevertheless, it’s still my family. Those “lamebrains and misfits and nitpickers and holier-than-thous…” all share my genetic makeup. As does, I think, Anne Rice.
“The Church is like Noah’s ark,” said Reinhold Niebuhr. “If it weren’t for the storm outside, we couldn’t stand the stink inside.” The answer, Anne, is not to leave the ark. It’s to shovel shit.