Sunday, August 22, 2010

What's in a Name?

If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God. (1 Peter 4.16-17)


I’ve not taken time to think much or write about Anne Rice’s disavowal of Christianity because I’m not a fan of her novels. I am, however, an admirer of her individualism. She is one intrepid lady. She merits respect for risking popularity to challenge readers to reconsider their views on timely and controversial topics—even though her eccentric persona often seems as calculated and pretentious as her prose. Rice’s knack for shock appeal ranks her with Madonna, Prince, and Lady Gaga. (She’s a rock star trapped in a writer’s body.) Yet despite her mannerisms and methods, I usually trust her motives are sincere. This most recent tempest gives me pause, though. Whatever her intentions are, she’s in over her head with this one.

Rice’s decision to no longer identify as a Christian while continuing to abide by Christ’s teaching traps her in a netherworld not unlike that of her most famous vampire, Lestat. He’s not dead, but he’s not alive. Rice’s situation is no less bizarre. She’s abandoning the Body of Christ while hanging on to Its Head. It’s a double severance—her from It, It from Him. This may be a marketable premise for a novel, where paranormal constructs build suspense. In terms of faith, it’s a perilous position. It accedes powerlessness (or unwillingness) to forgive, a thing so alien to Christ one can’t conceive how Rice’s proposition possibly works.

Suffering and Shame

In the rush of comments, many gave her the benefit of the doubt. “Well, she’s leaving the Church, not the faith” they said. That sounds reasonable, since Rice castigated her chosen denomination as “anti-gay,” “anti-feminist,” and “anti-birth control.” But, by her confession, she didn’t quit the Church or her church. She quit being a Christian. That’s profoundly different, as she should know from a decade of writing extensively about her faith and early Christianity. It’s also too glaring a blunder for someone who earns a fortune with words. If she didn’t mean it, why did she type it? First Peter 4.16-17 solves the mystery better than anything I’ve come across. “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed,” it says, “but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God.” It’s not the Church, her church, Christianity, or Christ that Anne Rice wants to escape. It’s being called “a Christian.” She’s trying to elude the suffering and shame that comes from being numbered with a people that dishonors itself by its disobedience to Christ, disregard for others, and disrespect for God’s creation. We can empathize with her feelings. But is her move sensible and scripturally sound?

Rice has done exactly what Peter teaches not to do. The rashness of her action reinforces the attitudes of millions who cite the Body of Christ’s iniquity as justification for staying away. But isn’t naïve to believe Christianity and the Church would be ideal were it not for the heretics, hypocrites, and demagogues? Christ and His teachings are perfect because they’re divine. The religion and institution built on them are manmade and therefore never were nor ever will be perfect. When the Apostles recognized this, they fervently urged us to strive for perfection. Perfect Christianity and a perfect Church imply full knowledge and understanding, which obviates their purpose—i.e., increasing our knowledge and understanding. In 1 Corinthians 13.9-10, Paul says, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” The perfection we long for will come, and learning to forgive and tolerate one another's imperfections is what leads us to it. In light of this, Rice's defection seems either premature or immature, or possibly both.

Peter instructs us to praise God for suffering and shame that comes “when you bear that name.” Saying “I’m a Christian” confesses weakness and imperfection. It embraces every believer’s imperfections—even the failures and enthusiasms that contradict what we believe Jesus taught and exemplified. “I’m a Christian” tells everyone, “Yes, I belong to that unruly, conflicted family that constantly embarrasses itself and the Savior it follows.” We can’t admit this without suffering and shame. But we praise God for the grace to do it, because acknowledging our brothers and sisters’ faults as integral to their faith teaches us why our faults and failures are so integral to our beliefs. It’s why condemnation and ambivalence have no place in Christianity or the Church.

The Forgiveness Quotient

Could it be Christians who inflict suffering and shame are given to us so we can learn to love, forgive, and accept them before attempting to do so for non-Christians? In Matthew 18, Peter asks how often must he forgive his brother, suggesting seven as a reasonable quota. Jesus takes Peter’s figure, squares it, and multiplies it by 10: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (v22) Before we conclude our duty to forgive expires with Sin #490, we should note the numbers’ symbolic weight. Seven represents perfection. Seven squared totals absolute perfection—i.e., God’s nature. Ten signifies completeness. The forgiveness quotient is perfection X perfection X completeness. Ergo, there is nothing a Christian can do, say, or suggest that we mustn’t forgive. Rice’s reasoning is flawed because it concedes we haven’t power to forgive and tolerate imperfections found in the Body of Christ.

What would Peter’s comment be if he caught Rice’s announcement about rejecting the Christian name. He might ask: Whom does this benefit? Does severing your family ties help them? Can you influence their thinking and behavior in absentia? How can you convey God’s love and acceptance to the world if you can’t tolerate us? “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God,” Peter tells us. Everywhere in God’s household, we find imperfections—in us, others, our leaders, our dogma—everywhere. If we’re not present, doing our family duty by wrestling with our failures forgiving one another, as living proof of God’s grace and mercy, nothing will change. Christianity has no interest in what others do against us. It's only focus is what we do for them. We’re Christians. We make change happen. What’s in a name? If it’s “Christian,” there’s love, forgiveness, acceptance, integrity, humility, and power. For all the suffering and shame that comes with it, it’s an honor both to be a Christian and called one. We pray Anne Rice and anyone else deceived to think otherwise will grow to understand this.

Peter tells us to praise God for the privilege of being called “Christian”—despite the suffering and shame our failures impose on all who bear the name.


Missy Francis said...

What a great apologia--I couldn't agree more.

"But isn’t it naïve to believe Christianity and the Church would be ideal were it not for the heretics, hypocrites, and demagogues?"

And yet this is what so many do believe! And it goes both ways... Goodness, the whole idea of "excommunication" is flawed with this brand of thinking. As if by kicking someone out we are less responsible for them.

Thank you!

Tim said...

Missy, I hadn't considered the excommunication angle, but it most certainly applies. Weeding out, whether we do it voluntarily to ourselves or if it's done to others in the interest of "purifying" the Church, is a fallacy that blatantly contradicts Christ's teaching and spirit. "Anyone who comes to Me, I will not turn away," He said. Yet we insist on treating the Body of Christ like a country club--insisting its members meet our approval standards.

It's ludicrous to quit "the club" because we think we're better, smarter, more compassionate, etc., than some of its members, just as it's equally ridiculous to eject members because we think they're not good enough to join our crowd. I love Paul's statement that God honors the "unseemly" members. Why can't we do the same?

Yes, oh yes, we are responsible for those we prefer to ignore. Somehow Rice and the esteemed ecclesiastical membership committees miss the fact that the Gospels use for "sinners" (as in "the Pharisees were mortified that Jesus would eat with 'sinners') literally means "excommunicated". They were the crowd the Law banned from the Temple. After Christ showed His compassion and acceptance of them, they were a major contingent of the Early Church. They contributed much to the Body, but also embarrassed the Pharisee converts and Gentile elites. (Things would get so heated in the Roman church, for instance, it had a reputation for brawling the streets.)

If people like Rice and the screening committees can't stomach a quarrelsome crowd, how would they ever have survived in the first-century Church? I'm glad Peter, Paul, et al. had it in themselves to stick around and deal with the craziness. Otherwise, no one could "quit being a Christian" because there'd be nothing to quit.

Sorry about the length here, but you touch a nerve!

Blessings always--and thank you so much for this illuminating thought.

Missy Francis said...

Well said. And not too long--you make good points.

I heard the question posed once: "How are you going to get along together in heaven if you can't even stand being in the same church building together?"

I guess we would all do well to remember that.

Tim said...

Missy, as a corollary to that, my grandfather always mused "When we get to Heaven we'll spend the first thousand years in shock at who's not there, and the next thousand in utter shock at who made it in!"

Through eternity's telescope, exclusion here looks downright silly and irrelevant, doesn't it?


claire said...

Tim, I have never read anything by Anne Rice. I had heard of her, and heard even more about her since she decided not to be a Christian.

I thought she had left the Catholic Church -- something quite a few of my friends and some of our children are doing these days.

I feel blessed because, after having spend years being angry at the Catholic hierarchy, it has now become irrelevant to me.

I am Catholic, Christian, ecumenical and a follower of Christ, as much as I can.

But as said above, many of my Catholic friends no longer can stand what they see going on in their denomination. There was some time ago a passage from Ezekiel where he lambasted, on behalf of Godde, bad shepherds...

I have to refer to your later post, Traction. Our shepherds will have to be accountable for all the pain they are causing, the harm they are doing, the despair they are creating among their sheep...


Tim said...

Claire, I understand Rice's disillusionment with the Catholic Church. I too have friends struggling with these issues. Yet her declaration she no longer is a "Christian" is what puzzles me. I would say to her what others have already said; if your issues are with Roman doctrine, there are plenty of other options. It seems rather dramatic--perhaps melodramatic--to throw one's Christianity on the altar and walk away.

(Maybe she thinks such a bold statement by a prominent figure will shake a few people in Vatican City, but that strikes me as a bit naïve...)

The name "Christian" is important--essential--and (in my opinion, anyway) not be confused with Catholic or Presbyterian or whatever. It is precious, the thing that binds us together!


claire said...

Like you, I also thought she was trying to have an impact, maybe not so much on the Vatican, but more on the American Catholics...

And, yes, it is wonderful to be bound together by Christianity :-)