Thursday, July 29, 2010

Of Christianity

I notice a number of people are making more of this than it is, so I thought I would say something. Anne Rice, who, of course, converted or re-converted to Christianity a while ago, recently left three messages on her Facebook page:

Gandhi famously said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” When does a word (Christian)become unusable? When does it become so burdened with history and horror that it cannot be evoked without destructive controversy?

and

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.

and, to explain,

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, 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-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

One can sympathize, and it's a moment many Christians have, and the reason it has sometimes been popular to say that Christianity as a religion is to be repudiated, and that one should only be Christian in the sense of having a relationship with Christ. Indeed, some of what she says is very much in that vein. And anyone who cannot have some sympathy for it does not pay much attention to life with others in Christ, because it goes back to the Apostolic generation itself, for the Apostles and their converts were indeed a quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and, yes, sometimes even deservedly infamous, group. But even they were not out to be Christians; they did not seek to belong to Christianity, that vague, abstract, collective label, but to follow the Way, to preach the Truth, to live the Life. And the Way, the Truth, and the Life were Christ. To be Christian, in some sense of a group membership, is next to nothing in value; to be Christ's -- that is something for which men and women have lived and died.

But I think it is in this we also see why things are not so simple. For the book of Acts tells us quite clearly how the followers of the Way became Christians, and in it is a lesson worth learning. It was in Antioch, it is said, where the disciples were first called Christians. But it is not a casual mention. The disagreements between the disciples and those around them had become violent, and blood had been shed. Stephen had fallen beneath the stones and a man named Saul, breathing murderous threats, began to drum up support for dragging all followers of the Way in chains before the authorities. Trying to destroy the assembly of the followers, he entered house after house, dragging out the men and women, and handing them over to be imprisoned. The persecutions grew fierce, and while a core group of followers remained in Jerusalem, most fled. They were scattered throughout the Roman empire, and some of these came to Antioch and proclaimed Christ to Gentile and Jew alike. Many believed.

And in the meantime, a new peace had come to the the community of the followers; and Saul himself, on the road to Damascus, fell down before Christ and began to preach the Way. And he was eventually brought by a close associate of the Apostles themselves, Barnabas, to Antioch. He and Barnabas taught the growing community at Antioch for a year; and it was there in Antioch that the followers of the Way were first called Christians. And at that time in Antioch, the community were moved to take thought for their fellow Christians in other places; the people, as they were able, gathered together their resources to help those in Judea who suffered from famine.

And that is why it is worth it to belong to Christianity, to hold to being a Christian, despite the fact that we are a quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and sometimes infamous people. Because ultimately, that name should never be given over. It was the name that marked the Church as standing together. They stood with the martyrs. They stood with the confessors. They stood with the apostles. They stood with the poor among them. And that was what made them Christian. And to be Christian is to hold together in persecution and in peace, and to commit to aiding those who also follow the Way when they are in need; it is to encourage each other in faithfulness, difficult as it may be, and to remain firm in heart. And it is not to be Novatianist or Donatist, demanding purity before association, but to keep in mind that Christ came not for the pure but for the disputatious, vexatious, hostile, quarrelsome, and, yes, deservedly infamous. It is to recognize that we are they; but that Christ is more.

But they did not join to join a club, and they did not sign on to belong to a group; they were, to use the phrase in the book of Acts, added to the Lord, and it was this that brought upon them the label Christian. We don't know all the details of how it arose; it may have been a name of mockery that came to be worn as a badge of honor, or it may have been something that some of them started calling themselves to affirm that they were added to the Lord. Whatever the reason, if, as I pray she is, Anne Rice really is committed to Christ, she's quit Christianity in the sense that everyone must, eventually, and she hasn't quit Christianity in the only sense that is important. I hope that she is not going to try to 'go it alone', as some try, the katharoi of every age; that way nothing lies but disaster. To associate with sinners is not really avoidable except by associating with no one; and associating with no one is no good for anyone. So I hope this is more like the Desert Fathers withdrawing from the cities in an attempt to follow a deeper and more faithful prayer and a more integral participation in the truly important work of the Church than any of the other interpretations that have been given to her words; and I hope she rediscovers that the label really is usable, regardless of frustration, because with it we stand with the apostles and martyrs and our brothers and sisters in need. But we are called not to a demographic, but (as we have always been) to the Way. Sooner or later, we must all learn: to love God is all, to love neighbor is all, the Lord to whom we are through the grace of God added (and not alone, never alone) is all in all; everything else is at most a hobby and at worst a dangerous distraction.

UPDATE: Added the first of the quotations above, which I think sheds a small bit of light on the ones that followed.

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