Anne Rice, Vampire author turned Catholic convertee, this week announced that she was “through with Christianity”.
But rather than turning back to her earlier atheism, she sees this bold move as an expression of deepening commitment to the Christ which both pre- and post-dates Christendom. Responding to the seemingly intractable pathologies resulting from adherents to the conventional Christian narrative, she said:
“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.”
Well that’s a fairly strong rejection and rebuttal. How did she come to this?
One line of enquiry might be her 2 more recent books collectively known as “Christ the Lord”, “Out of Egypt” (2005) and “The Road to Cana” (2008).
As one who can identify with her rejection of fear, hate, and conventional interpretations of the biblical canon, I was at first sceptical that her fiction would hold my interest. But I was wrong.
Out of Egypt is written from the point of view of the 7 year old Jeshua bar Joseph whose clan leaves Alexandria to settle in strife ridden Judea. Through masterful subtlety and apparently immaculate historical research, Rice opens our eyes to an experience of a young ordinary human emerging into an awareness of the extra-ordinary and of the largely fragmentary but often bewildering call of the divine.
There are whisperings of the portentous events surrounding his birth, but these remain for the most part shrouded. Unlike the common perception of him as unquestioningly omnipotent and omniscient, Jeshua continues to agonise over things he cannot grasp. Like us all he struggles to put together the shards of some larger picture, which remains agonisingly elusive.
The Road to Cana takes up the story when Jeshua is about 30. He has for the most part been working under Joseph and James doing carpentry and masonry. He is deeply but secretively in love with Avigail, knowing somehow that he cannot hope to marry her. Instead, in a series of exceptionally dramatic events, he comes to arrange for her to marry Reuben son of the cantankerous scribe Hananel. Before that proposal is made however, the scribe interrogates Jeshua:
“Why didn’t you stay with us in the temple? Think of the boy you were … if only you had devoted your life to what is written… but what have you become! A carpenter, one of a gang of carpenters … The world swallowed you”, he said bitterly.
The answer is this:
“It’s where I live, my lord, not in the temple, but in the world. The world’s made of wood and stone and iron, and I work in it. And I study Torah; and I pray with the assembly; … but this is in the world, all this … And what this carpenter shall yet build in the world, the Lord knows, and the Lord shall reveal it.”
Key to the tale is the re-emergence of Jeshua’s Essene cousin John whose starts baptising in the Jordan, and then a wondrous working of the temptation story in the wilderness, a deeply shamanic initiation in which The Christ is brought face to face with his own image as the tempter satan. (Put that in your literalist pipe and take a deep puff.)
The Road to Cana ends with the wedding of Reuben and Avigail, where Jeshua under the prompting of his mother Mary, turns water into fine wine. The bittersweet nature of this ending however is a fresh entrance point to the well known gospel narratives. But having immersed herself in the story as a contemplative might, we are given hope to believe that our readings might henceforth escape the gravity of the simplistic set of myths and clichés which currently hold much of christianity in their thrall.
Incidently I see in these creative reweavings a big parallel with Peter Rollins, both in his ability to retell familiar stories (mostly in parable) in new ways, and in his assertion that betrayal itsself can be a fidelity.
It takes an act of sacred imagination, of the renunciation of convention, and of the commitment to a journey into unknown territory to make this possible, and Anne Rice has it would appear, has done so. And furthermore, her achievement is a direct challenge to us.
So when we consider her recent quitting of the “Christian fold”, it is helpful to take to heart the complex story of Jeshua bar Joseph who for the sake of a call to the consecrated life, had to renounce the hold that conventional claims had on what was possible when one simply responded in faith to the mysterious callings of Spirit.
Here then is our question: if we do in fact “quit Christianity”, and are running towards G-d in faith, what will that look like?