Poor Anne Rice. Always a day behind the fair. Always a beat behind the crowd. Mind you, that can be a very profitable position to hold: You can catch the popular wave, when you’re not too inventive, and you can ride it to good sales. As she did with her novels.
Anyway, in 1998 she announced that she was returning to Catholic Christianity, and in 2010 she announced that she was leaving Christianity. In and out, and out and in, and ’round and ’round and ’round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows. But all of it a step late: The late 1980s were when the hipsters were flirting with Catholicism, and the early 2000s were when they were denouncing it again. She rejoined the Church just in time to get whacked around, and she left the Church again just in time to look like a woman who can’t stand the heat. From all her hipster friends. And all her relatives.
Ah, well. What’s interesting—but, no, not exactly interesting: more like worth noting as a marker of an oft-held but seldom-expressed position—is the statement she issued on the occasion of her departure this summer:
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.
To which she later added:
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.
Ah, me. I’ve described before what I called “the great unspoken and probably unspeakable thought that it’s somehow more Christian not to be a Christian.” Anne Rice, however, has proved me wrong. Not in the claim that the thought is unspeakable. It still doesn’t make any sense. But in the claim that it’s unspoken—’cause here she is, speaking it.
As, I suppose I have to admit, others have before. Sinéad O’Connor, for instance, in the March 28 edition of the Washington Post. “Christ is not with these people who so frequently invoke Him,” she pronounced, ex cathedra, and “the idea that we needed the church to get closer to Jesus” is “blasphemy.”
There’s a useful function pop stars and celebrity novelists can perform, which is to say aloud—and in oh, so self-congratulatory a manner—a notion that lots of people are actually assuming, but are too smart, or too stupid, or too something, to speak in public.
Rice has had a curious relation with First Things over the last few years, and she even left a comment on David Goldman’s parody of her announcement about her leaving Christianity. (And, to her credit, she seems—unlike several other commenters—to have gotten that it is a parody. Funny how parody has never worked in the context of First Things. Over the twenty years of his Public Square column in the print magazine, Richard John Neuhaus always got burned, always ended up regretting his occasional forays into parody. And even on the First Things web pages—whether as extended as Alan Jacobs’ review of Kahlil Gibran in the voice of Kahlil Gibran, or as brief as Goldman’s comment on Rice—something there is in parody that generates reader discontent.)
But let’s think clearly, for a moment, about this line of being too Christian to be a Christian. There were plenty of old radicals, from the 1930s through the 1980s, who insisted they were Marxists without being Communists, especially Communist party members, with official support for the Soviet Union. Is this a parallel situation?
Not, of course, in the hipster sense, where the move toward claiming a non-Soviet Marxism—“In the name of Marx, I refuse to be anti-gay”—was an attempt to deepen the hipness, while there ain’t no hipness at all in invoking the name of Christ today. Rather, I mean, in the logical sense: Is it meaningful to claim to be a Christ-following anti-Christian in the way that it was at least possible to claim to be a Marx-following anti-Communist?
A tough row to hoe, logically speaking. The Bible does have a word or two to say about the founding of the Church, as I recall, and the very word Rice chooses, Christ, is a word meaningful in a churchly context. Best, really, to give it all up, if you’re abandoning Christianity—especially if you’re going to denounce all your once-fellow believers as a “deservedly infamous group.”
It’s the psychological benefits of the move that make it most attractive, of course. Think of the great sense of superiority donated to the person who gets to claim Christ but rise above all others who claim Christ. Say that you’re wiser than the rest of them—the fools who don’t see how Christianity has betrayed Christ. Or, in the wonderful pride of humility, say you’re such a sinner that you can see the sinfulness that the congregation misses.
As it happens, there’s not a lot new in this kind of move. But that’s our Anne: a day behind the fair. A beat behind the crowd.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.