Saturday, July 31, 2010

Anne Rice and Harvey Cox and the Future of Christianity

Author Anne Rice has announced that she is leaving Christianity ten years after a much-ballyhooed conversion. According to comments reported by CNN, she found herself unable to be “anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science and anti-democrat.” She continues, “It is simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” I have a good deal of sympathy for Rice. Hardly a day goes by without my being humiliated by the words or actions of one of my erstwhile co-religionists. Consider the brutally hateful rhetoric of Fred Phelps and his minions of “God Hates Fags” (in)fame or the recently announced plan by an individual claiming to follow Jesus to burn the Koran. Week after week the word Christian is covered with slime by pedophile priests, hypocritical preachers, and the church’s own bruising internal battles. Epithets are hurled from the right and the left in battles over human sexuality, abortion, and, in local churches, how one worships God. Although some Christians loudly denounce the “liberal media” or “godless atheists” for our bad press, most of our wounds are self-inflicted.

In his recent book The Future of Faith theologian Harvey Cox argues that the church made a disastrously wrong turn within the first four centuries of its existence. The “age of faith”, characterized by creativity, energy, compassion, and expansion gave way to the “age of belief”. During the age of faith, “sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each others and ‘faith’ meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated. To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.” (Cox pg. 5) It was a chaotic, theologically fecund, and breathtakingly diverse period. But it was not to last.

Cox argues that the need for the catechesis of new believers ultimately replaced “faith in Jesus with tenets about him.” (Cox pg. 5) This process was greatly enhanced when Christian leaders were seduced by the power and privilege of imperial patronage after the “conversion” of Constantine. Like all political elites the bishops wanted uniformity and stability. Above all they wanted to hang onto their own power. According to Cox the creeds and confessions of the church grew out of this desire for peace and stability. Margins were set. Heresy was defined. “From an energetic movement of faith,” Cox argues, “[Christianity] coagulated into a phalanx of required beliefs thereby laying the foundation for every succeeding Christian fundamentalist for centuries to come.” (Cox pg. 6)

In spite of much brutality and stupidity the “Age of Belief” was not totally bleak. Great works of beauty, wisdom, and compassion were produced. Saints that recalled the original spirit of Jesus operated at the margins of the church until they were co-opted by the center. Nevertheless, Cox remains hopeful that Christianity can recapture its founding ethos. He suggests we are entering a new “Age of the Spirit”. He sees hope for Christianity in the global south where “the Spirit, muted and muffled for centuries, is breaking its silence and staging a delayed ‘return of the repressed.’” (Cox 9, 10). The Spirit’s work will not be in a straight line: it blows where it will. It will be once again be messy, chaotic and uncontrollable. It will make ecclesiastical bureaucrats nervous and perhaps bring down the corrupt structures of the organized church. But out of the chaos the Spirit of Christ will brood over a new creation.

Some years ago my friend Dr. G. Timothy Johnson suggested to me that he no longer felt comfortable being labeled a “Christian”. Rather he wanted to be known as a “follower of Jesus.” I think Tim is onto something and, evidently, so does Anne Rice. “My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic, atheist, lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me,” she writes. “But following Christ does not mean following his followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”

Evangelicalism was given birth by Pietism. The Pietists argued that following Jesus was more important the believing all the right things about him. To follow Jesus was to live the life of a disciple, preaching good news, healing the sick, caring for the poor—adhering to what Scot McKnight calls the Jesus Creed: loving God and neighbor. Evangelicals have always emphasized experience over creed and confession. Most evangelical churches, including my own Evangelical Covenant Church, were non-confessional. They respected the ancient creeds but did not canonize them. The modern attempt by some to turn Evangelicals into, say, confessional Calvinists violates not only the spirit of Evangelicalism but risks robbing it of its spirit and life. When Evangelicals harden their theology and practice they are not consolidating their future, but eroding the very life and health of the movement.

At our best we welcome Anne Rice and everyone like her. She does not have to be “anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science, and anti-democrat” to be a follower of Jesus! This is not to say every Jesus follower will agree with her—this seldom happens in Evangelicalism or anywhere else. But everyone should love her, include her, and engage her—and everyone like her. I am glad Anne Rice is still a follower of Jesus. But we need her voice within the Christian community reminding us of the irresponsibly loving presence of Jesus within the derelict structures of institutional Christianity. Perhaps even now the Spirit of God is preparing a fresh wind to sweep through the corruptions and stupidities the characterize Christianity. I trust that Evangelicals will put up their sails to catch this wind. I can’t say, however, I am optimistic.

John E. Phelan, Jr.


  1. sigh...don't people realize that when we point the finger at the "church" and all those "christians we don't like because they are anti-whatever" we are just pointing the finger at ourselves? the church isn't an institution, no matter how institutionalized anyone tries to make it.....the church is people. it's easy to criticize an institution and it's easy to criticize people we disagree with, but the beauty of the church is that it embraces broken, seriously flawed people like you and me. i'm optimistic that when the church embraces its own brokenness, people like anne rice will find a home.

  2. As I read scripture there are followers, disciples, and children of God.

    What bugs me is churches that want to edit the scriptures to their own understandings. I do not believe everything is dispensational as God does not change.

  3. I agree with Alex and Ronald above. Good for Anne Rice--the Catholic church adds tradition to Scripture and I can't see that as following Jesus.

    However, Dr. Phelan, I am not optimistic about leaving the "where is it written" heritage of the ECC to open wide arms to redefine the Gospel or go against Scripture. We need both an age of faith and an age of belief I think. Maybe you are saying that. Are you?

    Your statement, "The modern attempt by some to turn Evangelicals into, say, confessional Calvinists violates not only the spirit of Evangelicalism but risks robbing it of its spirit and life," is a bit troubling to me. I would call myself a new wrestling Calvinist now with much spirit, life and more interest in theology, evangelism and my faith than ever before.

    I do respect you and what you are writing and will try to follow ADDITIONAL MARKING and understand what you are saying.

  4. Carol on Calvinism I am referring to the group of super-Calvinists trying to convince the Evangelical world that the only Evangelical theology is Calvinism. I have deep respect for Calvin and his engagement of the scriptures. But his theology like every other theology is a human attempt to make sense of God and the world. As such it is both flawed and time bound. This does not mean it has nothing to say to us today--anymore than Luther, Wesley or Barth. But it is not canonical. Calvin does not equal Scripture. I fear that for some contemporary super Calvinists, it does.

  5. Another comment on the church. Yes the church is people and not merely an institution. And yes the church does (or should) receive the broken, hurting--the least, the lost and the losers. But "by your fruits you will know them." Our critics are fair to ask us to account for our inconsistencies and failures. I am a lover of the church and always will be--with all its messiness and incompetence. But I will not make excuses for it. I will also not be defensive about it. I don't think God is through with the church. I still have hope in the long term because my hope is in God.