I shared the following reflection at Brentwood Christian Church on August 8th, 2010. For some background and context in relationship to Anne Rice’s decision to “quit Christianity,” check out her interview with the Los Angeles Times.
I recently read your comments on Facebook that describe the reasons why you left Christianity. Perhaps you have been surprised that your words have resonated with many other Christians who feel the same way you do about organized religion, including myself. Too many times organized religion has been used to denigrate others and keep them in their place, especially when it comes to women and those from the GLTBQ community, and there are many of us who are inspired by your refusal to follow the lead of the church when it treats others as less than equal. So often the church claims to speak for God, when in fact it seems that the church is, as the bumper sticker puts it, simply “blaming all of their prejudices on Jesus.”
I too have sometimes felt like leaving church. In fact, I did leave the church several years ago myself. You see, I grew up in a church that also wouldn’t let women be pastors or elders or deacons, that also said that gays and lesbians would go to hell if they didn’t “straighten up,” and also taught us that we couldn’t honor both the Bible and modern scientific inquiry. Basically, the church I grew up in left room for you only so long as you conformed to a very narrow way of seeing the world, a way of seeing the world that, by the time I started college, I could no longer conform to. The poet William Blake described many of the feelings I had at the time about the church:
The vision of Christ that [the church] dost see
Is my Visions Greatest Enemy
Thy Heaven Doors are my Hell Gates
Both read the Bible day & night
But [the church] readst black where I read white.
Like many others, I was drawn to Jesus, but not the church. Very much like you.
You probably know that the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States consists of those who are leaving their faith, rather than those who are finding their faith. The church, which is known for preaching a very narrow, hateful, and derogatory message, is largely responsible for this dynamic. (I sometimes wonder if the church is the last bastion in America where homophobia and patriarchy are blessed and sanctioned, rather than condemned and judged.) When you point out that “we live in a world where genocide and human slavery are realities, yet the pope keeps emphasizing that [one of the most insidious evils in the world is] same-sex marriage,” you are quite right in asking the question “What in the world am I doing connected to this religion?” I sometimes ask the same question myself. Sometimes in our efforts to be faithful to Christianity, we have to exit Christianity.
Perhaps you are familiar with the bestselling book They Love Jesus But Not the Church, which identifies the most significant reasons that people are leaving the church in such high numbers, especially younger generations. These reasons are primarily based on perceptions of what the church stands for. According to this book, the main reasons people don’t like the church is because of the perception that (1) The church is an organized religion with a political agenda; (2) The church is judgmental and negative; (3) The church is dominated by males and oppresses females; (4) The church is homophobic; and (5) The church arrogantly claims all other [ways of seeing the world] are wrong.
When I take into consideration the image of church in the popular culture, as well as most expressions of Christianity in the U.S., it is hard for me to argue with these perceptions. This is much of the reason that I hate it — I absolutely hate it — when people ask me what I do for a living. They assume that since I’m a minister my approach to Christianity must align with these negative perceptions, and I find myself wanting to distance myself from the church as well, at least these perspectives of the church, because, to me, they hardly reflect the life and message of Jesus Christ, at least the picture of it we get in the Gospels, far from it.
One of the things I appreciate the most about the way you’ve handled your decision to leave the church is the way you’ve done so with so much discernment and thoughtfulness. A lot of times when people get frustrated with the church and/or Christianity they walk away and no longer give any credence whatsoever to the Bible or to Christ, yet you have maintained a deep respect for both. This attests to the maturity in which you approach religion.
You said that you made your decision to leave church not in spite of Christ but rather in the name of Christ, which I think is a quite beautiful way of stating things. You haven’t made the mistake of confusing Jesus with the church, and throwing the baby out with the bath water. It reminds me of a line from one of my former seminary professors: “Because I’m a follower of Jesus I’m not sure I can call myself a Christian.” This is, of course, out of a deep respect for Christ, coupled with the recognition that Christians rarely if ever live up the name of Christ. I think it was Gandhi who said that he would become a Christian if he could find one.
I also think that you quite rightly point out that several of the church’s teachings that bother you the most actually don’t have a very strong grounding in the Bible. A lot of times the stuff that the church claims to be a biblical understanding is instead a cultural understanding — after all, the church is quite good at trying to turn cultural perspectives into biblical perspectives. Think about the way warfare is valorized by so many Christians in America and the way Christians were at the forefront of the post-9/11 rush to war — they praised the prince of peace in one breath yet sanctioned violence in the next! I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read “World peace through military victory,” and it was on a truck with a Jesus fish no less, if you can believe it. Of course, we all know that the Bible says a lot of different things, and people tend to pick and choose what they like the most.
You’ve probably noticed by now that we actually share a lot in common, and many of the frustrations that you have with Christianity and with the church are the same frustrations that I have, as well as the ones many people from my church have. I totally agree that the church falls far short of its ideal and hardly lives up to the demands it places upon itself. And I can’t stand most of what I hear from the most popular religious voices in society, which includes my growing unease with the current pope.
Yet how do people like you and me, people who are drawn to Jesus because in him we see a vision that is full of compassion, love, affirmation, and hope – the very things that are often missing in the church — how do we continue that vision in our world today, at least in an effective way that makes a difference?
This may be where we part company. I think, when it gets down to it, I still need the church to help me do this. I don’t say this to try to get you to change your mind, or to try to talk you into finding a more “progressive” church (you already know they are out there and don’t need me to tell you about them), but rather to say that you’ve challenged me to seriously evaluate why the church is important, if it can be said to be important at all. Which is a question everybody should ask.
When I stop to think about it, for all of the church’s faults (which are many), it is precisely the church, at least in my life, that reminds me of the vision of compassion, love, affirmation, and hope rooted in Jesus Christ; it is the church that reminds me on a weekly basis of God’s unconditional love; it is the church that reminds me I am loved beyond my wildest imagination; and it is the church that challenges me to try to resist the status quo that so permeates our culture and our personal lives in order to live into a different way of being. And I am thankful for it.
Maybe I have been lucky. After all, I studied at two progressive seminaries that nourished an open and inclusive approach to Christian faith that values both the mind and the heart. And I have been fortunate enough to connect with a bunch of folks at my church who value the same things. And we find inspiration from one another, from telling our stories, from telling the stories about Jesus Christ, all of which motivate us to share the love and compassion of Jesus Christ with the world.
In the end, I think it is possible for you and me to witness to the gospel (the good news) that both of us seem to believe in – a gospel of love, peace, welcome, inclusion, and compassion, even if one of us keeps going to church and the other one doesn’t. Goodness knows there are a lot of great people outside of the church and there are a lot of worrisome ones inside of it! Which is a way of saying that, thankfully, the church doesn’t have a monopoly on the love of Christ – for the love of Christ, which goes by many different names, transcends every barrier that tries to contain it, including popes and bishops and pastors and priests and fancy hats and robes and buildings and walls and doctrines and creeds. I remember what St. Augustine used to say: You’ve got the church visible, which consists of all the things we think go with church; and you’ve got the church invisible, which consists of all the people everywhere who share God’s love with the world, who do God’s work in the world, whether they do it in the name of God or not, whether they do it in the name of religion or not. And St. Augustine said the invisible church is to be most cherished.
Perhaps what I wonder the most is this: if Jesus was alive today, would he go to church? What would he say to the church? Part of me thinks he might share a few rebukes as well, which would put you in quite good company.