Anne Rice, the famous author of ‘The Vampire Chronicles’ (are vampires ever out of fashion?) and a much-heralded convert to Christianity in 1998 has now decided to give up calling herself a Christian. In a series of posts on her Facebook page over a 24-hour period at the end of July, she announced that, “In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”
For Rice, the words and actions of the church have come to defy her deep sense of justice and compassion. She felt that she was being required to be ‘anti-everything’. And she felt tired of belonging to such a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.”
As the directors of Australia’s Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) we know how she feels.
Two years ago we had a small part to play in the Sydney Morning Herald and St James Ethics Centre debate series, IQ2. CPX provided one of the speakers, Professor John Lennox of Oxford, who valiantly spoke against the motion, ‘We’d be better off without religion’. A poll was taken as the audience entered the theatre and another as they exited. We lost both.
Overwhelmingly, this Sydney audience believed we would, in fact, be better off without religion. Given that much of the discussion revolved around the Christian religion, we were sobered by the thought that so many people thought Christianity was unhelpful for society.
There is a fascinating cultural shift to observe here. The church was once most commonly criticized for being overly moral and ‘holier-than-thou’. Now it is more common to hear people say that Christianity is immoral and damaging for society—both in history and today. Jesus is still well loved by Australians: 89% believe he was a “good influence on society,” McCrindle Research found late last year, and 68% believe he was “the most important figure in history.” But the church, the followers of that still-popular teacher from Galilee, is badly on the nose.
There are a few historical and philosophical things we could say in response to the criticisms of the church throughout history. We might point out that most of the tales of its evils—whether the Spanish Inquisition or the Northern Ireland conflict—involve gross exaggerations of the extent and modes of violence ‘in the name of Christ’. The events were bad, for sure, but the facts hardly warrant the monstrous narratives we hear in popular retellings.
Secondly, we might also state that secular causes and regimes throughout history were hardly improvements. Leaving aside the unspeakably large numbers of deaths under Mao and Pol Pot, as many people were executed in the name of secular ‘liberty’ in a single year of the French Revolution (the Terror of 1793-94) as in the entire thirty-year Northern Ireland conflict, and Joseph Stalin killed as many people each week as were put to death in the entire 350 year history of the Spanish Inquisition (approximately 6000). The problem is not religion or irreligion. It is the human heart.
But we are well aware that such ‘defences’ never really much affect people’s view on faith. Subtle, nuanced debates just don’t cut through. What society needs from the church is not some fancy new argument but the beautiful old narrative of Christians being like Christ. We can all agree that when a Christian is bigoted or violent, she is not following Christ but defying him. The problem with rotten Christians is not their Christianity, but their lack of it. On her Facebook page, Anne Rice quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quip, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
For every horror story connected with Christians—the kinds of stories that have turned away the Anne Rices of the world—there are plentiful stories of honest, lovely, good-hearted, genuine Christian living
It has to be said that many of the New Atheist writers exploit the weakness of Christians in order to attack the faith itself. So, Richard Dawkins can argue in The God Delusion that Christianity causes wars because some people who have fought in wars are Christians, surely one of the biggest non-sequiturs ever offered by an Oxford professor.
But if awful Christian behaviour can put people off Christianity itself, so the reverse (thank God) is true: beautiful Christianity makes the Christian faith attractive. For every horror story connected with Christians—the kinds of stories that have turned away the Anne Rices of the world—there are plentiful stories of honest, lovely, good-hearted, genuine Christian living.
The IQ2 debate a couple of years ago was not a complete disaster for the believers in the audience. Although the side ‘for religion’ lost both the entrance and exit polls, there was a small difference between the two. In fact, it was one vote. Statistically, one person had moved from agreeing with the motion ‘We’d be better off without religion’ to disagreeing with it.
Curiously, one person came to talk to us afterwards. He was chuffed that he might have been responsible for the only movement of the night. We asked what changed his mind. He said it was a question from the audience, something like: “Regardless of the historical and philosophical arguments, think of someone you know personally who is sincerely religious and ask yourself, is their life and contribution better or worse because of their faith?” He knew a Christian—a distant Aunt or something—and couldn’t bring himself to believe that her life was diminished by faith. Quite the opposite. After all the intellectual grunt of the debate, in the end, what changed his perspective was not a fancy new argument, but the human story of a Christian who looked like Christ in daily life.
The church has a right to defend itself against exaggerations of its historical and contemporary evils but we think it would be better off owning up to its terrible departures from the way of Christ, or even simple human kindness, and getting busier embodying what it claims to believe. Nothing else will change hearts and minds. Nothing else will do. Defending the faith means embodying the faith. Living the faith. Doing the faith.
Thankfully we are fortunate to see examples of Christians humbly attempting this in various kinds of communities around Australia and beyond.
If the Church can look like a group of Christians getting on with core business it might not be too much to hope that Anne Rice will come back. In fact, if she herself lives out the way of Jesus Christ, she might even draw others in.
Greg Clarke and John Dickson are Directors of the Centre for Public Christianity
This article orginally appeared on ABC Unleashed