"God" is a loaded word. "God" is a loaded gun. Of all the taboo talk points — sex, politics, religion and money, it's God that clears the room quickest. But earlier this week, when the subject came up on the Facebook page of beloved Gothic novelist Anne Rice, it drew a sizable crowd.
"Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out," Rice wrote.
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 10 years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else ... 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.
The Rice controversy has offered many frustrated progressive Christians an entry point into a crowded conversation about faith. I think it's more than just coincidence that in the days prior to Rice's post, Facebook was dotted with "likes" for the group "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car." There's something in the air about this.
Interestingly, Rice is running out for all the reasons that I'm running back in, called to a fiery, deeply felt place where rage and devotion intersect. I, too, resent the way homophobic, misogynist, hypocritical and otherwise unbearable people are laying claim to "true" Christianity. But unlike Anne, I don't want to punt. I want to fight.
I was baptized Presbyterian at the font of a stone church in 1980. Presbyterianism is marked by a freakish work ethic, austerity, an emphasis on education and, relative to other Christian denominations, a pronounced liberalism. As far as righteousness goes, a sort of sliding-scale spirituality prevails — more if you can, less if you can't. There's always a sense that forgiveness and regeneration are within reach. In a nod to Presbyterian gender equality, my eldest sister became a minister and has been for the past 22 years. In a show of characteristic thrift, my father once generated several pews' worth of laughter by making change from the church collection plate, swapping his $20 bill for three fives.
At some point when I wasn't looking — I was distracted by punk rock, alt.feminism or maybe yoga — the dominant tenor of Christianity became almost unbearably shrill. As America in general became more stratified along religious and political lines, I slunk to the margins, caring less and less. Now, something rebellious and itchy has awoken in me, and I care a lot. Despite the frequent impulse to just keep quiet and hope that someone will rescue Christianity for the rest of us, I want to engage. Even if I have to start a lot of sentences with "I'm a Christian, but…" Even if I end up sounding like a two-bit Anne Lamott with anger-management issues.
After all, the self-satisfied and self-righteous have come for me, too: "YOU, a Christian? With those politics? With that past? Not with those go-go shorts, missy, your Queer Nation stickers, your unrepentant cursing, and your premarital everything." I knew they'd show up, those stingy, uncharitable moral goalkeepers, with their underlined passages in Leviticus and their pointy-finger God. It just ain't a Jesus party without this particular turd in the spiritual punchbowl. Maybe it's the believer's rite of passage — until you've encountered this type and had them declare a fundamental component of your identity an "abomination," you kind of haven't lived. The challenge is to have your faith tested this way and not blink.
But private moments of grace shore up my belief, no matter what any Christian Grinch might proclaim. When my grandmother was in hospice care, in the final stages of metastasized liver cancer, my mother called everyone to Baltimore for a final visit. Seeing my once-industrious, stylish grandmother shrunken and dwindling with disease was crushing. Her mind shutting down, as well as her body, she drifted through periods of delirium. From her hospital bed, yoked to tubes and machines, she'd try to bolt from the room, fleeing an invisible attacker, or take an imaginary phone call: Hello? What number did you dial? Then, out of a period of silence, she turned her face, pale but still pink, to my mother and addressed her with perfect lucidity. "I just wanted to say 'thank you.'" And my mother replied, kind and plain, "You're very welcome." To hear that soothing maternal voice, the one that comforted me as a child, turned on her own mother was the greatest gift. It let me know that among the kidney-shaped plastic bins for spitting up blood and ever-increasing morphine drips, God was in the room, too. A sublime memory that can both wreck and revive me all at once. I've had, also, examples of grace so stupidly obvious that a Hollywood hack would be embarrassed to claim them: One cold April day, when I was broke, drag-ass depressed, my marriage on the verge of cratering, I was driving, and heard, for the first time, Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel," a song about a woman so desperate, she turned her entire life over to God. After I wiped my eyes with napkins I'd stashed in the glove box, I thought, Well, that was a little on the nose, don't you think, Lord?
Elegant or corny as the messages may be, they are consistent, well-timed and appreciated. They've enabled me to say, authentically, that I don't fear God. But that doesn't mean I judge those who do, or that I judge those who are just too sick of people being cruel in his name to put much stock in believing. There is no hell like man-made hell, no sting worse than rebuke in the name of God, and some of us never recover from being told that we're not straight enough. Not obedient enough. Not submissive enough. Not pure enough. So they quit. When you want that gentle, open-armed Jesus with the soft eyes and lambs and love, only to be refused, over and over with "Not. Good. Enough," it's hard not to internalize it, this belief that you're unworthy of God's gracious care. If you've grown weary of being told you come up short, you may settle for stepping out of the way of the roundhouse kicks. You're too bruised and tired to hear a safe voice saying, "Come back!" Salvation as the prize in this carnival isn't worth another throw.
Of course, it is said that Christians, not Christianity, are the problem. I'll give an Amen to that. I've had to devise ways to deal with the frustration born of small-mindedness and stupidity in the clown suit of righteousness. When I think people suck too much to justify a belief in God and all his mangy disciples, power ballads call me home. I sit alone, agitated and pulled apart by cynicism, blasting my praise music playlist on repeat until the beauty hammers me back into place. Some days I rely entirely on "Bring the Rain" by MercyMe, which starts off with the line: "I can count a million times people asking me how I can praise you with all that I've gone through." There's crashing drums and heart-quickening gospel voices on backup at the climax. My idea of joyful noise. A thousand hymns belched from church organ pipes couldn't come close.
I believe that a relationship with the church, like all relationships that sear your soul, will never be perfect. But I'm not going to flee the church because someone else thinks they know who belongs there. Religion can be freighted with heartache, disappointment, uncomfortable adjustment and the dreary slog through the vale of tears. But I believe we can fashion the pieces of a broken heart into a new shape of belief. I'd rather endure the contortions of worship than suffer the bone-dry refuge of refusal or a spiritual life half-lived.
And I believe that, in her way, Anne Rice is saying the same. While I'm not moved to join her, I sure don't blame her. I was touched that she cared enough to come right out and say that she was willing to renounce organized religion as her high-dive act of faith. I hate that it had to come to this for her, but I'm grateful for what it has lit up in me. If that's what it takes to praise you, by all means, Jesus, bring the rain.
Lily Burana is the author of three books, most recently "I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles." Her all-time favorite Jesus jam is Kutless' "Word of God Speak."