I have great respect for Anne Rice. She is an outstanding American author and, since returning to her Catholic roots, has written two volumes of her life of Jesus, Christ the Lord: Out of EgyptChrist the Lord: The Road to Cana and . Her personal apologia at the end the first book (audio version) is truly admirable and inspiring. In July 2010, Ms. Rice announced that she has decided that she will remain faithful to the Risen Jesus (Christ), but that she can no longer be a part of the dysfunctional, ragtag mob of Christians around the world. Her full statement was:
"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. 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."
I can certainly add my own ‘Amen’ to each and every one of her “I refuse to”s, except one. Who am I to abandon my “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous” brothers and sisters? While I respect her reasons for retreating to a private, devotional attachment to Christ, her language perplexes me. The best way I can frame this for myself is to pose some key questions:
First, this Jesus whose life and enduring existence are so central to both Anne Rice and me didn’t quit Judaism. Why? Clearly there was a lot about the religion of his birth that he abhorred. Legalism. Discrimination against women and anyone who was, as we say today, “differently-abled” (the blind, the lame, lepers, the poor and marginalized of his society). He railed against a religious system that put power and prestige before people and piled rule upon rule like a heavy yoke on people’s backs. He broke sacrosanct Jewish Sabbath laws when they got in the way of people’s more important need for healing, forgiveness, justice, and something to eat. Worst of all, in the eyes of some of his coreligionists, he partied too much with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other citizens of ill repute. Despite all this, he never considered for a moment being anything other than a Jew.
Jesus was born a Jew, lived his entire life as one, and died in the faith of his parents and ancestors. His earliest followers, who comprised the messianic Jesus Movement within Judaism, remained faithful to the religion of their birth until late in the first century, when it became impossible for the two groups to worship and coexist in the same neighborhood synagogues. Jesus remained a Jew despite all the problems and—in some instances—downright evil that had permeated his religion for centuries. It amazes me that Anne Rice or anyone else (including this blogger) would find it impossible to walk the walk with our brothers and sisters who, with us, represent a messy mix of ideologies and behaviors, saints and sinners.
Second, why didn’t Jesus pick better leaders for his new movement? A close look at his “top 12 draft picks” reveals either very poor character and leadership assessment or some deeper truth that contains an uncomfortable and challenging life lesson. Being the wise rabbi that Anne Rice portrays in her books, Jesus should have been smart enough to recruit the cream of the Judaic crop to carry his message of life and salvation from Palestine to the ends of the earth. So, who did this master of human nature and behavior pick? We get a snapshot from the Last Supper. By the way, let’s agree that it’s highly unlikely that only men attended the meal. Too bad we’re stuck with DaVinci’s image of the twelve apostles plus Jesus. In attendance were a traitor (Judas), who had already sold Jesus to his critics; Peter, who hours later would deny any association with a person by the name of Jesus; nine others who would run away at the first sign of danger; and one, John, who had the guts the next day to stand tall with the courageous women at the foot of the cross. Al Davis, owner of the NFL’s underachieving Oakland Raiders, could have drafted better than that. Did Jesus suspect that what came to be known as Christianity would in fact become a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group”? Of course he did.
So, my choices are (1) to quit Christianity in favor of my own personal church-of-Jesus-and-me, or (2) to dig for a deeper truth hidden within the fickleness of human nature and God’s enduring patience and desire for reconciliation. One of my favorite stories is the one about two friends who were discussing religion. One said, “I’m not going to join a church until I find one that’s perfect.” The other considered the friend’s statement and said, “Okay, but there’s just one catch. As soon as you join it, it won’t be perfect anymore.”
My reading of the four gospels—and Anne Rice’s two volumes—is that Jesus made a choice to live and work and pray alongside very imperfect people within his own family, his local synagogue, and at the Temple in Jerusalem. It would never have occurred to him to abandon his community because of malice, corruption, pettiness, and injustice. These conditions were a given. He called those who would listen to him to a higher standard—even to a degree of perfection. What is even more telling for the purpose of this reflection, he made a commitment to walk that crooked journey with, not apart from them.
What all this tells me is that Jesus rejected the option of saying, “Listen up, you wretched sinners, if you ever get your (#@!*) together, you can come and look for me.”
It’s five years since my last novel, Down a Narrow Alley.* I had begun to think that I had no more book-length stories left in me. To my surprise, I woke up one late July morning with what seems like a viable novel project, complete with interesting characters, at least a rudimentary plot line/narrative arc (always my nemesis).
Since I've been sitting on a half-written novel and a bunch of other “concepts,” I promised myself that I would not begin to write until I had a compass, in the form of a nearly complete outline (beginning, middle, and end).
Typically, the brainstorms that fly from my imagination have a short lifespan. This new one, whose working title is A Train to Bruges, feels different. It breathes pure oxygen and includes subplots/obstacles/solutions/twists that show promise of getting me beyond Chapter 5. The first 5,000 words flooded into an MS Word document. "Hey, world, A. J. Garrotto's got his groove back!" Then, I got sucker-punched. Never saw it coming. My attacker's name was Guilt (capitalized and italicized).
"Do you know how long it'll to take you to finish this thing?"
I recognized the strident, mocking voice. It has hounded me through every attempt to write a good novel, if not the Great American Novel. "Yeah," I said, already rocked back on my heels, "about a year."
"How can you justify a commitment like that when you already have a close-to-full-time job . . . and a family?" Not having a ready answer left me open to another jab. "And, even if you finish your sorry-ass novel, who's going to read it besides your relatives and most loyal friends? Oh, and by the way, have you checked the sales of your last three novels lately? Just how many millions down are they on Amazon's sales chart?"
I'm chagrined at how easily I succumb to this kind of writer-abuse, but there is a positive side. In the euphoria of inspiration and renewed dedication, I hadn't stopped to ask myself why I want to write this novel. This question is the step-child of the greater question, why do I write at all. Granting the validity of some of the negatives in my adversary’s mockery, are there any good reasons to write what might turn out to be another “dead-end” novel?
Yes! And let me point them out.
1. The search for meaning is the great work of my life. Writing a novel helps me to explore parts of my inner Self that I neglect in other aspects of my daily existence. Through my characters, I learn things about myself. Is it selfish to write for one's own benefit and growth? In a way, but I’d rather think of writing as a unique way for the divine to reach into my heart and put a few more pieces of the puzzle of my life in place.
2. I write to leave a personal legacy to my daughters and grandchildren. Maybe they’ll learn things about me that I have not disclosed in face to face revelation and understand how I got to be who I am.
3. Recently, while journaling, I had an insight about myself. I wrote, “I am a storyteller. That’s who I am.” Everything I do in life is related to story, whether it's journaling in private or writing fiction and nonfiction for publication. In my professional life as lay minister in my local parish, I listen to human stories and share my own jagged story--connecting all of it to the Great Story that God is telling in the history of planet Earth and the expanding universe.
4. Making up stories is fun! Now that I’m warmed up, I could add to that list, but I don’t need to. I already have enough reasons to add chapters to this new work, mining its personal treasures and deferring judgments about its ultimate literary value and its future in the publishing universe. Let it end up two millionth on Amazon. The writing is the thing. And for this storyteller, that’s enough.
* Down a Narrow Alley is the sequel to Circles of Stone (2002, Hilliard and Harris Publishers)