At this particular moment in pop culture, we have two very influential women trying to distance themselves from their former Christian faith. And other than their ability to make headlines, they couldn't be more different. First we have Katy Perry, a 25-year-old pop singer who started out in the Contemporary Christian Music scene before a song about lip balm made her a superstar. Check out the video below from her CCM days. (Who knew she could sing without writhing? I thought these things were programmed to occur simultaneously.)
It's a well-known fact that Perry was raised by devout evangelical parents -- well-known, because for every topless photo shoot the singer gives the press, she offers a new anecdote about her wacky religious upbringing. I have to hand it to her, she gives good quote. In the latest Rolling Stone, she says that speaking in tongues is "as normal to me as 'pass the salt'", and says she couldn't eat Lucky Charms because "lucky" sounds like "Lucifier." But what's even more interesting than the sugary-cereal anecdote (I'm so trying that on my kid), is that she still considers herself a Christian. To wit:
God is very much still a part of my life...But the way the details are told in the Bible—that’s very fuzzy for me. And I want to throw up when I say that. But that’s the truth.
I still believe that Jesus is the son of God… But I also believe in extraterrestrials, and that there are people who are sent from God to be messengers, and all sorts of crazy stuff… Every time I look up, I know that I’m nothing and there’s something way beyond me. I don’t think it’s as simple as heaven and hell.
In the other corner of the blogosphere we have Anne Rice, who made headlines by announcing on Facebook that she had "quit being a Christian." The vampire novelist famously returned to her Catholic roots in 1998, after a long period of atheism. Here's what she told the Los Angeles Times about her decision to walk away again:
I've come to the conclusion from my experience with organized religion that I have to leave, that I have to, in the name of Christ, step away from this. It's a matter of rejecting what I've discovered about the persecution of gays, the persecution and oppression of women and the actions of the churches on many different levels. I've also found that I can't find a basis in Scripture for a lot of the positions that churches and denominations take today, and I can't find any basis at all for an anointed, hierarchical priesthood.
So all of this finally created a pressure in me, a kind of confusion, a toxic anger at times, and I felt I had to step aside. And that's what I've done.
I could make a case for Anne Rice falling into the same category -- after all, she's best known for writing steamy fantasy novels -- but I think there's something more going on here. What strikes me most about Perry and Rice's statements is the inner conflict they express. These women are not just declaring their beliefs; they're divulging an ongoing struggle with the very ideas of faith, the church and salvation. Katy Perry literally feels nauseous when she admits she doesn't believe in the absolute truth of the Bible. Anne Rice, like a woman in mourning, lists the Catholic rituals that she'll miss. Neither Rice nor Perry is in a state of resolution about their faith. Each is on a journey, working through "toxic anger" (Rice) and contemplating "the neverendingness of the universe" (Perry).
This is turf where celebrity journalism fears to tread. We like our Christian stars to be troops-supporting virgins, our atheist stars to be hard-drinking intellectuals. We can allow for agnostics, or those who fit into the new default category of "spiritual but not religious." But celebrities who actively wrestle with faith? They make us uncomfortable. Why can't they just pick a side, like everybody else? Katy Perry must be an idiot. Anne Rice must never have been a real Christian. We can accept the sincerity of a celebrity who marries and divorces six people, but not that of a celebrity who goes back and forth on God.
If we could make room for celebrities who question religion, could we also make room in the modern church for disbelief? Should our religious institutions be trying harder to embrace doubt, to accept questioning as part of the process of faith? Food for thought.
For now, it will be interesting to see what replaces religion in Rice's books and Perry's songs. Katy Perry seems to have fled from her strict religious upbringing into a teenage cotton-candy world, where any notion of Hell is superseded by the next sugar fix. Is the much-criticized lack of depth in her songs an attempt to detach herself from her evangelizing past? Rice has referred to her entire body of work, up until her 2004 decision to "write only for the Lord," as "a movement toward Jesus Christ." Will her work from now on be a movement away from Christianity -- and if so, what will that look like?