Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is Catholicism Like Smoking?

Since last week's post prompted some lively discussion on Anne Rice's Facebook page, this seems like a good time to ponder something that Rice has made me think about: the difficulty of quitting Catholicism.

I should clarify, to start, that I'm not a Catholic; rather, I'm a Prod with Italian roots, a nun obsession and a love of early church history. I named my son after Saint Anselm. So rest assured that I'm not trying to be flip about the Catholic Church here.  I see a great deal of beauty in Catholicism. When Anne Rice first declared her conversion into the Catholic Church, I thought it made perfect sense.  The things that resonate about her books -- the conflicted relationship between passion and morality, the grand drama on a larger-than-human scale, the tantalizing nearness of death -- are all very present in Catholic tradition and ritual.

And now she is walking away, not from her faith, but from the Church. Here's what I neglected to mention in the previous post: after declaring that she'd "quit being a Christian," Rice received a public invitation to join the socially liberal United Church of Christ (supported, of course, by an enthusiastic Facebook campaign). When she demurred, the LA Times asked Rice flat-out, How can you say no to that? Her response was diplomatic and honest: "I respect completely people who want to find a church that's more in accord with what they can morally accept. But for me, walking away is the thing right now. In the name of Christ, in the name of God."

Now, I love the UCC. I love their proud acceptance of different lifestyles and sexualities, I love their willingness to embrace change, and I love that their entire outreach campaign is based on a Gracie Allen quote. But the UCC is not the Catholic Church. For everything it offers, it lacks the rituals, the thousands of years of history and culture, the globe-spanning universal language of Catholicism. Now: did Anne Rice leave the church entirely because she thought it would make a stronger political statement than joining a more liberal denomination? Or did she leave because nothing can truly replace Catholicism for her?

I've watched many friends struggle to quit smoking, and it's always seemed to me that the hardest part of quitting smoking is that nothing can really take its place. There is no alternative activity that incorporates relaxation, socializing and ritual in the same way that cigarettes do. There's nothing you can do with your mouth and hands and breath that can replicate the feeling of having a cigarette.  Similarly: there is nothing else in the world like the Catholic Church. Some would argue for the Episcopal Church as an adequate replacement, but for many who have fallen in love or been raised with Catholic tradition, it will never be more than adequate. Remember: selecting a church is a deeply personal thing, and it can be more about a feeling of presence and belonging than about a series of check marks on an "agree/do not agree" list.

This is hard time for Catholics with an independent moral compass.  In June, a representative from the Vatican argued before the U.N. that condom distribution was actually harmful to AIDS-ravaged Africa. In July, the Vatican declared the ordination of women to be delicta graviora -- a "grave sin" comparable to sexually abusing a child. And the abuse scandal -- a travesty only magnified by the church's refusal to take responsibility -- is still a great unhealed wound; just this week, a Vatican lawyer gave an interview to Fox News assuring the public that Pope Ratzinger actually did show human emotion in reaction to the abuse cases. (When that's supposed to be comforting, we're in deep trouble.)

Anne Rice says that she'll "very much miss" going to Mass and participating in Holy Communion. Her decision sounds heartbreaking. But sometimes, going cold turkey is the only option.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Reluctant Christian: Katy Perry & Anne Rice

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.

What do these two stories have in common?  Neither of these ladies have abandoned the core tenet of Christianity, faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ. By that definition, they're still devout Christians. What they've done is left the church, or more specifically, a version of Christianity that they found limiting. For Perry, it was a version that didn't allow her to eat Lucky Charms or hang out with gay people; for Rice, it was a version that insisted that priests were closer to God than laypeople (or women). This makes perfect sense, really. One could argue that Christianity itself is founded on the idea of rebelling from restrictive religious laws and practices. So why is it headline-worthy news when a pop singer and a fiction writer decide that organized religion has a few problems?
In terms of Katy Perry, there's an easy answer: the press tosses its spectacles into the air with glee every time it finds a story that actually has the capacity to shock, anger or titillate the jaded reader -- and while religion and sex are only sometimes enough on their own, the intersection of the two is a reliable home run. (Adding "violence" to either topic also works. Nobody tell The Huffington Post that I'm spilling their secrets, okay?) Katy Perry is sex on a plate, and Katy Perry has an unironic Jesus tattoo. Write it up, boys.

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?