Last week, Anne Rice, the author of the bestselling “Vampire Chronicles” series, and — of more relevance to believing Christians — two novels about the early years of Jesus Christ, announced she had “quit being a Christian.”
Most of Rice’s longtime fans, drawn to vampire tales that explored gender-bending romantic relationships and the immortal creatures’ existential woes, mostly expressed a sense of relief.
But newcomers to the Rice oeuvre, moved by Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana may well be mystified by her seemingly abrupt change of heart. How can an author offer an inspiring fictional rendering of the Incarnation, only to shrug it off and go on to a new chapter of her life?
The author provided at least a partial explanation for her surprising decision in several posts on her Facebook page. “I remain committed to Christ, as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity,” she announced in her first message. A subsequent post added the following: “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.”
Rice is not alone in professing her love for Christ while repudiating countercultural teachings embedded in the faith. According to Beliefnet.com, more than one-fifth of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Her private path may not be unusual. But her public struggle sheds light on the dialogue between faith and personal experience and the challenge Church membership poses to our sense of self and our understanding of human reality. While membership in the Church can provide a haven from a chaotic or alienating world, it also can — as the Gospel of John notes rather ominously — take us where we “don’t want to go.”
Indeed, those who read the author’s poignant but disturbing 2008 memoir charting her return to the Catholic faith of her childhood may have anticipated the latest twist in her spiritual journey. As she made clear in the conclusion to Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, Rice returned to the Church without really coming to grips with theological and moral teachings on gender complimentarity and sexual ethics that threatened her own identity and vision of reality.
From her childhood, Rice resisted the imposition of traditional gender roles and never embraced her feminine identity. During elementary school, she didn’t think of herself as a “girl” and was surprised to discover that she could not become a priest. Though a faithful wife and mother of two children, including a daughter who died of childhood leukemia, Rice wrote novels that explored an existence without gender boundaries or fixed moral norms. “Vampire Lestat, the genderless giant who lived in me, was always the voice of my soul,” she has written.
Fans have speculated that Rice’s preoccupation with the immortal world of vampires was partly a working out of her grief at the death of her daughter. But her conversion memoir suggested that the world of vampires also gave her free rein to experience their reality.
The “Vampire Chronicles” might well have continued, but for a competing force in the author’s life. A near-death experience resulting from a serious illness led the author back to the faith of her New Orleans childhood, when she used to pray that God allow her to receive the stigmata.
In her memoir, Rice described herself during the early phase of her conversion as “Christ-haunted.” She immersed herself in the Old and New Testament. She reconnected with her Catholic relatives, who welcomed her back into the fold. She became a Catholic again. Yet the “Vampire Lestat, the genderless giant who lived in me” had not entirely retreated — or so the reader is likely to conclude after reading the memoir’s ambiguous conclusion.
No surprise, then, that the new chapter in Rice’s life — like the author herself — is a bit more complicated than the recent headlines suggest. As one news story noted: Rice “is not necessarily leaving belief in God or even belief in Jesus. … Rice makes it clear that her departure from religion is not theological as much as it is moral.”
Apparently, Rice’s new position is that she still believes in Christ, but repudiates the Church’s controversial stance within the framework of the culture wars. In her view, the person of Christ transcends the negativity of the Church’s position on issues like same-sex “marriage,” birth control, abortion and human embryonic stem-cell research.
In a subsequent interview with National Public Radio, Rice explained that the California Catholic bishops’ decision to back Proposition 8, which opposed the legalization of same-sex “marriage,” was the final straw in her break with organized religion. The NPR reporter asked Rice if her only child, Christopher Rice, a prominent homosexual author, influenced her decision. She said No; She had been exploring themes of interest to homosexual readers for decades.
It’s easy to characterize Rice’s Facebook report as a publicity stunt. In recent years, she has begun a new series on angels, and her willingness to cast off Christian concerns might well increase her appeal to a broader audience of readers, especially her old fans.
But it’s equally possible that Rice simply couldn’t resolve the internal contradictions exposed in her effort to straddle two worlds — her own preference for a genderless, boundary-less reality and a faith anchored in the incarnate Word that affirms the dignity and the sacramental nature of the human body: “Male and female, he created them.”
The birth of Christ and his suffering and death on the cross for the salvation of the world affirm the central place of the human body in the life and teachings of the Church. The body in both its masculine and feminine forms is not peripheral to the faith. And the moral absolutes that Rice shrugs off as so much culture-war boilerplate actually secure and defend the sanctity of the human body as the expression of a person’s deepest values.
Like such writers as Graham Greene, who drifted away from the Church despite writing classic “Catholic” novels like Brighton Rock, Rice’s story also confirms the difficulty of bringing faith and life into harmony.
Jesus Christ is not just a beautiful idea. The Bridegroom lived on this earth and lives now in the Church, his Bride. He asks us to “follow” him with the full integrity of our body and soul.
For every believer, that call of discipleship necessarily involves a leap of faith that forces us to cast aside impediments to our spiritual journey. Rice’s narrative gifts and celebrity allow us to witness her own struggle, and there is something to be learned from her unfinished tale. In the meantime, we can pray that subsequent chapters in her story trace her path to the place where, at least for now, she “does not want to go”: full re-conversion to the Church and reconciliation to Christ.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.