Anne Rice and hypocrisy in the Church

The media has been all aflutter over the past weeks about the announcement by novelist Anne Rice that she’s “quitting Christianity, but not Christ”. As Rice posted on her blog:

“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than … [C]hristianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

In short, it seems that Rice is frustrated to breaking point with hypocrisy in the Church.

Here’s the thing, though:

Jesus also hates the hypocrisy of Christians.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry he had a great deal to say to the scribes and the Pharisees, the “church leaders” of the day. Here’s Jesus as reported in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Mt 23:1-3, NIV)

Jesus’ strongest condemnation was reserved for those who teach the truth but fail to live it out.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Mt 23:27-28, NIV)

Let there be no mistake: Jesus has no time for hypocrisy within the Church.

At the same time, Jesus instructs us to live a life delineated by firm principles. There are concrete instructions about correct behaviour as well as about correct motives and attitudes. And yet, the Bible teaches us that we are all flawed and will fail to meet theses standards. Jesus is compassionate towards those who struggle to live according to God’s will for their lives. But the vital step is accepting that we ourselves are flawed.

I suspect that anyone who has been involved with Christianity has had experience of hypocrisy. But I suspect that anyone who has been involved in any human affairs has had experience of hypocrisy. If we set ourselves any sort of moral standards at all, we will fail to meet them. Perhaps George Thorogood had the answer to hypocrisy: start off by claiming to be “Bad to the Bone”, and you’ll never fall short of your standards.

But these are not the standards that Jesus asks us to aim for.

I’ve been involved in the Church for a couple of decades, including several denominations and several countries. I’ve seen people failing to live up to their own teaching. More to the point, I’ve seen people failing to live up to Jesus’ teaching. (Shocking revelation: I am one of those people!)

But I’ve also seen a great number of people trying to live up to Jesus teaching. Sometimes they do a pretty good job, sometimes they do a terrible job. They’re never perfect, but they keep trying. They also keep admitting that they have failed and ask God’s help to keep trying.

This attitude of humility is perhaps the key to avoiding hypocrisy. Jesus didn’t rebuke the scribes and the Pharisees for failing to live up to God’s law: he rebuked them for pretending to do so.

Perhaps the most succinct expression of humility and acknowledgment of our own fallen nature came from the inimitable G. K. Chesterton. When invited by The Times newspaper, along with several other prominent authors, to write an essay on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?”, Chesterton replied with a letter:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton

This is the essence of humility. It is an open admission of our failings, with no excuses or self-justifications. (Incidentally, Chesterton did later write a full-length essay on the subject, which I highly recommend).

As the apostle John writes:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:8-10, NIV)

I understand Anne Rice’s frustration with hypocrisy in the Church, but I choose to respond differently. I remain within the Church, and if I feel that it has strayed, I will attempt to correct and support it from within.

More importantly, I recognise that I can also be hypocritical and corrupt, and I rely on my brothers and sisters in Christ to correct and support me in my walk.

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Related posts:

Serious, not fanatical

Living a good and/or Christian life

Modelled behaviour

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Chesterton on Miracles

Another excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, this time on the subject of miracles:

But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up.  Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma.  The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them.  The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder … If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.  If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things … you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism — the abstract impossibility of miracle.  You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.  It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence — it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred.  All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle.  If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles … Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.

The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.

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Related posts:

Believing and understanding

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Plus ça change…

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Chesterton on Nature

Another excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. (I promise I’m not being lazy with these extended quotations, it’s just that he was such a great writer I don’t want to detract from them with my own scribblings).

“The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals.  On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane, or you may be absurdly humane; but you cannot be human.  That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger.  It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger.  But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.

“If you want to treat a tiger reasonably, you must go back to the garden of Eden.  For the obstinate reminder continued to recur: only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature.  The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition:  that Nature is our mother.  Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this:  that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister.  We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.  This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

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Related posts:

Plus ça change…

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

On reading both books

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Plus ça change…

I’ve just finished reading Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton. What’s most fascinating to me is that it was written over 100 years ago and yet the issues that he’s discussing – materialism, evolution, determinism, conflicts fought in the name of religion, morality in the absence of divine guidance, etc. – are all exactly the same things that are shaping the debate today. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Here are a few selected excerpts:

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Chesterton on relativism:

“Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one.  Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view.  We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.  Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.”

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…on the faith of rationality:

“Reason is itself a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.  If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself.  I have no right to think at all.'”

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…on the philosophical aspects of evolution:

“Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself.  If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism.  If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into.  It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything.  This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about.”

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…on knee-jerk scepticism:

“The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it… It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end.  It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.  You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence that modern England is Christian.  But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow.  Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one.  Free thought has exhausted its own freedom… We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks.  We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”

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…on the history of the Church:

“…in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple:  it didn’t. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire.  The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast.  It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again:  repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top… If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag. But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new.  She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch… How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.”

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Related posts:

Chesterton on Nature

Chesterton on Miracles

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Childish things

It is a common charge against Christians that they hold as true things which are not grounded in reality. They are overly credulous, still holding beliefs that belong to a more childish time. “Yes,” it is said, “I used to go to church and I also used to believe in the tooth fairy.”

G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy:

“What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians.  Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it.  No; the vision is always solid and reliable.  The vision is always a fact.  It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.”

As for myself, I believe as strongly as ever in the importance of truth and the quest to understand the universe. But I have been involved with science too long to still believe that it holds all the answers – or even all of the interesting questions.

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Related posts:

Children of God?

Chesterton on Miracles

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