Monday, August 23, 2010

I Don’t Belong: The Anne Rice Syndrome

There’s a joke that goes something like this: One Christian tells another Christian that he loves his church because the people there accept him, warts and all. “They love me for who I am, they accept me, and they don’t judge me.” The other Christian replies, “That’s not a church, that’s a bar.”

When I read last month that author Anne Rice declared, “I quit being a Christian” on her Facebook page, this joke came to mind. Not that Rice’s announcement or predicament is funny.

Her complaint? She still follows Christ, she says, but she wants nothing to do with Christians. It became “impossible” for her “to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider.” Two key words there: “belong” and “outsider.”

I became a Christian as a teenager during the Jesus People movement of the 1970s, much of which was about being the outsider. Not that our Christianity wasn’t genuine, but truth be told, in our worst moments and in the foolishness of our youth, we fancied ourselves a cut above the average Christian.

We thought we cut to the core of what it meant to be Christian. We were more like the apostolic church, and we weren’t weighed down by social and political nonsense, especially if it came from the Right. We didn’t care for hymns, we liked contemporary music. We reached out to what academics call the “marginalized.” We were different. Outsiders in the Body of Christ. Yay us.

Don’t misunderstand me. I firmly believe the Jesus People movement was a movement of the Holy Spirit. But many teenagers who became Christians at that time had a decided lack of humility when it came to their fellow Christians. This probably had almost as much to do with being a teenager as it did with the movement itself.

But I’m not a teenager anymore and neither is Anne Rice. Yet she stomps her feet like one. She declares that for ten years she tried and failed to belong. Failed how? What did she want? What would have been her measure of success? How do you follow Christ but fail to belong to the wildly diverse, wounded and wonderful entity we call the Body of Christ?

I can’t get past the suspicion that Rice never had any intention of belonging, that she kept her announcement locked away in her heart as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card so she’d never really have to be one of those people.

As C.S. Lewis noted, the Body of Christ “is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities.” The fact is the members of the Body are members (better translated “organs,” as Lewis said) because they are different. The Lord has no use for a Body full of heads or a Body full of hearts. We’re only called to unity on the essentials of the faith, what Bible teacher Beth Moore calls the “spine” issues.

Many young people in the Jesus People movement felt they didn’t belong around their more traditional fellow Christians. We often felt out of place, and we took a perverse delight in that, believing ourselves at the forefront of a new movement, with the old way of thinking crumbling into history.

We were wrong. We belonged. We were part of a Body that stretches back two thousand years and includes Orthodox and Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist. If we felt uncomfortable around traditional Christians, that was as much our fault as theirs. If we felt unwelcome, it was partly because we cultivated that feeling and thought it a badge of honor. We never asked ourselves if our fellow members of the Body felt they belonged around us.

We wanted a church that would allow us to walk in as we were and walk out just the same. No meat replacing milk, no iron sharpening iron. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, work that way. Of course a church must allow you to walk in as you are, but you must walk out a different person, eventually. If not, you’ve merely been bending your elbow at a bar.

You can choose to acknowledge your membership in the Body of Christ, with all its mad flaws, or you can choose to play the lonely rebel, refusing to even take on the name “Christian,” like a child who won’t acknowledge her last name because someone might know her embarrassing parents. The role of outsider may feel more comfortable, for a time, but it is an unhumble place to be.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Playing with Names

I enjoy all the various task involved in plotting and writing a novel, but I think my favorite part of the plotting stage is when I get to make up names. Not just people names, but place names—the names of streets, mountain peaks, restaurants, and lakes. All the names that add flavor and a sense of place.

If the setting for your novel or short story is fictitious, you can’t use an actual town name for your town’s name or the name of a real canyon for your fictitious canyon, but there’s no reason you can’t take the name of an actual town, say, Big Timber (in Montana), and use it as the name of a hotel in your book, or that you can’t take inspiration from a place name, taking, for instance, Grizzly Peak (Colorado) and turning it into Grizzly Mountain Road.

Highway maps and atlases are the best places to go for place names, though I’ve also found some unusual names on my road trips through the Rocky Mountain West. I love the sound of Crazy Woman Creek in Wyoming. Each time I pass the “Middle Fork Crazy Woman” sign on I-25 I want to stop and take a photo. One of these days I’m going to use that name.

I may be biased, living in the West as I do, but I think place names in my part of the country are especially rich and evocative. There are names that suggest pine-covered mountains. Glen Haven, Black Forest, and Turquoise Lake in Colorado. Deer Lodge in Montana. And there are rough and crusty names, real western names, like Chugwater and Buffalo in Wyoming, Bear’s Mouth and Beartooth in Montana, and Battlement Mesa, Rifle, and Gunbarrel in Colorado.

The are the obvious Indian names—such as Shoshoni, Washakie, Gros Ventre, and Absaroka—and the not-so-obvious Indian names, such as Ten Sleep in Wyoming, named for the Indians’ way of measuring distance (the town was ten sleeps from Fort Laramie).

New Mexico’s various Pueblo peoples have been the origin of some wonderful place names, including Kewa, Ohkay Owingeh, Tsi Mayoh, and Pojoaque, the latter the Spanish rendering of the original Tewa Po-Suwae-Geh and pronounced poh-WAH-kee. How could you not love that word?

Place names of Spanish origin include Alamogordo (literally “fat cottonwood”), Vallecito, Ojo Caliente, and Cortez, and French trappers and traders in the nineteenth century left us with a host of French place names, many of them in Colorado, including Laporte, Cache la Poudre, De Beque, and St. Vrain.

If I come across a name that strikes my fancy, I stick it in a folder for future use. Antelope Hills, Yellow Jacket, Wolf, Grindstone, Never Summer, Wildhorse Mesa, Roundup, Burnt Ridge, Wintergreen, Nokhu Crags, Dry Rifle, Deadhorse—all tucked away.

And then there’s Stem Beach. A tiny town in Colorado. I’ve got that one tucked away too. The origin of the name is a total mystery to me. I could probably do an Internet search and find out how the two-building town south of Pueblo became Stem Beach, but I’d rather let my imagination run wild. I know there’s a story in that name.