Back in the early sixties, a book was published with the title, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches. I never read it, but it strikes me as an apt description of American Christianity, and a mirror image of the unnerving God of the church.
The suburbs are not the incarnation of social evil, as some critics would have us believe. But they do tend to shape us (as does the city, as does rural life!). And some of that shaping has not been for the church's best.
Let's take one famous quality of suburban life: safety. I live in a suburb in the Midwest where the biggest news items in the police blotter in our local paper usually have to do with shoplifting or DUIs or the occasional bicycle theft. Murders, rapes, armed robberies and the like—few and very, very far between. It's a safe place to live. Safe is good.
Safety, though not a particularly Christian value, has become a characteristic of so much contemporary Christianity, especially as suburban life has become characteristic of American life. This suburban value has apparently captured the imagination of many. And often innocently enough.
It begins when we just get plain tired of dealing with the world on the world's terms. I heard a number of Christian romance novelists say they began writing safer romances because, when they and their daughters sat down to read the stuff being offered up at Barnes and Noble, they were morally appalled. Or take those who get weary of the tired themes of pop music—from silly to raunchy, but seemingly always about romantic love or just sex—and so turn the radio dial to a safe Christian station. Or those who are just beaten down with the moral pressures they face at work or the untold misery of family dysfunction, and who just want Sunday worship to be a sanctuary for one hour per week!
Any Christian who does not get bone tired of dealing with the world on the world's terms has probably lost some basic human sensibility. So there's no denying that we need sanctuaries, safe place to which to retreat. As long as those sanctuaries are places where we prepare to face danger.
The normal Christian life is in many ways the antithesis of safety. Recall Jesus' metaphorical definition of a follower: one who shoulders an instrument of death and dies on it. Only through dying can we live, he says. If dying isn't dangerous, I don't know what is.
Also note how dangerous the gospel message sounds when we articulate it in its naked glory. This is what Paul does magnificently in his letter to the Romans. He says that every one of us is nothing but a helpless sinner, deserving of nothing but the just wrath of God. And then he turns around and says that while we were sinners, while we did nothing to reverse our selfish inclinations, before we ever thought of repenting and getting right with God, Christ died for us and stretched out his hand in forgiveness.
"Yikes!" said his readers. And three or four times in that letter, he has to stop and answer their perfectly logical question, which in one form or another was, "So that means we can keep on sinning?" The gospel, when presented clearly and simply, is a dangerous message because it can so easily lead to misunderstanding.
Or take some of the means of grace. Before giving us the Bible or the sacraments or music or theology or whatever, God should have attached a warning label: "Danger: Do not use this without proper supervision; handling this improperly could be injurious to spiritual health."
Instead—to take one example—God just hands us the Bible. And we take this pack of dynamite (with the fuse lit, no less!) and constantly misinterpret and misuse it; we manipulate it to manipulate others, and then ignore it when it suits our purposes. It is supposed to be a means of the gracious revelation of the love of God, but so often we turn it into a new rulebook for the righteous and religious. Yes, through the Bible many, many come to faith. And yet through our use of the Bible, people get confused, some get hurt, some are alienated from the church, others from God himself. The Bible is both a blessing and a danger in our hands.
Even worship, which takes place in a "sanctuary," a safe place, has a scary patina to it. Our services are crowded with cheerful tunes and inspiring sermons, with jokes from the platform and smiles everywhere—so much so that we forget sometimes that we are in the presence of God Almighty, our Maker and Judge and Redeemer. If we lose the sense that worship is a dangerous place, well, we're probably not in the presence of the biblical God. As writer Annie Dillard put it in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Such are just some of the ways that life with God is one of the most risky ventures we can embark on. The problem—our assumption that real Christianity is safe—begins with our failure to read, simply and honestly, the Bible, especially the four gospels. Dorothy Sayers put it this way:
We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him "meek and mild," and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.
Why God would entrust the church with the fatal means of grace, calling us to speak of his dangerous mercy and the message of his Firebrand Son, I have no idea. But this God seems addicted to risk—entrusting the future of the planet to a mercurial nomad; revealing his holy will to a fickle and forgetful people; coming in the flesh to make things plain to the blind and deaf, who wanted nothing more than to murder him. This God seems oblivious to the dangers that accompany his mercy. And then he has the nerve to tell us to imitate him (Eph. 5:1).
I don't know about you, but this is not the type of God into whose hands I would entrust the leadership of my church. Well, except in an honorary capacity only.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site, including:
We've Won the Lottery—Now What? | The meaning of evangelical scandals—including our own. (July 30, 2009)
The Great Evangelical Anxiety | Why change is not our most important product. (July 16, 2009)
The Scandal of the Public Evangelical | What we really have to offer the world. (July 2, 2009)
Chaos Theology | Finding hope in the midst of the terror of creation. (June 18, 2009)