Safety has become a very important concept in Christian entertainment. Pick up any Christian parenting magazine that talks about healthy entertainment for your kids, any online guide to what entertainment Christians should or shouldn’t indulge in, and you’ll find it can almost all be summed up as, “anything outside this very specific zone is unhealthy and you should be frightened about it. Stick with Christian films, Christian Fiction novels and Contemporary Christian Music, and you will always feel safe.”
Note the words, “feel safe,” not “you will be safe.” The big selling point is that you should feel fear about anything outside the safe zone. Personal feelings are paramount, even though the Bible affirms that the Christian should live without fear (2 Timothy 1:7).
Since this attitude implies Christians should feel afraid anything outside Christian entertainment, we can conversely say that only the things that make Christians feel safe are allowed. The tricky thing is feelings aren’t always to be trusted.
Ellis Potter makes an interesting point about how music makes us feel in his book Staggering Along with God. He points out that up until the early 2000s or so, if you went into a music store you would find that Christian music was put in the same spot as New Age music, “because the music store owners knew they were basically the same thing.”
He goes on to explain that New Age music is all about creating a sense that your mind is waking up, that you are being enlightened, when in fact the rhythm and melody is actually slowing things down, numbing you up. Christian music that follows this same method ends up being “go-to-sleep music. It can be comfortable music but also dumbing down music. It’s not stimulating, it doesn’t make life larger.”
This illustrates that just because art makes us feel good does not make the art good for us. As Christians, we affirm that our feelings can deceive us. We are not born with a completely perfect set of emotions which helps us always have the proper feelings about things. We are born sinners, we have selfish desires, and when we become Christians we are not just gaining new life: we are putting to death old life. Paul even uses crucifixion imagery to make this point, describing how he has been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20).
Because we are sinners born with a tendency toward rebellion, our natural feeling of safety is a mixed bag. We have desires for something transcendental, and some experiences can awaken that and point us closer to God, as CS Lewis explores in his book Surprised by Joy. However, we are also selfish and therefore we naturally *i.e in our own flesh) feel safest when we feel unchallenged. In that respect, the people who feel safest are narcissists, because in a narcissist’s mind nothing is ever their fault. They feel they cannot possibly be wrong, nor can anything possibly not go their way. They are experts at spinning the way they think about the world and the evidence people present them with so that they come out on top. Therefore, what would they feel unsafe about?
In contrast, Christians start with the understanding that they are broken, incapable of fixing themselves on their own merits, and only when they reach that place that they can accept grace. As they learn to rest more in grace – that they can’t work enough to free themselves, that God is the business of disassembling our natural feelings and giving us new hearts – they gain freedom.
Jared Wilson observes in his book Gospel-Driven Ministry that part of a pastor’s job is to be “discombobulated and then recombobulated by the Gospel.” At a certain level, every Christian must do this: this is where we find peace. Not in a Zen state where nothing bothers us. Not in a self-centered mode where nothing is our fault and therefore we can feel invulnerable on our merits. We find peace by recognizing there is chaos in ourselves, which must be torn down for rebuilding. In fact, there will be constant tearing down and rebuilding, because we must die to our old selves every day and let Christ renew us.
As we come to understand this state, we will come to understand that we are safe. We may not always feel safe. Emotions are fickle and our awareness of how the Holy Spirit is working right now may vary – the Holy Spirit is always there, but we do not always feel its closeness. However, the safety is always there because we are ultimately safe in Christ.
So, our journey to safety begins with destroying our natural sense of safety. We have to learn something more paradoxical and intimate that glories in weakness because God is the strong one. This means that many times, a work of art that captures the Christian experience will not necessarily make us “feel safe.” A story that talks about someone coming to faith which doesn’t make us feel their brokenness may have missed the point. We come away not really understanding what they have escaped from and what they are building towards. We may come away thinking the story has more to do with American prosperity than anything else.
Similarly, a story about someone who is growing closer to God without showing us the struggles along the way, may miss the point. We need to see how the character had to weaned off insubstantial things before they could find godly things. The “breaking down” moments are just as as important as the rebuilding moments.
Why? Because resurrection means that something died first. If we don’t see the death, the life after death won’t seem very interesting. There must be crucifixion in order to have resurrection.
Paradoxical as it may seem, Christian art that really captures what it is to be redeemed may feel a bit harsh at times, because it must affirm that brokenness is the first step in part in the journey. Feeling safe is not the most important thing.