I’m placing this post in the mission statement category because it’s one that doesn’t come along every day. Maybe it’s Glenn Gould’s piano playing in the background. Maybe it’s the frustrating day I had. Maybe it’s the setting sun, the passing summer, the culminating of all this thinking I’ve been doing in regards to the clash of the real and the ideal in CBA. But whatever. I have a theory. It’s one I’ve studied a fair amount, primarily as it relates to the Christian subculture. It is that safety often equates shoddy.
Sure, there’s the caveat: It’s not always the case. Making things “safe” does not necessarily mean they’ll be low in quality. But usually. When you make safety a primary requirement in the creation of anything, that product is going to pay a concession either in usefulness or appeal, or both.
Take cars. Where have all the bumpers gone? Our cars are actually less safe than they used to be without those bulky bumpers. But aren’t they more aesthetically pleasing? Or take kids’ toys. The old ones have all kinds of dangerous qualities. They’re heavy, have sharp edges, metal pieces, long cords, all kinds of choking hazards. Compare them to the plastic, uniform-sized, rounded, spongy things on the shelves today. It’s nearly impossible not to feel a little sorry for kids who won’t ever damage their innocent dignity on a rusty old hobbyhorse. Nature isn’t safe, but a misty sunset over a jagged shark tooth mountain can make you cry with its beauty.
The things we make safe often presume a consideration of children. A famous Christian radio station slogan is “safe for the whole family”—assumedly because I don’t want to have to explain anything to my kids. But what they don’t know is that I like explaining things to my kids. I like them learning things, expanding their view, opening the windows on their isolated little shelter.
I’ve actually looked up several definitions of “safe.” Some of my favs:
1. unlikely to cause or result in harm, injury, or damage
2. in a position or situation that offers protection, so that harm, damage, loss, or unwanted tampering is unlikely
3. certain to be successful or profitable, and not at risk of failure or loss
4. unlikely to cause trouble or controversy
5. cautious with regard to risks or unforeseen problems, conservative with regard to estimates, or unadventurous with regard to choices and decisions
Anybody familiar with a subculture that resembles that? I’ve heard it said that if Christian culture isn’t pretty, at least it’s not going to hurt anybody. Unfortunately, that’s not true. In attempting to forego offense, the Christian subculture often becomes one of the most offensive bunkers around. Sound ironic? Paradoxical? That’s because it’s true. Kind of like losing your life to save it. Or how eschewing safety reveals the safest place you can find.
I’ve proposed renaming “Christian fiction” “God’s fiction,” but I think I’ve got a better idea. Since it’s never going to happen anyway, I think we should call it “fiction for God” just amongst ourselves, just to avoid any possible confusion. It might really confuse some people if the industry just changed the term.
“Fiction for God? How is that different from Christian fiction?”
And people would have to ask. Much of what passes for saleable in Christian bookstores is determined by the types who refuse to see anything unbiblical about the protected environment we’ve created. Their ideal is a clean, conservative, tame pond pooled from the raging ocean of God’s full creation. And their Christianity is an adjective, an added thing, a term to keep us distinct from those unsafe gutter-dwellers.
But it’s difficult for me not to wish they could spend some quality time with those unsafe gutter-dwellers they’re so offended by. I might even claim that God probably wishes the same, at least for the reason of uniting us as fellow seekers. If they were able to get past their delusions of safety maybe they wouldn’t be so ineffectual at influencing the world.
But I’m not being winsome here, and that’s wrong. In fact, the people I’m talking about don’t deserve to be marginalized. They are just like you and me—passionate, eager, full of faith. They just happen to believe in a different view of Christianity. I don’t want to send anyone running to a safe haven, but I want to tell those who crave safety that Jesus is constantly being judged for the riff-raff he hangs out with. And he isn’t all that clean. He has a pretty rough reputation at the temple, and given the choice, he takes the gutter dwellers over the well-dressed church folks every time.
So don’t be fooled in your vigor to honor God. He doesn’t ask us to radiate a loud holiness. In fact, it’s much the opposite. He asks us to keep quiet about our personal commitment levels and not alienate those who haven’t caught the bug yet. I won’t expect you to accept the full creative palate of contrasting colors if you don’t expect them to clean up their act before welcoming them into our bookstores.
It’s time to tell our bookstore owners that love is more important than safety. If our reading material offends Christians, let them be offended and welcome in the riff-raff. Tell them that you reject the idea of insulating ourselves for narrow-minded customers. Challenge them to consider more books that could bring in some of those people Jesus is most wanting to reach, the neighbors he calls us to love. What if every Christian bookstore became a bookstore for God?
What if we loved others more than safe books? Maybe it’s time we started to hear the pleas of the one we claim to serve and unbar the door to the crying need of the world around us. Why can’t we feel that? What is wrong with our hearts?
Finally, in this push toward more freedom in our books, we must give equal measure to the quest for excellence. Quality before safety is the only way to ensure our fiction for God will both illuminate and honor our inspiration.