Postcard People

Michael Metzger

“Safe places” are the new sanctuaries. They’re most prevalent on college campuses but you can find them in the faith community as well. They’re not sacred, however, as “safe places” yield postcard people.

In her new book, The Silencing, Kirsten Powers tells of college students suing professors when they feel a hurt triggered, or when they feel disagreed with or “unsafe.” Judith Shulevitz covers the same ground in her essay “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas,” published in The New York Times Sunday Review (March 22).

We read of a Brown student retreating from a campus debate to what is called “a safe room” because she “was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against” her cherished beliefs. David Brooks writes how Wendy Kaminder, a respected scholar, “mentioned the N-word at a Smith College alumni event in a clearly nonracist discussion of euphemism and free speech.” As Powers describes it in The Silencing, Kaminer was accused of racial violence and hate speech. The university president was pilloried for tolerating an environment that had been made “hostile” and “unsafe.”

It’s bad enough when “safe” infects colleges and universities. Now we’re seeing it in the faith community as well. Many churches extol their services and small groups as “safe places.” The problem with this sort of “safe” is that it is not scriptural. Remember when Susan and Lucy asked Mr. Beaver if Aslan was safe? “‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver… ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’”1

The historic church viewed God as good and great—but not safe. In fact, walking with God can be dangerous. God created us to be sojourners through life—travellers. Travel comes from the English travail, meaning a journey fraught with danger. Walking with God can be a risky business.

Of course, saying your church or small group is a “safe place” also carries some risks. For starters, it’s unlikely a “safe” God will ever strike fear in your heart. You set the agenda so that God doesn’t unsettle you by bringing up unpleasant subjects. He doesn’t trigger hurts. You get a nice, clean, sterile faith. Safety yields sterility.

It also risks turning you into a tourist. I was travelling through Beijing a few years back, visiting a migrant school not far from the city’s five-star hotels. It was a dicey part of town. Tourists never visit that part of the city. It’s a bit unsafe. Tourists only go where they sense it’s safe. That’s why they purchase postcards—to remember the pretty parts of the city.

It’s safe to say that many Americans, including Christians, are postcard people. The irony is that believers, if they risked being travellers instead, would find their confidence in God growing. They’d discover that “our universe is a perfectly safe place to be.”2 No need to seek out “safe places.”

C. S. Lewis observed that if you enter a party consciously trying to make a good impression, you probably won’t end up making one. That happens only when you are thinking about the other people in the room. In similar fashion, if you seek God in “safe places,” you probably won’t find him. He’s not there. But you won’t know it, having become a tourist with a fragile faith but a happy face that’s picture perfect for postcards.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: First Collier Edition, 1970), pp. 75-76.
2 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 66-67.


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  1. I note you appear to suggest a ‘safe place’ is a an unhealthy type of sanctuary. Is it safe to perceive a sanctuary as a place of refuge, peace and shalom ? Blessed are the peacemakers. Beware, Peace, Peace where there is none.
    Sanctuary seeking is OK ?

  2. Many current church goers are enamored with their churches and leaders being “safe.” It is like a degeneration of the platitude “I’m okay, you’re okay” into “I’m okay with your not being okay as long you (church leader) are okay with my (church goer) not being okay.

  3. Hmm…interesting post. Churches like to be seen as safe places, and I’m glad for the clarification about sanctuary in the comments. But in our cultural context, “safe” with respect to churches can tend to mean “What you’ll get here is unconditional acceptance without judgment.” While recognizing that our track record on the acceptance/judgment thing isn’t great, I have to agree that church, if we encounter God there, should change us. If we don’t want to change, we probably should join a garden club that meets on Sundays.

  4. Thanks. As an additional note, in a hebrew prayer book I have for ‘How goodly are your tents. Your dwelling places’ it comments ‘Rav Kook explains the difference between the two:We use a tent for when we are on a journey;we have a dwelling place where we feel at home. Together they represent the twin needs of the soul:to grow on the one hand, and be rooted in eternal values on the other.” Cultural aversions to conflict; removing politics and religion from everyday life increase perceptions of discernment to the extent that difference implies demands, judgements and defeat of the other. Honest sharing of desires in a context of grace and mercy IMO sanctifies.

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