“My church is a safe place.”
“Safe” is popular in the American church. But “safe” is not popular in the Bible. It’s not part of historic Christianity. In fact, “safe” is a siren song. Sailors drawn to siren songs are not safe. They risk shipwreck. “Safe” churches run the same risk.
“Safe” is symptomatic of the de facto dominant American religion, what University of Notre Dame professor Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”1 In 2005, Smith led a research team that interviewed U.S. teenagers associated with various faith traditions, not just Christianity. The teenagers didn’t describe themselves as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.” But when you sift through discussions about religion, what emerges is the siren song of “safe” from the shores of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
The siren song of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is heard in its moralistic approach to life. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a nice, kind, positive person, working on self-improvement. It is about feeling good about yourself—a siren song that Flannery O’Connor warned against almost 50 years ago. O’Connor noted a “prevailing heresy” in American religion—the relentlessness of keeping things “positive.” She feared “positive” would cause Christians to forget “the price of restoration.” Those drawn to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism risk shipwreck because they tend to forget the cost of truth.
In fact, there are no costs for those drawn to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its songs are about the individual self. It’s sermons about therapy and how you feel and “meeting your needs.” It’s God cast in consumer language and experience.
The siren song of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also heard in its therapeutic approach. It risks shipwreck because it’s about feeling special. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not a religion of repentance from sin or public confession. James Nolan writes, “Where once the self was to be surrendered, denied, sacrificed, and died to, now the self is to be esteemed, actualized, affirmed and unfettered.”2 Faith is not about cultivating conscience or of spending oneself in the cause of shalom. Rather, church is a “safe haven” where people can be “authentic” and “in community.” It’s a cocoon religion. Such notions are farcical. God is not safe. Remember when Mr. Beaver was asked by one of the children if Aslan was safe? “‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver… ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’”3 A holy God is not safe. Santa Claus is safe, but he is not the God of the Bible. Seeking therapeutic benefits risks shipwreck, since it’s not the point of faith. In fact, it’s not all about you, but loving God and neighbor. The wreckage from this therapeutic approach is narcissism.
Narcissism has become endemic in American culture. Its analog is obesity: inflated egos, engorged bodies. Psychologist Jean Twenge writes, “American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with $11 trillion of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins.”4
And yet the epidemic is real and dangerous. Using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, University of South Alabama psychology professor Joshua Foster asks subjects to rate the accuracy of various narcissistic statements, such as “I can live my life any way I want to” and “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” Foster says no group anywhere in the world has ever scored higher in narcissism than the American teenager. It’s the siren song of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism shipwrecking young lives. When reality catches up, there will be hell to pay.
Finally, the siren song of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is heard in its deistic approach to life. It assumes God does not need to be particularly involved in my life—I am quite capable of carving out my own life. Christians don’t say it this bluntly, but the gist of deism is a smug sense of self-sufficiency. This is particularly true in the U.S., where rugged individualism rules. One is left feeling in control. God becomes a personal cosmic vending machine. Religion is on my terms, not God’s. This is one reason followers of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are suspicious of organized religion preferring instead a self-defined spirituality. This way, individuals can allegedly get all the benefits of religion without its demands. In the end, it’s important to feel good, affirmed, and empowered. It’s the narcissist’s religion.
“Religion has traditionally put the brakes on narcissistic behavior,” Twenge notes. “Many religious beliefs directly promote the reduction of narcissism (or related concepts like pride and selfishness), teaching the belief in something larger than the self.”5 Unfortunately, the modern American church disdains being traditional. Shalom is traditionally a belief in something larger than self. It is not about feeling good (Moralistic), feeling special (Therapeutic), or feeling in control (Deism). It is not about being “safe.”
The result is a church more drawn to fantasy than reality, to the psychiatrist’s couch than being a faithful presence within culture. This is hard for Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic faith communities to face. In the Old Testament, prophets played a critical role in warning people away from siren songs. Unfortunately, “safe” churches are typically non-prophet organizations, immune from “Thus sayeth the Lord,” which means we’ll likely see many more shipwrecks before churches resist the seductive song of “safe.”
1 Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005)
2 James Nolan, The Therapeutic State (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998), p. 3.
3 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York, NY: First Collier Edition, 1970), pp.75-76
4 Jean Twenge, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. 4.
5 Twenge, The Narcissism Epidemic, pages 244-255.