Church– A Safe Place for Unsafe Conversations?


I was watching a TED Talk of Bob Mankoff, the Cartoon (“Idea Drawings”) Editor at The New Yorker. He was talking about the anatomy of a humor cartoon… and humor in general. It was both fun and informative (You can click on it HERE).

He described effective humor in terms of Tension or Conflict. One brings together two ideas… or even two unrelated areas of life, that don’t fit. In a sense this is what is done with metaphors. So humor and metaphors are related… perhaps even on the same spectrum… but metaphors are more for providing insight, while humor is more to produce a visceral, emotional response. Frankly though, both good humor and a good metaphor should have qualities of the other. Humor also has another tension or conflict as well– it exists in terms of DANGER AND SAFETY… or VIOLATION AND BENIGNITY.

These terms really don’t go together all that well, do they? But consider three examples:

  • Rollercoaster. A roller coaster is a device that throws the rider around, has big accelerations, twists, and turns that could potentially kill the participant. However, a rollercoaster has all sorts of safety devices, inspections, and carefully analyzed and tested design elements to ensure safety of the riders. Without the danger, it becomes a kiddee ride (ever try the “turning teacups”). For many of us, that would not be enjoyable. On the other hand, most all of us would not enjoy a rollercoaster that has severe design or maintenance issues that make it truly risky to ride.
  • Horror movies. Horror movies try to scare the viewer, while maintaining an impenetrable barrier between the movie world and the viewer world.
  • Zoo. Bob Mankoff’s example is going to the zoo to see a tiger. The experience is enjoyable if and only if there is a real, and perhaps menacing, tiger, as well as bars or other barriers to provide safety for the visitor. If a visitor looks into the cage and finds no tiger, the experience is unsatisfying. But it is also unsatisfying (in fact terrifying) if the tiger is between the visitor and the bars, rather than the bars being between the tiger and the visitor.

What relevance does this have on this blog page? Consider spiritual conversations? Such conversations can be:tiger-face-4

  • Evangelistic in nature perhaps, or
  • Ethical in nature (determining right versus wrong), or
  • Issues regarding people’s religious or philosophical beliefs, or
  • Concerns regarding specific religions.

People can fall into a wide range of responses to this. At one extreme are those who consider such conversations as BORING. Others see them as DANGEROUS… SCARY.

For one extreme the issue is pretty obvious… people think “spiritual conversations” are boring if they are seen as irrelevant to themselves. However, spiritual matters have to do with the big issues of life:  How should I live? What is my purpose in life? What does the future hold? These are important and… dangerous… questions and concerns. Perhaps some people were presented with spiritual conversations as a Teacup ride or an empty cage. Spiritual concerns can get watered down to the point that they seems safe, benign, irrelevant. The content, the tiger, cannot be removed… but must be presented in such a way that it can be appreciated and valued… safely.

But let’s consider the other extreme for a moment. Some spiritual conversations are truly scary. I get that. Far too many people (Christians most definitely included) express spiritual conversations much like salesmen– hard-sell salesmen. I have literally heard “street evangelists” SCREAMING in the faces of passersby six inches separating noses (the uncaged tiger). I struggle to imagine who could think that being particularly effective. No one really wants honest doubts and concerns about life to be turned into a polemic sales pitch for a “spiritual product.”

In response to that, many people just avoid spiritual concerns. Many groups will have explicit or tacit rules… NO RELIGION OR POLITICS DISCUSSED HERE. In other cases, spiritual conversations may be discussed but so hobbled or watered down to seem benign, as noted before, moving from the ethical to the aesthetic.

safe-place

What are needed are safe places to deal with unsafe concerns. Really, the best place for this SHOULD be the church. People should be able to go to any church and express theological, or spiritual, or existential doubts/concerns and find those who are willing to accept them, acknowledge their struggle,  and help them work through them… sharing burdens with each other.  A SAFE PLACE TO DEAL WITH THAT WHICH IS UNSAFE. But churches typically squash such conversations— choosing to drift to being an unsafe place to be for those with concerns… or avoiding unsafe issues, choosing safe or benign issues only.

There is a price to pay for this. An interest article was written based on research from Case Western University. A summary of it is on a blog post

Avoiding Spiritual Issues May Be Bad for Mental Health

Consider a quote from this article:

According to the study, struggling with spiritual issues did not lead to mental health issues. The problem was avoidance of challenging topics. Mental health was more likely to decline when people feared engaging with challenging philosophical and spiritual issues.

The study determined avoidance was not an effective strategy for pushing away existential thoughts. Participants faced spiritual questions even when they attempted to suppress them. The study’s authors suggest continually being plagued by existential questions can be psychologically upsetting, particularly to people who find these questions socially unacceptable.

I would argue that this avoidance strategy comes, in part, because of their inability to find safe people and safe places to deal with these unsafe topics.

Church should be like a comic in The New Yorker (or many places where ideas are expressed humorously to challenge how with think and view things). It should be a place that is safe to bring ideas together that are unsafe or challenging. A place to think,  with the freedom to disagree… or be profoundly changed.

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