The Closest Exit May Be Behind You

The Closest Exit May Be Behind You

Written by Samuel D. James |
Saturday, December 11, 2021

The place we need to look is not toward the most visible and intuitive exits, but the ones behind us. Behind us are the sirens of history, in which we learn that unprecedented times are not really unprecedented, and that the church was born with everything she seeks from political or cultural magnificence. The exit behind us is the exit of temporal bandwidth, the ability to imagine ourselves and our worship not in the pressure cooker of contemporary dramas but in the sober sanctuary of God’s century-over-century promises to preserve us.

When sensing an emergency, human nature tends to look for somewhere to run. This is true physically as well as spiritually. Every commercial airliner reminds passengers before takeoff of where the exits on the plane are: “Keep in mind the closest exit may be behind you.” Of course the exit doors are visible enough. Why the reminder? I think part of the answer is that when we’re trying to escape, we tend to only look ahead. It takes a kind of self-control to stop pressing forward toward the biggest exit to look for a different one that may be not in our immediate vision.

A crisis is an epistemological event. When something goes terribly wrong, when we feel threatened or know something must change to avoid catastrophe, how we process information and make decisions changes. In many cases, our singular focus becomes how to relieve the pressure and defuse the danger. And that kind of tunnel vision can take us places that won’t actually help us.

Much of what I see that troubles me in Christian rhetoric and culture is, I think, the straightforward epistemological consequences of a church that feels itself in crisis. Many of us can’t even explain how the world could have changed so much so fast. A transformed public conscience has led to unfathomable revolutions in law, which have in turn reeducated the public conscience. In the 1990s the main concern for many evangelicals was how to preserve purity in a vulgar media age. Now the concern is how to preserve a right to say what people find vulgar in a legalistically progressive media age. To pickup on an infamous metaphor that one conservative pundit used of the 2016 election: many Christians feel like the oxygen masks have deployed and the plane is falling apart.

The sense of crisis conditions how we respond to the world and to each other. If you think your survival depends on how quickly you can get off the plane, you will look for the exit, but not in the way you would look for an exit after a smooth landing.

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