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What the Church Gets Wrong: Escapism Theology

In 2004 M. Night Shyamalan’s (what a cool name) movie, The Village, came to the big screen. I didn’t actually see the movie when it came out and I hardly remember the trailer, but I did see it my freshman year of college. I remember everyone hating on the movie because it “wasn’t really scary.” Apparently the trailer indicated that this was a terrifying horror movie that would make everyone pee themselves. When everyone found out that it was more of a suspense movie intended to engage the mind rather than a scary movie intended to provoke fear, they were disappointed.

I saw the movie after knowing that it was not meant to be scary and I actually liked it. [Spoiler Alert] The movie is about these people who live in the village of Covington. Real original right? Everything seems fairly normal until they start talking about the “creatures” in the woods. Apparently, beyond the woods that surround the village are these evil, sinister creatures. This particular village has a truce with these creatures and everything is fine—until someone breeches the terms of the agreement. The creatures infiltrate the village leaving behind a number of warnings, the creepiest of which is a dead, skinned dog. The village people are scared back into submission. The twist comes later in the movie when Lucius is injured to the point that the village people have to send for help beyond the boundaries.

The leader of the village people, Edward Walker, sends his blind daughter, Ivy, to go to the “towns” to get medicine. This seems like a horrible idea until Edward reveals that the whole creatures-beyond-the-woods thing is a complete hoax. He reveals to her that the village was established by him and a few other people who were trying to escape the evils of the world beyond the village. Edward’s father was murdered by his business partner and Edward joined a support group with others who had also lost loved ones to violence. The village was established in a remote area of a wildlife preserve and each member vowed to renounce all ties to the modern world. The village was essentially intended to be an isolated utopia that preserved the innocence of the community made up of the founder’s families. When a member of the community commits the violent crime that caused Lucius’ injury, the greatest fear of the elders comes true—they could not insulate their families from the potential evil that lurks inside the hearts of human beings. Ivy retrieves the medicine and since she is blind, she cannot fully expose the village for what it is. Lucius is treated and recovers, and the perpetrator of the crime tragically dies. Essentially, the village is almost assumed to have continued life as normal after the whole incident.

I could not help but notice that the escapism philosophy that inspired the Elders to create such a utopia sometimes looks like the Church. The parallels to the Church were unmistakably clear. The church often tries to insulate itself from the evils of this world by creating a community of “good” people that are kept in line by a list of rules. Fear replaces grace and legalism replaces intimacy. People believe the greatest purpose of the community is to be spotless and remain “holy” until Jesus comes back. The “Left Behind” series inspires their theology on the end times, and basically, the church becomes a village of people escaping the evils of the world until Jesus evacuates them all out of here.

Why do I believe this is true? Because I observe it all the time. I have heard church people talk about the world and the culture as if flesh and blood was the enemy. I have heard stories of church people firing youth pastors because there were some “worldly” teens that attended. I heard a parent say that they didn’t let their kids attend youth group because the kids in youth group were “corrupt.” One time I actually talked to a church goer who basically said that they did not want too many non-Christians attending the church because that would change the culture or environment of the church. Those people might start influencing us. Also, we spend all week at work with those people and we need a safe place to escape. We need our village of Convington and somehow people think the Church was intended to be just that – a community of set apart, isolated individuals. A “Holy Huddle” if you will.

The problem with this escapism theology is that God loves the world and actually commanded us to go into all of it carrying the gospel with us (Mark 16:15). There are places where scripture indicates that the world is not our home because we are to be born of the Spirit, not of this world. We have mistaken the ways of the world for the world itself in our interpretation of such verses. Jesus said,”…they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.  My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.  Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world (John 17:14 – 18, emphasis mine).

Somewhere along the way, we have made music, movies, clothes, culture, the arts, and unbelieving people the enemy. Culture is not the enemy. Culture is part of what it means to be human and culture is our expression of the diversity that exists within each people group. Are there parts of culture that reflect brokenness? Absolutely. Does that make all of culture wrong? No. For example, there are songs that glamorize drug abuse and violence while demeaning women and cheapening sex. Is that music redeemable? Nope. Is all music of that genre bad? Hardly. Culture is not the enemy.

The way of the world should not feel like home to us. Greed should not feel natural to the believer. Pride, jealousy, bitterness, unbridled lust, anger, deception, and oppression should not feel at home to the believer. The way the world treats other people to get on top, the way the world uses sex as a drug, the way the world retaliates to get even, the way the world oppresses to show dominance—these ways of doing things are not coherent with the Christian life. But the world itself was created good and human beings were created very good because they were created in the image of the Divine (Gen 1:31).

What is my point? The escapism theology that has crept into the Church with the intent of preserving holiness is a poison that is crippling our effectiveness in the world around us. God loves the world and the fullness of redemption is not described as a great evacuation. N. T. Wright says it best:

“The great drama will end, not with ‘saved souls’ being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that ‘the dwelling of God is with humans’ (Revelation 21:3).”

Not only does this escapism theology vastly misunderstand the eschaton, but it also misses the power of the incarnation. As Christmas approaches, I can’t help but think about the beauty of it’s true meaning. God became. What a thought. God came to us, He took on flesh and identified with us by experiencing what it was like to be human. God, through Jesus, felt the emotional pain of rejection, the grief of a lost loved one, the physical pain of the cross, and the sting of betrayal. God, the holy and only truly righteous one, walked among humanity and witnessed the horrific ways that humans treat other humans. He went into the most depraved and hopeless of circumstances and took hope with him. Jesus associated with the outcasts, the not-good-enough, the marginalized, the hopeless, the dirty, the sinful, the ugly, the smelly, the contagiously sick, the ceremonially unclean—through Jesus, God made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).

William Willimon writes,  “Despite our earnest efforts, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. So what did God do? In an amazing act of condescension, on Good Friday, God climbed down to us, became one with us. The story of divine condescension begins on Christmas and ends on Good Friday. We thought, if there is to be business between us and God, we must somehow get up to God. Then God came down, down to the level of the cross, all the way down to the depths of hell.”

The beauty of the gospel is that none of us could get to God, so he came to us. God made grace and forgiveness available to all. As the Church we are called to carry on this same mission—share the grace of the gospel with all peoples. We have absolutely no righteousness in and of ourselves. Who are we to isolate ourselves as if the same wickedness we are trying to escape doesn’t exist in our own hearts if it weren’t for Christ? We, like the “world,” have participated in the great rebellion against the Divine. We need a Savior just as much as the world around us.

I say, lets adopt incarnational theology and abandon this escapism theology. I say we spend more time taking God’s love to the world instead of trying to preserve it from the world. “The Incarnation is the ultimate reason why the service of God cannot be divorced from the service of man” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). What do you think?

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors” 2 Corinthians 5:18 – 20

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