Learning from the “Formerly Scary Other,” Or Difference Brings Clarity

Growing up in a very conservative Christian environment meant “liberals” were “scary others.” Zac recently met my friend Tripp Fuller. Zac a former youth minister turned MDiv student at Duke Divinity School learned that Tripp was vacationing in his home state. They got together and chatted. Zac called to confirm what I had told him, Tripp is one sharp Baptist. Maybe formerly Baptist. He likes to wear the moniker, “Liberal Evangelical” to poke the noses of the left and the right. Tripp is not scary.

During our conversation, Zac asked a pointed question, “So what were the philosophical influences on you?” Tough question. Time spent with theo-philosophical mind-bender Tripp Fuller will create all sorts of questions – nuggets of goodness type questions.  You see a good bit of my formal and informal Baptist education turned on touting the philosophies to avoid. I remember taking a course titled, “Theological Thought in the 20th Century.” Our text was, A Handbook of Christian Theologians. That was in 1986. Yes, Tripp and Zac may not have started Kindergarten yet.

We read the essays giving something of the Cliff Notes version of figures such as Schliermacher, Schweitzer, Otto, Rauschenbusch, Dodd, the Niebuhr brothers, Barth, and more. Handbooks are helpful insofar as “sketches” are concerned. But, how do you really tackle the prolific Barth in about 15 pages? Have you see the length of Church Dogmatics? These were people with dangerous ideas to be avoided. And so I did. After all theology was eschatology, in the dispensational sense, and if you had your chart prepared you had what you needed.

Little did I know the philosophical influence was Thomas Reid and Scottish Common Sense Realism. After all, anyone with common sense would surely read the Bible the way those who taught me did. We could then follow B.B. Warfield, Carl F.H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer and others in their common-sense reading of the Scriptures. Inerrancy could be easily defended if we could be convinced that anyone with something percolating in the cerebrum could figure out what they were reading without any training or explanation. After all we were Enlightened and so beyond the Ethiopian and Phillip. And really, why did the Ethiopian need Phillip to understand Isaiah anyway? If he just had some common-sense, that should have been enough.

Coming of age as a pastor during the height, or climax, of the Church Growth Movement meant an underlying pragmatism joined my self-unaware philosophical stream. Listening to populist preachers at conferences shout, “That’l preach!”, sounded good. What that really meant was, “You can preach my sermon if you like. It worked.” Conferences and workshops centered on what “works.” In that sense, little has changed today except you rarely hear, “That’l preach.” We want to know what works. What works for pastors, church planters, missionaries, staff leaders, etc. Isn’t it odd that we paid little attention to who was writing leadership books we looked to for what works? Anyone read Stephen Covey “back in the day?” If you did then you had effective habits from a Mormon who gave his true north principles. Scandalous. Not really. That was leadership not theology. Oops my confusion.

Equipped with common-sense, though my wife often disputes that, and a sense of what works, I was ready to pastor. I simply needed to remember what philosophies to avoid. This was easy since our gauge for success in such an era was, and sadly for some is, “The Three B’s” – buildings, butts and bucks. We had little time to worry about those other philosophies. We could count on the American Family Association, World Magazine, and others to know how to ward off those scary others. Today we look to our culture warriors from whom we take our cues.

Then it happened. Long before Willow Creek released Reveal, I began to wonder what to do about the disconnect between the normal gauges for success and the lack of transformation witnessed in the Church. Interestingly I wrote a short piece for one of our denominational publications talking about the “ruler” for success. I could hear and sit in on conversations where scary others were scapegoated as if their mere presence on planet earth were the cause in Divine judgement. Think of the late Falwell and the present Robertson. Not to mention Bachman post earthquake and Irene. Forget the liars in Church we must root out the gays and lesbians or we will face another Hurricane Katrina. Don’t say much about the glutton, we must rid the Church of those pro-choice-ers or you can be sure another terrorist plot will befall us. The inconsistencies became harder to live with.

A series of serendipitous friendships shattered my ideas of scary others known as liberals. I met a UCC pastor who was conservative even by Southern Baptist standards. I met Baptists who were moderate, and liberal by those same standards. The old categories failed to account for the humanity of these people. Herein is the first lesson learned from the formerly scary others – we are talking about people. And, if the people you are talking about fill C.S. Lewis’ Hallway, then there is really nothing to be scared of so let it go. (Yes, there will be a follow-up on those scary people not in the hallway.)

I am not advocating no differences among us. Instead I am suggesting we engage people at the point of their humanity, listen, and learn. The process brings a great deal of clarity. Over the past fourteen years I have developed deep friendships with fellow Christians with whom I do not find complete agreement. I suspect they would not agree with me down the line either. If so, I would fear we have become mutual sycophants not friends.

These friendships have helped me think through transformation, Christian spiritual transformation. One of the means is friendship, spiritual friendship as described in Petersons’ Wisdom of Each Other, Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, or even Margaret Wheatley’s, Turning to One Another – not necessarily a Christian book but certainly helpful. Willard and Foster have been pointing up the need for “means” of Christian spiritual transformation since the first edition of The Spirit of the Disciplines. Today real, authentic friendships may well be an important means for our own Christina spiritual transformation. These relationships put us face to face with “an-other.”

Our differences bring clarity to our own ways, our own fears, our own scars, our own habits and practices. When we share our strong convictions we may do so without the need to be agreed with but to be helped to think through just how it sounds when Christians take stands on immigration, health care debates, and even the solutions to economic or political crises. Are we able to give voice without denigrating, without creating a scary other out of another person who share a differing perspective.

Spiritual friendships become a means when we maintain them not flee them. And here is where the matter is formative for the Church on another level. We often cover our differences until they become intolerable. And then, rather than seek the kind of formation in the crucible of interpersonal relationships, we move on, we run, we join another congregation thinking, “Now I have found a group with whom I agree.” A move that undermines spiritual formation rather than shapes it. These serial experiences do more to cast us ever further from the shape of Jesus in our lives. Consider this week’s Lectionary text from Romans 14.

How have you learned from those you formerly considered scary others?

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.