Who Is On the Lawn? Or, Those “Scary Others” As Conversation Partners

“Who is in the front yard?” Growing up in Oklahoma City on 17th Street we had a protected front porch. Holly Bushes lined the two exposed sides. I am thinking they were at least five feet tall. But then again, in my mind’s eye that was when I was a bit shorter.

These prickly barriers kept eyes from peering in our front door on summer days when the glass was raised to let in a summer breeze. At the same time, they only allowed us to see the shadows of those who entered the front yard from time to time. Those were safer days everywhere.

If C.S. Lewis offered the picture of Christianity as a building with one large hallway lined with doors and rooms behind them representing the various Christian Traditions/denominations, what about the yard? What about when we leave the building? Surely with the future hope of the City of God we could imagine in Lewis’ analogy there would be a front lawn where others passed from time to time. Doubtless we may encounter those scary others in many places beyond the lawn, but to press the imagery too far risks missing the point.

One of my friends once remarked that I seemed to have a natural Socratic bent. Intrigued I investigated the description to determine whether the observation was compliment or criticism. Of all the possibilities, I settled that in its context the comment was compliment to a natural tendency toward questions, and maybe even guided questions. Maybe this grew out of conversations with my Dad. I seem to recall that asking questions or looking for advice resulted in Dad posting a series of questions prompting me to think about the decision and maybe even to gain his opinion without it being explicitly stated. Whatever the origin, I took the observation in stride and found, and find, it a helpful way to teach.

Some time after the friendly observation, I picked up a copy of Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery Through World Philosophy by Christopher Phillips. The six questions explored are: What is Virtue, Moderation, Justice, Good, Courage, and Piety? The point is not a book review. It seems like there may be one somewhere in the archives written when the site was hosted elsewhere as Just Todd.

Phillips encounters conversation partners in his exploration of each question. His interest to listen and learn from the diverse answers as well as the common ones piqued my curiosity. Surely my interest lay in a nascent interest in epistemology whirring in my mind in high school and college. Again, not to overplay the social construction of how we are intellectually formed, I find the connection also related to learning to think about life from the vantage point of a professional engineer and near mathemetician. Long before I heard anything about “postmodernism” the story is told of my Dad who announced to my Mom and their friends, “There are no facts.” Can you hear the howling? Maybe that one is for another time.

Maybe my interest lay outside the lockdown of a certain form of Christian fundamentalism from my adolescent years. “There are those we learn from and those we don’t.” Just the thought evoked, “What is so wrong with them?” The them today are often determined by the subtle self-selected magisteriums intent to hold the ranks. I do not begrudge them their understandings. But, let’s not mis-represent the thoughts of others so they become representative of everything evil to fear.

For instance, what could Slavo Zizek possibly offer thinking Christians. After all he is a Lacanian-Hegelian-Marxist/Socialist-Philosopher-Cutlure Critic. Let’s see. Lacan is post-Freudian. Hegel’s dialectic is deemed  by many arcane. Marxist/Socialist conflicts with Capitalist Christian. Philosopher enough said according to most. Culture Critic who could top Siskel and Ebert (Zizek often uses film and media to illustrate his critique or observations.) We should not blindly embrace critiques from those scary others. But, we neither should we summarily dismiss them once we discover they show more influence from Karl than Paul.

2. We always need guides to illustrate how we appropriate the observations of those not in the hallway.

One recent illustration is David Fitch’s book, The End of Evangelicalism. On a number of occasions I have pounded the proverbial table on the insightful critique offered by Fitch as he appropriates Zizek. For instance when Fitch describes the way Zizek’s critique works out he chooses “Irruption of the Real.” I offered an illustration of this sort of analysis shouting that the SBC Needs to Read Fitch. The fact that our normal habit would be to pitch Zizek into a category so he may be dismissed and ignored is in fact to illustrate the way ideologies take on features more intent to maintain power and control than listen to potential gaps.

We all need conversation partners who help us see what we would not normally see if all our dialogues grew out of those with whom we agree. That is why I think Newbigin is a solid interlocutor for the current malaise in the American Western Church. My friend John Franke would contend the same could be said of Barth understood more from more careful reading than the caricatures often tossed out when needing to close the ranks against liberalism or neo-orthodoxy.

One word of caution. If you happen upon a friendship with someone on the lawn you will discover they will resist your attempts at evangelizing them. I would go out on a limb and suggest that is precisely the wrong place to start. No one wants to be viewed as a project to hone your apologetic skills.

How about learning from some of the beneficial insights from those scary others. What would it mean to reconsider God as the Subject rather than Object. Or, having our attempts to manage another with the words, “but I know you.” Something like Eugene Peterson’s description of “knowing his wife.” He used the analogy of loving his wife to our assertions that we “know God.” He put it this way, “After forty years I know my wife better than I have ever known my wife. And, after forty years I don’t know my wife any better than the day we married.” Moving God from Object to Subject re-imagines the mystery of the God who dwells in ineffable light. Yes, there are some philosophers who may help us re-locate the subject.

The Southern Baptists Convention blogosphere has been a buzz over the prospect of a name change. What would happen if we listened to some of those scary others who contend that to name something is the first move to control and exert power over that object/person/entity. What would it look like if we took a step back, both supporters of the move and critics alike, and asked ourselves about how the “SBC” has been the name to control expending energy and dollars in the face of a mission much larger than a regional denomination can possibly manage on its own? Absent conversation partners, yes some scary ones, we simply divide into factions touting visions for a structure that is arguably unaware of its increasing irrelevance to many.


3. We always need those wiling to risk beyond what we think we are capable.



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.

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