A couple years back on the Egalitarian Christian Alliance fellowship forum, there were a bunch of folks with animal-themed nicknames. It was almost literally a zoo! We had, among others, a rat, an armadillo, a kangaroo, a singing owl, and even a sehlat! I half-jokingly complained that I was deprived because I didn’t have a cool animal nickname, and somebody challenged me to just pick one. Not knowing when to leave well enough alone, I decided to rise to the challenge and‚ in the spirit of those loathsome “if you could be any kind of animal, what would you be?” icebreaker questions‚ come up with an animal nickname that would be a suitable expression of my identity.
Well, what should I pick? What is there about my personality, style, or interests that would be suggestive of an animal? Since my online activities mostly center on religion and church, something that would identify me theologically or ecclesiastically seemed appropriate. And the choices are truly mind-boggling.
I might have chosen the tenacious bulldog, but to be honest I’m not that great a fan of either the Dominicans or the University of Georgia. In fact, carnivorous creatures were probably all out of the question. I lived through the unpleasantness at the Seminary formerly known as Southern during the 1980’s and I don’t have much taste for blood any more. Perhaps a playful chimpanzee? A stubborn mule? I’ll admit to some affinities with both, but neither felt right.
I’m usually happy to take a low profile and blend in with my ecclesiastical surroundings, but the chameleon didn’t quite seem right. Fact is, I’m something of an oddball, theologically speaking. As much as I’d like to blend in, it really isn’t my strong suit. I stand out in a theological crowd and probably have for some time. Although my family roots are in Appalachia, I spent my teenage years in a predominantly African American church, where I sang in the gospel choir and “Amen-ed” the preacher.
Although my theology is conservative by almost any standard, I went to a “liberal” Baptist seminary where I learned about source criticism, social justice, and good organ music (and somewhere along the line came to accept that the ordination of women can be squared with biblical inerrancy). At my ordination, I suggested some details in the service that my pastor was concerned sounded “too Catholic.” And throughout my seven years in the pastorate, I know I ruffled more than a few feathers by sounding “too Catholic,” “too charismatic,” or “too liberal”—take your pick.
My overriding concern is to renew a vision of what a biblically functioning church can be. In the process, I tend to cross lines that a lot of folks have never considered crossable. My church history professor back at seminary, Dr. Timothy George, taught us on the first day of class that a principal reason for studying church history is so we can “catholicize our heresies.” In simplest terms, I think that means listening to the wisdom of the whole church‚ because somebody out there somewhere has probably got it right!
So, what animal does that remind you of? It reminded me of the humble platypus. Did you know that when the first platypus specimens arrived in England, scientists there thought the creature was some sort of hoax? Nothing like that could actually exist in nature! It laid leathery eggs like a reptile, it had the bill and webbed feet of a duck, and it was covered with fur and suckled its young. Paul Morledge at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has even invoked the platypus as an illustration of the difficulty astronomers have in classifying brown dwarfs (are they really big planets or really small stars?). A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Put it all together and you get an odd, quirky, yet hopefully endearing creature that cannot help but be what it is.
In a moment of inspiration I knew it. I am a platypus!
I have raised my hands in praise and made the sign of the cross in the same worship service. What else could I be? I own three rosaries, a vial of anointing oil, and a Scofield Reference Bible. I grew up listening to the Happy Goodmans, Andraé Crouch, and Petra. I can read Rudolf Bultmann without turning purple, but I’d rather see what Thomas Oden has written lately. I know the correct liturgical responses to both “Lift up your hearts” and “Can I get a witness?”
I’m not a hoax or a myth. I revel in ambiguity. If I don’t fit your stereotypes, that’s not my problem. I’m too furry for the birds, too duck-like for the mammals, and too warm-blooded for the reptiles, but I don’t mind being different. I’m at home in my own fur.
I am a walking ecumenical movement, happy to swim in any life-giving stream and rest in any comfy burrow. I am a theological platypus. Welcome to my pond.