Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Sorting through the ‘super’ natural

Mike Horn asked a great question on the Tim Tebow post this week:

I was hoping you could elaborate more on this … 1) What are the “interventionist assumptions behind a supernatural world view?; 2) the antiquated relics of a pre-modern understanding, which are untenable in the 21st century? I read the “pentecost for progressives” summary but didn’t see anything that really explained questions (1) and (2). Does my belief in the supernatural make me a “pre-modern” in my thinking? “Post-modern emergents” don’t believe in praying for the sick? What does “untenable in the 21st Century” mean? I was hoping you could elaborate further. I love the conversation. Thanks!

A couple things as we begin:
a diagnostic question: If you have the following formula anywhere in your faith “If its good – its God, if its bad then you don’t have enough faith … unless you do, then its the devil.”  then I am talking to you.
if you think that God talks to your heart and are comfortable talking about demons and spirits and the enemy, then I am talking to you.
If you think that world works the exact same way as it is described in the Bible ie. Gender roles and that science proves that a man can live the belly of fish for 3 days, then I am talking you.

Now, to your question:

The assumptions behind a supernaturalist worldview can be framed in a 3-tiered view of the universe. God is up (in the heavens) and this transcendent God is so good and so pure that ‘He’ can have nothing to do with our sin and fallen dirtiness.  NOW – we quickly run into two problems:

  • How was Jesus fully God and fully man? Traditional Answer: it is a mystery.
  • How does God answer prayers and work in the world?  that is the problem

The way around the problem (if you insist that God is only transcendent) is a mechanism called intervention – what I call interference. Continue reading “Sorting through the ‘super’ natural”

>Doubting the Devil


Next week will get to the Heart of Relationship and why  it is the single most important thing to know about when reading the Bible. But I just wanted to wrap up this conversation that we have been having about doubting the devil .

  I have four examples of the problem and then some possible solutions. First up is bit from the Edict of Worms when the Protestant Reformation was ramping up.

Here’s a sampling of the Edict’s pronouncements about Martin Luther from 1521:
To put an end to the numberless and endless errors of the said
Martin, let us say that it seems that this man, Martin, is not a man but
a demon in the appearance of a man, clothed in religious habit to be
better able to deceive mankind, and wanting to gather the heresies of
several heretics who have already been condemned, excommunicated, and
buried in hell for a long time. Let us add to this all the heresies
recently brought in by him to be the source of all iniquity and rubbish
and to destroy the Catholic faith. As an evangelical preacher he labors
to trouble and demolish all religious peace and charity and all order
and direction in the things of this world. And finally, he brings
dishonor upon all the beauty of our Holy Mother Church.
    Secondly, The new PBS documentary called “God in America” has been incredible. One little snippet that caught my attention was when the American Civil War kicked off and preachers on both sides were quoting Bible verses (Old and New Testament) to justify their positions for and against human slavery. The narrator was explaining that both sides thought that God was on their side and the segment was really focusing on the North (who would prove victorious), then said “There was a war in heaven – it was between the Archangel Michael and his angels, and the Devil and all of his.” There was no explanation beyond that. Was the Devil from the South? Was the Devil fighting for the South? Was the war on earth just a mirror of something that was going on in the heavenlies? 
    Third, I had a phone call a couple of years ago with a girl from the youth group at our church. She was spending the summer working at a Christian summer camp.  A stomach bug had been imported with one of the teenagers who has shown up for Teen camp and on the second day a number of people woke up vomiting.  It sounded pretty awful. So they started to pray – intercessory prayer – against the Devil and demons and that kind of thing. 
    More and more people got sick, kids and counselors, and by the end of the third day they had to call off the camp and ship everyone home.   At this point in the story she says “After this week – I really believe in spiritual warfare. I do not doubt that there is a real Devil.”  She was one of only a handful of workers that was not sick and so that small group was in change of washing all the buildings with bleach – walls, floors, bathrooms etc. 
    Fourth (and lastly) the same week as the Camp Vomit fiasco, there was a terrible murder in the local news. A mentally disturbed man, recently released form an institution [the news was not clear if it was prison or a mental ward],  broke into the home of a lesbian couple, beat them, tied them up, and did terrible terrible things to the two ladies. One of them escaped while he was torturing her partner. The women who escaped lived. Her partner did not. People were calling this man the Devil – the reasoning was ‘who else could do this type of thing’. 
    When I put these four stories together we see that Martin Luther was the devil for questioning the authority and power of a church that was in perhaps the most corrupt time in its history. Southern Americans (slaveholders and soldiers) are the Devil (or his demons).  A stomach bug is the Devil (or at least his doing). Finally – a mentally disturbed man is the Devil. 
    So when someone says “But you believe that the devil is a real being and not just the personification of the worst of humanity right?”  I have to respond : until we take a hiatus from blaming everything on the devil and take a look at human issues like our responsibility to challenge the status quo,  our opportunity for all humanity to live free, to do what we are capable of with contagious diseases and mental disorders… I reserve the right to be an agnostic on the issue of the Devil. 
    For now on,  I am going to point to systemic abuses (Martin Luther) misuses of the Biblical text (justify slavery) the realities of contagious viruses (anyone following Africa in the news?) and ramifications of imprisoning the mentally ill (and the transfer of our prisons to corporations instead of the State) and say that the Devil is a personification of the worst potential of humanity first. 
We can deal with everything else  or anything else second.
Here is why I think that it is so important to get this right:
    I listened to an old sermon this past week where I talked about the enemy of our soul and the realities of neglecting that aspect of our story.  It really brought home the seriousness and consequences of getting this one right. SO let me be crystal clear about this.
    I believe that life is a story. It is not a game to won or lost; a test to be passed; or a competition to get the most. It is not a set of rules to followed or a list of things to be accomplished.  Life is a story. 
    I believe that this story has evil in it.  I do not think that what we can see is all there is. There is more going on in the world than science has access to.
    I believe that this sabotage comes early and attacks our glory – the area that God most wants to use us (in strength and weakness). Usually the areas that we struggle to live the life we want are areas that have been assaulted early and often. I do not think that this is random or coincidental. 
   I believe that as Christ we tempted in the wilderness, as Peter was told to ‘get behind me’, and as Judas gave in – that the temptation is twofold: 
A) we are tempted to use our gifts-talents-strengths-passions-skills for our own benefit and not for the way that God wants to use them to make the world better for others
B) we are tempted to take the shortcut / easy road and not to trust God as people of faith. This is when we take matters into our own hands. 
    If we begin by 1) acknowledging that the Devil is a personification of the worst of humanity and 2) admitting that how the Devil works is to tempt us to use our gifts on ourselves and to take the short-cut and not trust God as people of faith by taking matters into our own hands… THEN we can talk about some big bad guy who is an ancient fallen angel and the super-natural enemy of God who controls the powers of the world by pulling the strings behind the scenes. 
    Otherwise I think that it would be wise for us to lay off the boogie-man stuff and concentrate on the evil that we can see and those things that we do have access to in our natural abilities. 

>Bob Marley reads the Bible


As it is with all actual conversations, this one has taken some twists and turns. If you missed the fall out from ‘the Devil is in the Details’ last week , we talk about reading the history parts of the Bible as history, the poetry as poetry, and try to make space for those who read some parts literally and others who read those parts (the Book of Job, Jonah, Ester, Genesis 1-3, etc) more figuratively or as parable. 
    I wanted to just run over a couple of thoughts about all of that and next week we will get back to those 4 verses about the Kingdom and life before you die (from two weeks ago).
Figures of Speech
    Sometimes we are incredibly intuitive about interpreting lyrics of songs and stories.  Sometimes were are not. When it comes to interpreting passages of the Bible it can be a steep incline because we are translating through A) two jumps in language (translation)  B) two jumps in culture   C) two centuries of distance.   That is a big deal and can not be overestimated. 

    It is impossible to overstate the difference when it comes to  Jesus saying “I will build my church and the gates of  hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18) .  The disciples who originally heard this and those of us who read it A) in English  B) on the other side of the Atlantic and C) two thousand years of church history later are not having the same experience with this idea . We live in towns that do not have walls or gates and they did not know of the Roman Catholic church.  So it goes without saying that interacting with that saying is different for us than it was for them. 
    Some people object to the idea of interpreting passages in the Bible.  Jonah and Job are my two favorite examples. My feeling on the matter is that if you want to take those stories and literal, that is fine with me – just realize that it is not the only way to interpret those texts and that ,in fact, if you are interested – there is an entire library of resources from history about how to read those texts within their literary genre. 
    To me, it is like people who listen to Bob Marley singing “No women No Cry” and think that he is saying that if you don’t have a women – you won’t cry.  They miss that he is singing TO a women about living in a government slum. 
    Things have to be interpreted. They are written to be. The authors expect it. They build it in. It is part of art and beauty and symbol and style. 
    That is why we read history as history – and poetry as poetry – and apocalypse as apocalypse.  It is also why we don’t read them as newspaper reports… because they were not written to be.  
    Oftentimes when people object the idea of doing any of this with the Bible, it is helpful to point out verse in the Christian new testament that they can recognize themselves in. 
Example 1 
Romans 16:16   Greet one another with a holy kiss.
1 Corinthians 16:20   Greet one another with a holy kiss.
2 Corinthians 13:12   Greet one another with a holy kiss.
1 Thessalonians 5:26    Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
So four times scripture tells us to do this and we as North American christians don’t. Why is that?   It is not because we are not ‘Biblical’.  It is because we understand that it is cultural. 
Example 2
7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles.
 8 I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.
 9 I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.
    So  Paul is saying this as an Apostle.  It does not seem to be up for debate or something that will change over time…. and yet we do not (generally) lift our our hands when we pray – we bow our heads and close our eyes.  Why do we do that?   Bowing your head and closing your eyes is not a Biblical way to pray.  Of the many postures of prayer in the Bible – it is not one of them. 
    Godly women braid their hair.  They wear gold.  They own pearls.  Why is that?   It’s not unbiblical… it’s cultural.
    and yet when it comes to women being pastors or women who were divorced before they were christians wanting to serve communion… godly men who do not lift their hands when they pray or greet me with a kiss… transform and become biblical literalists. 
    And this to me is the problem.  We have not thoughtfully approached how we interpret scripture. We have lazily adopted what we were told and we have reacted.  I am not sure that it is working for us – especially not in the modern world. 
    I had a conversation with someone the other day about Moses.  I love Moses.  I think that most people I talk to have a real fondness for his story.   But there is a perfect example of interpretation in the passage about his calling.
    You will remember the incident of the burning bush and you might also remember the part where he throws down his staff (he was a shepherd after all) and it becomes a snake, then he picks up the snake and it becomes a stick of wood again.  
    Now those of use who read that part as literal history have a little problem when it come to application.  What is the application of that story?   We are not looking for burning bushes, not literally – we are looking for signs from god.  In fact, I would council someone who was looking for a sign from god to NOT look for burning bush.  1) because it only happened once in all of scripture – so you could be waiting a while  2) you don’t live in a place that has those same kind of bushes – and god works with what you have in your context. 
    and when it comes to that snake staff – what is the application for the modern day believer?  Are we to throw sticks on the ground in front of government officials? (like Moses did to Pharaoh)   Are we to pick up snakes if we are hiking and need a walking stick?  NO!   The application for those of us who read this part literally is to believe that ordinary things can take on extraordinary capabilities when god is involved. 
    So my friend is not so sure about the historical accuracy of the events of Genesis and Exodus.  He thinks that they are more like parables.  What is his application for these two passages?  The same as mine!   To trust that God gives signs as well as callings   and that ordinary instruments can do extraordinary things when God is involved.  
    You see, I take a literal story and derived spiritual principles out of it.  I read it literally and then translate it  poetically or allegorically.   My friend reads it allegorically and applies it as such.  BUT we end up with the same thing!!
    That is why I say that there has to be room at the table for those who read the Bible very differently – I don’t think that reading a section of scripture like the Exodus as a certain type of parable disqualifies you from A) being a christian or B) contributing to the conversation.
I think that the burning bush incident really happened.  My friend is not so sure. But either way – I am not looking for burning bushes to decide how to follow god. and neither is my friend. I could be a stinker and say that he does not believe the Bible – but he could say that I do not throw sticks on the ground and even if I did they would not turn into snakes – so he could question how “Biblical” I am anyway…  for all our bluster about “believing the Bible” or “reading it literally”  the truth is that we follow God the exact same way!!

>The Devil is in the Details


Last week we looked at injecting meaning into the text or substituting understandings for the actual words of scripture.
    Next week I want to look at possible implications for reading those four verses differently than many of us were taught to.
    But this week I want just give a couple more examples of how we might be projecting an outside system onto that which is revealed in scripture. I want to do this by looking at four devilish passages that seem to be read on autopilot by many that I hear quoting them.
    The first is in Genesis 3 – right at the beginning of the book.  “1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
    Why do we think that this was anything other than a talking snake? Conservatives and Fundamentalist claim to read the Bible literally –  often regarding Genesis 1 and 2 and the creation story.  Then we get to Genesis 3 and we don’t continue with the literal hermeneutic… we do something. 
     What is that thing we are taught to do?  

    We swap out what is in the text for an interpretation we import from some other system.  We see “snake” and swap out “the devil”.   Why do we do that?  What is the mechanism that allows us to do that?  It is not an organic reading of the text.  It certainly is not reading the Bible literally!  It is an interpretation. 
    and that is my only point. No one reads the Bible literally. You’re not suppose to. It was written to be interpreted.  That is the whole point of using genres like poetry and prophecy. It is required with many of the genres used in the writing of the Bible.  Genesis 3 is not a newspaper report. 
Matthew 16
    Jesus is talking about his journey that will lead to his death.  22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
    Did Jesus think that Peter was the devil? Had Peter morphed into the ghoulish Lord of the Netherworld?  Was Peter possessed by a demonic force?  Not exactly. 
    Peter was speaking to and encouraging the very thing that Jesus was most tempted by: taking that easy way. Not ‘drinking for the cup’ of suffering was the great struggle ( we see this is passages like john 17 where Jesus is wrestling with God [not literally of course – it’s a  figure of speech] in prayer) .   So our greatest temptation that takes us away from the will and way that God has for us is personified as ‘the devil’. 
    This, I think, is what happens is ‘the Last Supper’ John 13:27 (NIV) “As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.”  Now did the most powerful demonic ancient fallen angel that commands the dark minions personally enter into the physical body of Judas?  That might be overdoing it.   No – Judas gave over his will to that route that was his greatest temptation. 
    If you follow what I am saying here, think about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Phillip Yancey says in “The Jesus I Never Knew” that the real issue on the table [again not literally – just a figure of speech] is not whether Jesus was the messiah but rather what type of messiah he would be. Would he be one who took the easy road?  In that sense when the devil says ‘if you are the son of god’  it really indicates ‘since you are the son of god’. His identity was not being decided. That was secure.  His route was what was being decided.
Ephesians 6:12 
    12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
    This passage is often quoted in terms of “spiritual warfare” which is another way of classifying a certain type of praying.   It can be confusing because the verse right before this says “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”   The key word there for many is devil.
    But here is the thing that I hope you notice.  In verse 12 it is not talking about the devil. It is talking about the devil’s scheme… and then notice what it actually says: rulers, authorities, dark powers of this world are in one category. Then it says “and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” which means that rulers, authorities, and dark powers of this world are not spiritual.  
That gives us three categories:  1) flesh and blood  2) spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms  and 3) rulers, authorities, dark powers of this world.   So what are these?  Well, they are not flesh and blood (people) and they are not spirits (or demons) – they are governments, courts, corporations, etc. 
    As long as christians continue to think that this is the devil that is being talked about – some nefarious  dark fallen angel who is plotting humanities doom with army of demonic  hordes… (very Roman imagery by the way if you think about the barbarians who lived in darkness and threatened Rome’s civilization light)  – as long as we keep picturing that cartoony character we never get down to asking the real question: how is evil carried out in our world: could it be governments, courts, and corporations ? 
    but as long as christians think that it is some dark under-lord of another realm – they wholeheartedly turn a blind eye to the systems, structures and institutions that oppress and suppress humanity into bondage. 
    We could look at passages like Luke 10 , the sending out of the 72, where it says17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”  18 He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
    Jesus isn’t saying “along time ago in a galaxy far away I saw Satan – who was an angel – fall from heaven to earth and become the character that you know as the devil”.  He was saying “while you were out on this training assignment I saw dark authority lose it’s power – now get it: nothing will harm you”.  
    Isaiah 14 is the other place that we get some of our thinking.  But go back and read it and see if it’s the kind of newspaper report that is to be read literally. 
    We could look at passages like Job where ‘hasatan’ (the accuser in the original language) might actually be someone who works for god in that story.  It would lead us to talk about two things : a) that the ‘devil’ is called the false accuser later in another drama (Revelation 12) and b) that both Job and Revelation are not newspaper reports and that maybe we should be careful about deriving doctrine from their literal reading. 
    Look – I know that I have been all over the place with this one but here is the bottom line: If you think that what is wrong with the world is that the a talking snake was really a fallen angel in disguise and tricked the first humans …  you are not reading the Bible literally.  You can say that you are – but you are fooling yourself.  You are interpreting.
    and as long as your interpreting, I am suggesting that you may want to update those tools by which you interpret so that  when we read passages like 1 John 3:8“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”  You don’t think hoofs and horn and red capes and pitchforks… but you understand that there is a devilish scheme at work in the world – it’s not by a single sinister character called Satan but instead it is rulers, authorities, and dark powers of this world.  Then we ask “ are the governments, courts, corporations part of that?”   We can ask “ are the systems, structures and institutions that oppress and suppress humanity part of this?”.
    But as long as we keep thinking “dark lord of the under-world” we allow the schemes of the devil (that Romans 6 is talking about) to prosper.  Instead, try thinking about it as a personification of the worst of humanity – a path that takes us away from justice, rightness and the way that God would have us go. 

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑