Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Everyone For Themselves

I am big fan of Identity Politics.  People’s politics should be informed by, and come from, their social location. What is the alternative? Ideology? No, our identities are socially constructed and so that identity needs to inform our politics.

I am also aware that while identity politics (IP) are great for politics –they are not a totalizing approach for every area of life.  There has been quite a loud outcry recently by some over IP’s overreach into every arena and how it has come to dominate nearly everything in a media era where optics are everything.

Today I simply want to look at why it feels like it is ‘everyone for themselves’ in our culture. This is part 4 of “Why Things Seems So Bad Right Now”.  [You may want to read ‘No Neutral Anymore‘ and ‘Fragmented and Fractured’ first.]


Identity Politics rose in the 1960’s and came to prominence in the academy though various branches of what comes under the umbrella of ‘theory’. Concerns of feminists, civil rights leaders, the gay community and other minority groups brought radical critique of society and its norms in the 60’s challenging the status quo and the underlying assumption that sustained the oppressive systems of institutionalized systems.

Identity politics gave voice to many who had felt silenced or marginalized by a societal norm that instantiated by codes of conduct, conformity, and control (often through threats and actual violence). By banning together under small but vocal banners identifying the group as connected through some commonality and loyalty (race, gender, class, etc.) individuals were able to create a larger platform for their concerns and garner political leverage for change. Changes included legal protection, the removal of discrimination and practice of exclusion, as well prominence in representation whether in the workplace, government or media.


There are at least four considerable critiques of identity politics that cover a wide array of concerns from distinct perspective and commitments.  There are points of overlap between the critics, but for clarity I will group them in the following ways:

  • Atomism
  • Essentialist
  • Communitarian
  • Consumerism

Atomism: Marc Fisher is a vocal critic of identity politics (IP) as an extension of neo-liberalism and its resulting expression of autonomous individualism. Critiques like his focus on the shortcomings of the atomized conception of the individual that come out of the Enlightenment. The breakdown of social bonds (like the family and tribe), religious institutions (prevalent distrust of institutions and leaders) as well as prevalent mobility/transience has resulted in a society of individuals who often do not live in the village they grew up in, feel free to believe or not believe the things that their parents do, and have no generational supervision as they pursue their desires for promotion/status/relationship/satisfaction in isolation and without accountability.

IP then is the natural offspring of this atomized concept of self where one’s own self-interest and particular concern are central and elevated.  In this view, a black lesbian (for instance) takes her own interests and demands special consideration and a privileging of her situation to combat the privilege that has been inherited and enjoyed by those who has historically conformed to societal norms and thus their experience has been normalized.

Essentialist: Judith Butler has a very different concern about IP that it is danger of essentializing individual experience as a common and too concrete category. There is not one experience that can be called the ‘female experience’ or ‘the view of women’. The danger here is that a whole group can be lumped together and their varying experience and perspectives codified as something concrete or essential. Gender is the way (or sexuality, class expectations, etc) and its performative nature means that we have been socialized and conditioned into gender roles and expectations even as we freely act within the menu of options that we believe to be available to us.

In this sense, identity politics risks essentializing an individual or group’s experience in an attempt to gain solidarity within the identified group for the purpose of political leverage with those outside the group. Those working for ‘gay rights’ ban together to narrate a common experience in order to gain attention and allies that are required if the protections that are being sought are going to be agreed to by the majority. This, in Butler’s view, is a temporary measure that cannot be allowed to be essentialized as ‘the’ gay perspective or experience.

Communitarian: This group has a sustained critique of IP, prominently vocalized by thinkers like Michael Sandel. Communitarians view the individual within a larger matrix of social, ethical, and political structures that bind us as a networked or linked collective of groups and communities. The loyalties of IP are to the individual and promote the agenda of one group often to the neglect of or detriment to the collective whole.

IP looks to elevate the experience of a neglected or marginalized group without taking into account the possible reasons why that may have come to be the case historically. Both gays and women are addressed within the construct of procreation and the furtherance of our society and species. Communitarians are clever in the conservatism – contesting not on the grounds of some revealed or universal moral order, but on the grounds of utilitarian pragmatism before transitioning toward moralized principles of the greater good over specialty interests and minority perspectives. [1]

Consumerism: In his book “Consuming Religion”, Vincent Miller interacts with a number of Marxists critiques alongside postmodern approaches such as Jean Baudrillard to expose IP as a commodity fetish within the ‘logic of late capitalism’.  Within a consumer context such as Western culture has entered into, everything including religion experience and IP, is commodified. Consumption is ultimately unsatisfying but the totalizing nature of Capitalist society has the capacity to absorb even the most virulent dissent. The capacity of the market to absorb criticism and protest, then adopt and commodified the concern, and finally appropriate its agenda is all-consuming.

IP can easily be addressed then by the ‘logic of the market’ by taking every specialty interest group or minority and tailoring merchandise, products and ‘swag’ for their purpose and for their rallies. People want to broadcast an image to ‘appear’ that they are committed to a cause.

“The market does not distinguish between ‘Feel the Bern’ bumper stickers or ‘Make America Great Again’. It just wants you to buy bumper stickers.”

Nor does the market judge if a consumer wants to pay $2 more for a cup of coffee to ensure that it is organic – shade grown – fair trade – single region. In the same way, the interests of IP and its constituent groups are commodified and reified within the existing structure. Adjustment is made to supply personalized, modified, tailored, stylized and customized products and services for ready consumption. All resistence, dissent and protest is absorbed and appropriated into what Guy Deborg refers to as ‘the society of spectacle’.


In summary, critics of IP share in common a concern for its limitations even while those concerns manifest in disparate directions of critique.

  • First, there is no way that a few contributing markers can signify the totality of your experience.
  • Second, it is possible that identification within one minority group or special interest will suppress and minimize the full expression of your ‘self’ as an individual.
  • Third, by choosing to focus on one or a few personal markers of identity, groups create division and adversarial compartmentalization that may work against the ‘common good’ or which may end up limiting or injuring a different sub-group.
  • Lastly, by choosing to focus on one or a few personal markers of identity, there is a danger of essentializing one experience in order to promote a common voice or narrative but which may be inauthentic and intimately inaccurate committing a fallacy of misplaced concreteness in an attempt to promote solidarity or consolidate support.

I hope that this quick overview has been helpful – if nothing else, I just wanted to address why it may feel like there is such discord and animosity in our contemporary environment.


[1] This critique is very popular right now and is making big news on social media for being part of the backlash during the most recent election. Jordan Peterson is probably the most visible spokesperson for this sort of critique. The first 5 min of this video (content warning) will get you up to speed.

Liberal Question part 3: Music and Whiteness

I think a lot about issues of race, gender and class. I read about it and talk it over with people every week. I am working my way through an expensive program in order to write my dissertation about it.  I care about matters of diversity and justice a great deal. mumford_and_sons

Ever since talking to my mentor, Randy Woodley at Wild Goose West last fall I have been thinking about this a little differently. Then with the happenings of the Emergent Christianity thing in Memphis … I thought I would bring out what I have been whittling away at in my workshop.
This is something I am working on and I would love your constructive feedback. 

The problem isn’t Brian McLaren speaking at a conference.
The problem is if everyone speaking at the conference looks like McLaren.

The problem isn’t reading a book by a white guy.
The problem is only reading books by white guys.*

The problem isn’t having a man speak up front at church.
The problem is if we only hear men speak from up front at church.

You don’t even listen to podcasts! 

Here is what I want to avoid. There was some grumbling on facebook when The Culture Cast was released and it turned out that both Jordan and Christian were white guys. Ironically, almost all the grumbling came from white guys – but that is a different issue.

One female friend said “where are the women podcasters?”

I suggested that since it was a concern of hers … why didn’t she tell us some recommendations.  Why is she asking a question?

She responded that she didn’t listen to podcasts.

I was stunned.

I asked “then why do you care? What difference would it make to you?”

It would be like me complaining their aren’t enough black NASCAR drivers. I don’t watch NASCAR. I don’t even know how many black drivers there are. That reality is irrelevant to my existence.

I think that we need to care deeply about things that we are invested in. There are too many issues that matter for too much for us to get tangled in controversies vicariously.

We don’t except tokens.

We need to be careful of tokenism. Let me be clear on this: if you are group of white people who have organized a conference, already have 10 white speakers lined up and then think ‘we need some color – let’s see if we can get Randy Woodley’ … that is token.  Randy got no say in the direction and organization nor had any power or influence. You just want to put a microphone in his face and have him do his schtick.

Token is an afterthought that serves primarily to help one feel good about being able to check off a box. If Randy was on the organizing committee – trust me the no conference would look the same.

In contrast to ‘token’ let me offer 3 examples:

  • Anthony Smith is an emergent voice and influence. He was in the movement before me and helped bring me in. That is not token. That is influence. Anthony Smith is influential.
  • When Tripp and I organized the Emergent Village Theological Conversation we said “Monica Coleman is our marquee speaker, our cornerstone, our prima donna.” And we did not do anything until she agreed to be our first round draft pick. She got session 1 to start the conference to set the tone and she got session 5 to end the conference so that she had the final word. We built the conference around that structure. We then invited others to come in around her.
  • When we inherited the Phoenix Big-Tent Christianity event many of the speakers were already in place. It was great to have Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren to boost ticket sales. But we wanted to highlight some voices that people had not heard a lot before. So, for instance, we structured the actual sessions that one of the ‘marquee’ voices was asking questions of one of the ‘emerging’ voices. For many people, that was the first time they had heard of Rachel Held-Evans. I will never forget watching her debate Marcus Borg about church folks understanding of creation!

I’m with the band. 

Here is my big point:
The problem isn’t that Mumford and Sons are all white guys. We have to look at the way that bands form. It makes sense that the guys of Mumford connect and play.

The problem is if every band on the radio is white guys.

The problem isn’t that Bono is a white guy or that U2 are all white guys.

The problem is if every band on a record label is a bunch of white guys.

We have to learn to distinguish between how a band come together and how the music industry functions.

We also need to do this for church … and for christian conferences.

No conference or podcast is or can be the full expression of the kingdom on earth. It is not nor can it be heaven. It is not supposed to be. Like no band can play every type of music …

I understand our desire for diversity – I just want us to manage our expectations. Our problem isn’t with Mumford and Sons, it’s with the music industry.

The answer isn’t “add a black guy”.  That is not how bands work.
Can you imagine somebody saying “why doesn’t Boys 2 Men have a women in it?” or “why doesn’t Destiny’s Child get Ricky Martin to join?”

The problem then isn’t with any church, podcast, organization, conference or person. Our concern is with how that all comes together in a less-diverse way than we would hope for and desperately need. 

The answer then is not to ‘add a women and stir’ or to ‘get some color’. That is what we call token – and it is insulting to everyone involved.

The need is to examine the bigger picture. This includes how things are planned, who makes decisions, and in what ways can people access resources.

Here is a timely example: Tripp and I are singers and songwriters. Our friends Callid Keefe-Perry and Steve Knight are as concerned about the impact of technology on the church as we are. We have talking about  it whenever we are together. We started this when we lived in 4 different parts of the country. Tomorrow, Steve Night is in town and we are going to record a podcast about the subject.

That is not a problem. We are Mumford, or U2, or The Stones, or the Beatles … we are just a band.
It is not a problem that we sing together – or in this case talk together. The problem comes if we are the only ones you hear.

Just to be clear: 1) I am using this an analogy. 2) I am using the music industry as a positive example.



*If you find yourself in this situation, here are some books suggestions

Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth Johnson

Christ the Key by Catherine Tanner

Teaching Community by bell hooks

Shalom and the Community of Creation by Randy Woodley

Many Colors or The Next Evangelicalism by Soong Chan-Rah

Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation by Andrew Sung Park


White, Extremely Male and Incredibly Homophobic

I originally posted this at Homebrewed Christianity but wanted to move it over here to keep the conversation going.

The news is wild these days! Its almost as if there is a cultural shift underway!
Let me just highlight 4 news stories from the past weeks:

1) The Pope: Gay marriage threatens humanity’s future

2) Pastor Joel Osteen to Oprah: Homosexuality Is Sin — But Gay People Will Get Into Heaven

3) Rick Santorum: A Straight Dad In Prison Is Better Than Two Gay Dads Who Aren’t

4) Pastor Mark Driscoll’s book on Marriage hits the shelves

It is interesting that all four of these stories have come to my attention within a week. What most people will focus on is whether there is a Bible verse to back up what they are saying or not.

What needs to be stated before we get there is two-fold:

  • All four are white males. Somebody may ask “are you implying that their gender or race somehow diminishes their right to speak with authority?” and I would answer “No – I just think that it is worth pointing it out in case later we wanted to examine how people come to power and in what ways authority is constructed, bestowed, or recognized.”
  • When you have the leader of all the world’s catholics, a guy who is renowned for not speaking up about anything or coming down on anyone, a presidential candidate, and one of the most influential evangelical pastors in America saying the same thing… one of a couple of things has to cross your mind.

a) they are all sticking up for the truth or
b) they are all sticking up for an antiquated perspective of the past

The reason that this issue has grabbed my attention is that many are calling it “The Last Taboo”.  Continue reading “White, Extremely Male and Incredibly Homophobic”

>New Year’s reservations

>There are going to be some changes for me and Everyday Theology in 2011. I am now in a PhD program and I have been trying to get a job. I have been able to get a couple of small part-time jobs for January-February, two of which will affect me publicly and privately.

My two gigs are with Religion Online [link] and Big Tent Christianity [link]. I am very excited about both, the first will impact me long-term, the second will be big in the short-term.

Here are the three changes to Everyday Theology in 2011:

  • Everyday Theology will continue to be a weekly Podcast about the everyday implications of what we believe as Christians in the 21st century. I will put up the transcript  every week where comments and questions can be posted.  I love this conversation!
  • I have several other projects which I will manage through my other Facebook account. You can participate with those other projects at Lead From the Fringe (my ‘quick thoughts’ blog) and Ethic Space and Faith (where I am an ‘Admin’ and sometimes author). 
  • In a PhD program, your time is spent a little differently than as a full time minister. My thought life and book selection are different and the expectation of how I interact with the material is consequently changing. I will need to adjust the content of the podcast a little bit in order to take advantage of the reading that I am already doing and also to practice the discipline of engaging current and historical authors and thinkers.  

Some of you may know but, a couple of years ago I left a church that I loved very much and I did not know what going to Seminary would mean or how I would be able to bridge the gap with my new direction. It went better than expected and Everyday Theology has been a wonderful conversation to help me think through what it looks like to have a progressive christian faith in the real world.

The final thing I want to say is that I faced a big decision in the past months. I have taken great effort (and pride) in not being reactive, argumentative or inflammatory. I read a book almost a decade ago that impacted me radically. The book was called The Argument Culture and the author, Deborah Tannen, got to the very root of this damnable  way that we conduct ourself in the west (especially North America including Canada).

Perhaps the biggest change for 2011 is the change that I have decided to pass up. I decided that I just don’t want to contribute to the argument culture and I certainly don’t want to be one of those christians who attack and criticize other christians (as much as I can possibly help it).   So here is a story about why that decision has been so difficult.


I exist mostly in a progressive (not a capital P) christian context. That is what I would say is my community. Most of us have ‘emerged’ (not capital E) from a predominately evangelical-protestant- with charismatic leanings type heritage.

In my circles I have always assumed and heard that when public characters like  Jerry Falwell sounded off on Hurricane Katrina being a punishment from God for the people of New Orleans – that most people rolled their eyes and knew that he was such a marginal expression that he should not be taken seriously.

or when Franklin Graham said that Islam (as if it were one thing) is a terrible religion filled with hate – that people knew he was not a spokesman for  Christians (as if we are just one thing).

or when Mark Driscoll says that he could never worship a Jesus that he could beat up – that it carried about as much weight as a WWF wrestler mouthing off to get pumped up before a match, pulsing with vibrato and testosterone.

But apparently that is not the case.  

Moving can be a  powerful experience to encounter new perspectives.  I recently moved A) regions of the country B) from a Masters program to a PhD program and C) from a school with ‘Evangelical’ in it’s name to a school that is widely known for being wildly liberal.

The weird part is that I have never heard more about hell. Honestly, it comes up several times a week in a variety of conversations and settings. There seems to be a collective obsession with who is going to hell and who gets to say who goes to hell. I have heard more about hell in the last 6 months than the last 6 years combined.  It’s almost as if there is a collective trauma that has happened by so many people telling so many other types of people that they are going to hell. The people that I hang out with take great offense at being told that they are going to hell by our more conservative brethren.

SO here is the moment when I got some clarity:

In our readings for a class, the names Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Pat Roberson  came up as the 3 examples of American Protestants .  Two weeks before this class  I was at a huge event at the LA Country Library for a global conversation between two nationally known authors – and these same three names came up.

It caused me to stop and think, “Wait – I thought that everyone knew that there were alway those marginal voices in any group – that there are clowns at every circus…” but they are not spokesman for the cause. They don’t speak for me and my circles.

So when our class presenter referenced this part of the reading (a mention that was noticeable because it was not the central focus of the reading) I perked up.  The presenter said that they are a public face of Christianity – that when people who are not Christians think of Christianity , that is who they think of.

If this were true, I would have to change my approach.

I assumed that when people say Pat Robertson – Jerry Falwell – Franklin Graham they thought “affluent white male christian TV personalities”.   I didn’t think that they thought “all Christians”.

When a group like the Gospel Coalition forms with people from that exact same demographic (only this time with a Calvinist bent) – I thought that people just saw a bunch of dogmatic guys from Reformed backgrounds… I am starting to reconsider that.

Lest you think that I am I being too optimistic or that I am being too naive…  I have an agenda – I am trying to figure out if the Big Tent vision of Christianity is big enough to include those who think that there is a very small tent that they are not only IN, but are in charge of .

I have been giving everyone the benefit of the doubt that they knew that there is not just one type of Jewish (Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, etc.) – that there is not just one type of Christian – that there is not just one type of Muslim – that there is not just one type of Atheist…  that the world is very nuanced!   Does everything just get boiled down to a soundbite?

At that point, I was thinking that maybe I need to become more aggressive and more confrontational.  Now I think that we already have too much of that and have decided to just stick with this M.O. and be who I feel called to be. I can not be responsible for the big picture or determine the outcome. All I can do is play the role I am suppose to play and bring my best to the table.

I hope that you have a wonderful NewYear and I am looking forward to the ongoing conversation in 2011.

>the value of adding an ‘s’

>Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!  I wish you the very best.

It is difficult, to say the least, to give a gift via a blog. Such is the nature of the beast. But if I could give you one thing that would have a big different in this coming year, it would be this: I would give you an ‘s’.

An ‘s’ can be a wonderful thing. Especially when you put it at the end of words that have been made singular but that should be plural!

Two historic examples and then some contemporary ones:

The Industrial Revolution, according to historians like John Merriman, was actually three industrial revolutions.
The first was an agricultural revolution which allowed people to grow more, which encouraged a bigger population and thus all the surplus labor that would be needed. The second was inventions that impacted small groups of workers, like the cotton gin. Then came the big one that generally gets all the headlines with big industry and coal burning factories. The name ‘the industrial revolution’ is a bit of a misnomer that lumps these three together. They actually happened progressively over quite a long period of time.

The same happens with the ‘Protestant Reformation’. Most people don’t know that Luther and Zwingli were kind of up to two different things and that later Calvin came in (initially as a Lutheran) and then there were at least three little reformations. Then there was England’s Anglican movement that was doing its own thing, and the Anabaptists. That is 5 reformation movements.

When it comes to religions, it is often appropriate to add an ‘s’. 

When we lump together the Jewish religion or the Jewish perspective, we may be overlooking the fact that there are three huge branches within Judaism, as well as many other splinters. There is a Reformed Judaism, a Conservative, and an Orthodox.  They are very different from each other.

Islam is the same way – there are over 80 types of Islam. So when we say “Muslims _____”  we may want to be careful and be more specific by adding a plural mentality and saying “some types of Muslims ______”.

Even within Christianity there are God knows how many different kinds of Christianity. So to say that “Christians believe ______” is more than challenging.  It may be misleading.

There are several Judaisms, several types of Islams, and multiple Christian perspectives.

Sometimes people say things like “the Biblical Worldview” as if there is only one. There are actually many worldviews that informed Scripture. Certainly the view of those who wandered in the desert in the Exodus story had a different view of the world than Paul the cosmopolitan Roman citizen of Jewish descent.  And one can clearly see that what Paul wrote in Romans 13 to submit to governments because they do God’s work was a different worldview than the person who wrote Revelation and called Rome ‘Babylon’  and a ‘whore who is drunk on the blood of that nations’. There are many examples that I could use but the important thing to note is that there are many worldviews in the Bible.

We are entering an era of Plurality and Multiplicity. These are two things that I value tremendously.  Adding an ‘s’ is sometimes the key to getting it right – to move it from overly simple singularity to the possibilities of seeing the diversity.

There is not one kind of Judaism or a Jewish perspective. There is not one type of Islam or a singular ‘Muslim’ perspective.  There is not one one kind of Christianity or a single ‘Christian’ perspective.

My gift to you this holiday season is an ‘s’. It may seem little… but trust me, it can be very powerful when used in the right place.

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