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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Emergent

O is for Open and Relational

One of the most vibrant developments in Christian theology has happened in the past 50 years. The conversation is diverse and includes everyone from Process friendly Mainliners to Vatican II Catholics, from Emergent types to progressive Evangelicals – and plenty of others.O-OpenRelational

These diverse perspectives come under a canopy called “Open and Relational Theologies”. The name itself is instructive and helpful in this case. Here is the easiest way to think about the name:

  • Open addresses the nature of the future.
  • Relational addresses the nature of power.

The Open crew often hale from more evangelical camps who question the common held belief (in their circles) that the future is determined. Questions of human free will, God’s intervention and nature of certainty when interpreting things like biblical prophecy, salvation, and world history.
The Relational crew is more concerned with assumptions of God’s character and power and thus question common held beliefs about things like omnipotence and intervention. This camp looks at world history and says, ‘We know how God’s activity has been framed and thought of in the past but is that really how the world works?’ Challenges to the other famous ‘O’ words are seriously undertaken: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.

Both groups have many positive assertions even though they often grow out of a negative critique of established or institutional assumption regarding God’s character and work in the world.

There is much overlap between the two schools and thus they often work together and can be grouped at partners.
There are, however, three significant differences:

  1. Open thinkers often come from an evangelical background and thus are heavily Bible focused. They question the nature of the future and of God’s power but are unwilling to come all the way over to Process thoughts or to convert to a different metaphysic.
  2. Relational folks may be more likely to engage liberal brands of biblical scholarship and to shed antiquated our outdated notions by integrating scientific discoveries and new models (and better explanations) of reality.
  3. Open thinkers also hold that God could be coercive and interventionist, but willing holds back (or relinquished this) in love and for human free-will. Relational thinkers may be more willing to go all the way and say ‘no – this is just not the nature of God or God’s character. It is not that God could if God wanted to … it is simply not the way that things work.’

I came to O&R through Emergence thought. Emergent explanations of science and society make far more sense than former top-down and authoritarian (coercive) models of God and the world.
Emergence thought focus on the inter-related nature of existence and how higher forms of organization emerged from simpler and smaller  elements (or entities) within the organization or eco-system.

Many of the models we have inherited from church history are either based in hierarchy (like King-Caesar thought) or are mechanical (from the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment on). Those mechanistic explanations of God’s power and God’s work become problematic and seem entirely outdated (and unprovable) in a world come of age.

Open & Relational schools of thought provide a much better model of reality (nature) and human experience than antiquated explanations based in the 3-tiered Universe and ancient metaphysics.

Here is a bullet point list of themes from a previous post by Tripp Fuller:

  • God’s primary characteristic is love.
  • Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
  • Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
  • God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
  • Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
  • God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
  • God created all nondivine things.
  • God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
  • Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
  • The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
  • God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
  • Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

You can listen to HBC episode 107 with Thomas J. Oord for more.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

 

‘Atheist Churches’ are more traditional than Emergents

I am loving the conversations that have come out of the publicity tour of Sunday Assemblies. The feedback and pushback that is being generated by these ‘atheist churches’ is proving very informative. I am actually learning a lot about how people think of church, atheism, tradition, and community.

If nothing else comes out of their moment in the spotlight, it has been very enlightening. I do, however, think that some more will come out of this.

The most illuminating resource that I have found so far was an interview with co-founder of Sunday Assembly, Pippa Evans on the Nomad Podcast ep. 55. Nomad is based in Britain – as are the comedic co-founders of Sunday Assembly – and Nomad comes out of the ‘fresh expressions’ branch of the emergent movement.

The interview with Pippa (Sanderson Jones, the other co-founder, comes in at the end) is 100% worth your time. The two things that stood out the most to me were:

  1.  Pippa talks about and has adopted the ‘form’ of church.
  2. The Nomad hosts hated it – but for the opposite reason you would think.

1. The Form: Pippa was very clear in several spots about her background in church. The telling part for me, toward the end, was when she mentioned being in Soul Survivor. If you don’t know what that is, you may have missed the reference. Soul Survivor is a very charismatic movement that has developed worship leaders and a style that has been imported around the world – including by US American evangelicals & charismatics.

Pippa explains the formula – it is all about flow:

  • Start with two high energy songs – one of them needs to be familiar and singable
  • A short presentation of poetry or reading (this is like the opening prayer or scripture equivalent)
  • A slower song
  • The offering
  • The sermon (presenting an idea)
  • Response / Confession of thanks (stuff your are grateful for)
  • A big song so that it ends with a bang

Pretty standard stuff! What it reminded me of was the hilarious parody video from a couple of years ago (which started out an in-house joke for a worship conference) about the formula for contemporary evangelical/charismatic worship services.

2. Traditional. The fascinating point that made by the Nomad hosts was that walking into and sitting through a Sunday Assembly was painful because it was reclaiming and repurposing all of the things they disliked about going to traditional church! The whole reason they are into ‘fresh expressions’ is because they found so little in the forms of the church.

They were horrified to walk in and find:

  • people sitting in strait rows
  • everyone facing forward
  • huge screens at the front with song lyrics
  • one person doing all the talking
  • passive participation by the audience
  • it was Sunday morning

My favorite part was when they asked Pippa about the possibility of conversation at future Assemblies.  She was not hopeful or  excited about the idea. She said that some people have asked for a Q&A segment at the Assemblies and that is not likely either. Her point is that things like conversation and Q&A’s happen in other places. That is not what the Sunday Assembly is for.

It was at this point that the Nomad hosts made the observation that – at least in this sense – the ‘atheist churches’ are more traditional than their emergent (fresh expressions) gatherings which have de-centered meetings and deconstructed elements. That was an epiphany for me.

I am so glad that Sunday Assembly is doing this – and even more pleased that they are so approachable about what they are doing and why they are doing it. I have already had more than a dozen conversations about ‘why we do what we do‘ with people. IMG_2181

I can tell you this though – now that I have met in the round and been in conversational church … I don’t know if I could go back to  everybody facing the same direction and not have interactive sermons Sunday after Sunday. I’m pretty sure that the future of the church is de-centered and conversational/participatory.

Let me know what you think – as you can tell, I love hearing others thoughts and being in conversation.   -Bo 

Ancient-Future Faith: Invitation To Conversation

An ‘Ancient-Future’ faith is an idea that gripped me more than a decade ago and, even as I have emerged into a very different expression of my faith, I can not shake. As I have revisited and revised my participation and understanding of the Christian faith, this concept has haunted me in the best of ways.

On the TNT that will come out early this week, I talk about trying to hold onto this idea even as the author who popularized it seemed to go astray/ re-entrench from that original vision before his passing in 2007. I blame it on the post-911 Clash of Civilizations mentality that gripped many white men over a certain age. That is for another day. IMG_2907

I continue to be intrigued by the pairing of practices from previous centuries with communities and expressions fully embedded in the 21st century. There is something beautiful and powerful about matching these two. We are attempting to maintain a healthy continuity with the tradition that we have inherited with a vibrant incarnation in the world that we inhabit.

That is not an easy path to navigate. It is far easier (and more convenient) to either retreat into the romantic silo of the imagined past … or to adapt and adopt every cultural expression that comes into the mall or across the radio waves. Discernment is needed.

Discernment, however, happens after recognition.  Len Sweet*  was the first to introduce me to idea that we are moving from the Gutenberg era to the Google era. While there are many aspects of this cultural shift, the most striking is the shift from black & white words on a page to the multi-media world of image & message. The image and the message compliment (or reinforce) each other and sometimes serve to contrast or challenge each other.  This is something that us ‘digital-natives’ learn to negotiate early and easily. Some would call it second nature – which is an interesting phrase in more than one way.

Here is a video inviting people to our gathering at the Loft LA.  It is a little intro to some of the ideas that I’m talking about.

Ancient Future Faith from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

I would love to chat with anyone who is interested in these topics. Here is just a quick list of ideas we might want to flesh out in an upcoming blog convo – just let me know below!

  • Sabbath
  • Centering Prayer
  • Ancient-Future Worship
  • Gutenberg to Google
  • The mosaic, collage nature of the 21st century
  • Community discernment
  • Collaboration & contribution
  • Continuity with the tradition & integrity with the moment
  • Post-christian apologetics

Mostly I just wanted to share some of what I am wrestling with in hopes of expanding the conversation.

I look forward to your thoughts.  in Christ -Bo

* another apparent victim of what we talked about earlier

Religion and Consumerism’s Bricolage: in conversation with Philip Clayton

A couple of weeks ago I had a very interesting conversation with Philip Clayton. Several of us went out for lunch after the High Gravity session on Religion & Science. We were at a restaurant where the walls were decorated with a busy collection of reclaimed signs, old pictures and re-purposed trinkets.

Dr. Clayton was across the table from me and at one point I look up to notice that above his head was a sign that read ‘Holy’ on one side and ‘Holy’ at the other end. The words ‘Holy – Holy’ were framing either side of his head. IMG_2884

I tried to come up with something clever to say, scouring my memory for some passage from the Hebrew Bible or the book of Revelation to tweak. The window of opportunity closed because the conversation was quite intense. That morning the topic had been ‘Science & Religion’ and now we had expanded it to ‘Religion & Society’ – or more specifically to ‘Church & Culture’.

The conversation intensified and it became clear that neither Dr. Clayton nor Tripp was too happy with my cynical take on consumer mentalities when it comes to consuming religious experiences within a capitalist framework.

At one point I said “it is like that sign behind you: it’s not like the holy is absent from the space and all the activity that happening here – it’s just that it blends in and goes unnoticed in the midst of all the bricolage that it melts into.”

Somebody had reclaimed that wooden sign. There is a story behind it – there might have even been more to it (I wondered if it used to have a 3rd ‘Holy’ further down the line that had been lost).

But that is my point! In any gathering there are going to be those (like us at that table) who think that what is happening is legitimate, sincere, authentic, important and worth organizing your life around. The congregation is also going to be largely made up of those who are consuming a religious experience – and it is financially worth about the same amount as a movie, a meal, a game or a show.*

I will go even further: this is my great hesitation with those who want to ‘go back’ or ‘conserve’ with their religious participation. This impulse was never more evident to me than when I began interacting with those were into Radical Orthodoxy or with evangelicals who had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy or Catholicism. The ‘zeal of the convert’ can be a telling element when it comes to the anti-modern or counter-modern impulse.

An incongruity is exposed in the counter-modern impulse of these conserving movements. Never mind for a moment that often what is being conserved is born out of a patriarchal model – set that aside for a second.

I will attempt to make this in 4 succinct points:

  1. You do not live in the 14th or 16th century.
  2. You do not think like someone in a previous century.
  3. You do not engage in the rest of your week as someone in a previous century.
  4. You chose, as a consumer within a capitalist framework, to participate.

Those four things signal to me that even the most sincere, authentic, devout, and thorough engagement – whether a Pentecostal, Evangelical, Orthodox, Anglican, RO, Catholic, Mainline or Congregational expression – must account for the ubiquitous consumerism within which we all are saturated.

Dr. Clayton rightly said that I while I had a good point I was proceeding in far too cynical a manner with it. He is correct of course.

My aggressiveness is born out of a deep concern. What we say the church is about – what we believe the very gospel to be – is so vital and so needed in the world today, that we can not afford to ‘play pretend’ about previous centuries and blindly participate in consumerism all the while trumpeting the virtue of our chosen ecclesiastic community.**

The danger, in my opinion, is that religious communities will become nothing more than decorations on the corner of a neighborhood or one more option at the mall food-court. 

For christian believers, the holy is all round us. We can not afford for it to disappear among the bricolage nature of our hyper-advertised media-saturated existence.

The gospel, at its core, is incarnational. Our central story as Christians is flesh and blood in a neighborhood. The whole project is contextual – it only happens in a time and a place. We can never escape that. That is why romantic notions of past centuries or early manifestations can be dangerous distractions and fantastical facades.

We can’t afford to fade into the bricolage. IMG_2886

 

* plus it usually comes with free babysitting. 

** Some might object that they have not chosen but rather have ‘stayed’. I would argue that they did within the consumer’s capacity to do so. 

Loving Jesus – While Hating Religion

originally posted at HBC

Jeff Bethke has created quite a stir with his YouTube video that begins “Jesus came to abolish religion.”  Many video responses have followed (including a Muslim response) and  some bloggers have meticulously  attacked the logic behind his poem point-by-point.  Two  weeks ago  he was in Time magazine.

This whole controversy gets to me at two deep levels:

  •  I used to say those things. Just 4 short years ago I was an evangelical church-planter who regularly contrasted Jesus’ message to ‘religion’.

 

  •  I am shocked at how dismissive so many  folks are being to Bethke’s poem (especially educated and/or mainline).

I have heard many people just brush aside his use of ‘religion’ as ignorant, immature, stupid, uneducated, silly, shallow, un-historic, and false. The thing that I want to yell is

“YOU FOOLS – like it or not, that is how people use the word religion in our culture.”

If you asked A) people under 40 and B) evangelicals to define religion you would get a picture that is almost identical to Bethke’s .

I now hang out with mainline folks and people who read books on theology. They are  quick to say

  • that shows a poor understanding of religion
  • that is a silly/stupid/shallow definition of religion
  • that shows little historical perspective on the role that religion has played

Like it or not – this is the definition that many young people are using for religion. When they say (increasingly) that they are spiritual-but-not-religious , this is what they mean: empty ritual, mindless repitition, and meaningless ceremony.

I am pursuing a PhD in the field of Practical Theology for the very reason that I want to engage how people live out their faith – practice it – in particular communities. The two things that I am willing to concede up front are that

  • Many North American Christians and most Evangelicals utilize simple dualism (Physical v. Spiritual, Natural v. Supernatural, Temporal v. Eternal, Secular v. Sacred, Old v. New Testament, Law v. Grace). This is how they think.
  • Religion is conceptualized as the man-made structures that attempt to facilitate, replicate, and falsely imitate the real thing that God does/wants-to-do in the world.

It is popular to say in these circles “Religion is man’s attempt to connect with God. Jesus is God’s attempt to connect with man.” *

I know that there are many good attempts to connect with religious tradition. I have heard many addresses regarding the root of the word religion and how the ‘lig’ is the same as ligament or ‘binding’ and how it is an attempt to bind us together – not to have us bound up in rules!
My question is this: Are you willing to engage this dualistic and uniformed populist definition of religion that is in place OR would your rather hold to your enlightened and informed historical perspective and allow a conversation to happen without you because you are above it? **

I know that it can be frustrating to circle back and entertain naive perspectives. But if the alternative is to let the conversation happen without a historically informed perspective, then I think we have no choice but to concede the initial conditions of the dialogue in an attempt to express an informed/educated alternative.

*   there are alternatives like “Religion is our attempt to connect with God, Christianity is God’s connecting with us.”
**  I have intentionally provided two alternatives to honor the dualistic nature of this mentality.

>My BIG concern(s)

>

People ask all the time about Emergent Village and the emergent conversation.* They are disappointed/concerned that it is too cynical, too white, too male, not organized enough, not powerful enough or not theologically conservative enough. 

I only get 1000 words a week so let me just make two quick points and then I will tell ya what I think that bigger issue is. 

to listen to the Podcast of this click [here] or go to Itunes “Everyday Theology”

  • Even if the critiques are true – aren’t we glad at some level that white guys are talking about this kind of stuff (making changes, challenging the status quo, etc)? My thought is that if 85% of pastors in America are male… then of course the demographics are going to reflect that starting point. We all start somewhere. You never start from scratch. We all makes the best out of where we begin.  
  • The emergent conversation is really something that has come up in just over a decade. With the 24 hour news cycle, the blog-o-sphere and Twitter… things take on an immediacy in our ‘plugged in culture’  that is unprecedented in human history (the dissemination of information).  But have you ever tried to change something at a church? Most of the time it does not change that quickly! For example, just to be ordained will take my friends 6 years before they can even serve communion! 
I have a greater concern:  I have broken them down into 3 sets of 3. 
Generation: A lot of attention gets paid to the overall changes in the 18-35 year old window.  And it should. There is definitely something going on. 
I am not sure that most churches are going to be able to bridge the gap that is about to come. That is not a knock against the church – it is an acknowledgement of how difficult the task is going to be and how wide the gap is going to become. 
Most churches are funded and/or led by the Boomers and WWII generation. But who those churches are most set up to reach is Parents (35-50) who are generically known as ‘shoppers’. They are looking for a church that meets all the needs of their family. 
I am not speaking negatively here, I am trying to sketch out a changing landscape. Here is what I am nervous about: when this Baby Boom / WWII generation  retires / passes-on (respectively) in the next 10-20 years… there is going to be a finical and leadership vacuum in many local congregations. We will not be able to keep doing ministry the way that we have been doing ministry. 
The problem is that the 18-35 generation is not interested in just doing ministry the way that it has been done – they are not going to just faithfully serve without question or input (for the most part). The expectations are different, the questions are different, and the frameworks are different. 
Context: I am very interested and concerned with the Rural, Sub-urban and Urban triangle. I am a huge proponent of contextualization. This is a huge difference from Islam (as I understand the situation) Judaism and even Christendom. The gospel is meant to be (designed to be) contextualized. The gospel of Jesus Christ is incarnational. It looks different in every different place. 
Unlike Islam you don’t have to face Mecca when you pray, you don’t have to make a trip to the holy city, and -most importantly- you don’t have to read the sacred text in its original language (Arabic in Islam, Hebrew in Judaism, and Greek for Christianity). Our Bible is meant to be translated!
So we have a contextual gospel that is meant to be incarnated in each locale in a fresh way. This is one of the great distinctions of Christianity that is often overlooked.  
In America, however, we have a Consumeristic mentality and so we often like to buy, import and replicate instead of contextualize and incarnate.  (if you think that I am overstating it go to a website like Oureach.com and click on “Fireproof” or any other theme and get ready to buy mailers, bulletins, news sheets, powerpoint slides, banners, t-shirts, and a six week sermon series). 
I am not being critical of websites and services like Outreach.com, I am simply saying that I am concerned that in my lifetime the gap between Urban, Suburban and Rural is going to increase – especially for the church of Jesus Christ. 
(I have had this conversation with Mainline, Pentecostal, and Evangelical leaders. I don’t think that it is unique to any specific style or creed).
Race: I am so intrigued by the Civil Rights movements of 50 years ago. But I am more fascinated by what is coming in the next 50 years. Studies are saying that by the year 2048 there will be no white majority in America.(Canada is in a completely different situation – I will have to talk about that some other time)  Soong Chan-Rah [link] says that it will be true of the Church by 2042 – due to the nature and makeup of Charismatic and Evangelical churches.  
Black, White, Yellow, Red, and Brown – these are us. 
What is the church doing now or planning to do in the next 20 years to get ready for this?  I don’t know.  It seems to me from all the stuff I come across, listen to, read, and discuss that race and ethnic diversity might be lucky to break the top 10 in concerns.
And this it the great concern of mine and what I would hope to address (to a degree) with the Everyday Theology project. Generation, Location and Race is a triangle that I think about everyday.  So here is my three fold make-shift framework that I am employing in my studies to get ready to be a part of the change: Philosophical, Theological and Congregational. 
  • To be Philosophically credible to the world that we are trying to reach and participate with. My hope would be for an internal coherence – that what we do and say is logical credible and is believable. 
  • To be Theologically faithful to the Christian tradition.This includes an awareness of the good and bad of Christian history, so that there is a congruence that avoids disorientation and that provides a continuity that brings some level of orientation.
  • To be contextual (incarnational) as a Congregation. That each local body would be empowered to  have a authentic expression that was appropriate for their community (so that it is not an alien expression that is just imported and implemented or imposed on a community).
My concerns are Generation, Location, and Race… My solutions are Intellectual, Historical, and Incarnational.

That is what I think awaits us in our generation and is our task as we walk forward as global christian who are hoping for a brand new day.  

* I usually preferred “emergence” without the strong “T” at the end. That “T” is what makes it a proper name or title that people often see as a brand. 

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