Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Deconstructing Faith

The Difficulty with Deconstruction

Yesterday I addressed the ‘danger’ of deconstructing faith: that you never get back what you gave up. You and the thing (text, concept, tradition) are never the same.

Deconstruction is neither destruction / demolition nor is it reconstruction, reformation, repair, or the recovering of some initial or earlier understanding.

Why is deconstruction so difficult? I have figured out how to introduce this topic in 60 seconds (like a postmodern elevator pitch)

The 20th century saw the height and culmination of something called ‘structuralism’ which examined the nature of things and their order. This was done in many fields, such as science, but in language/literature it starts like this:

  • Sounds are re/presented by symbols.
  • These symbols are letters in the alphabet.
  • Letters are put together to form words.
  • Words are put together to form sentences.
  • Sentences are put together to form paragraphs.
  • Paragraphs are put together to form chapters.
  • Chapters are put together to form books.
  • Books are put together to form libraries.

That is the structure of literature and a certain kind of knowledge.

Post-structuralism came along as said, “well yes … but no word completely contains the meaning of the actual thing is represents, and to be honest, it doesn’t even contain its own meaning. In fact, these symbols appear to be somewhat random and maybe even arbitrary.”

Deconstruction begins here.

Deconstruction then begins to ‘play’ with the text to see if there is any give in it. Is it pliable? Does it ever move or change? What is assumed about the text and by the text? Is the text aware of its assumptions? Do we know that author meant that? Is that the only the thing that the text can mean? Are there gaps, contradictions, blind spots, double meanings, or obstacles in the text? Has it grown rigid and brittle over time?

Deconstruction has fun with reading the text. It is often playful and whimsical, sometimes frisky and mischievous – sometimes it can be irreverent.

Most people who are open-minded are still ok up to this point. Where it becomes objectionable to many is when deconstruction inevitably takes on a posture or tone of criticism, sarcasm, accusation, transgression, or even mocking.

Deconstruction does not have a built in stop-gap or safety-valve. It has no logical end. It can feel like a free-fall or a bottomless pit. Deconstruction is intentionally disorienting and challenging.

This is all within the original area of literature and literary theory.

Now take that same impulse or permission and adapt it to spiritual or religious matters.

Take that above set of questions and begin to apply to:

  • Beliefs
  • Doctrines
  • Creeds
  • Traditions
  • Sacraments
  • Scriptures
  • Gatherings
  • Congregations
  • Denominations
  • Religions

You can see where people who are deeply invested in those arenas begin to bristle at the whimsical, critical, irreverent, subversive, or ironic movement of deconstruction.

This is the difficulty with deconstruction. It has no natural end. It can seem like an endless loop. It seems to get power (get drunk?) from its own activity. It is an omnivore that threatens to devour all it sees … and maybe even itself.

As my friend Jez Bayes pointed out, “deconstruction does seem to end up negative where it’s used … without careful limits or communal shared purpose.
That means that when people start deconstructing they aren’t able to stop, and it ends with unnecessary destruction of faith outside of any coherent community.”

For those of you who are new to my approach, I want to show my cards here:

  1. I am deeply suspicious of the past.[1]
  2. The only thing I like less than the past is people who want to take us back there.

I felt like I needed to tell you that before I show you my feeble attempt at the deconstructive voice. This is a thing that I wrote several years ago but shows my entry into the discursive process.

Please note: I am allergic to words that begin with ‘re’.

Post-structuralist and deconstructive writers use lots of slashes, dashes, and parentheses.


So why are so many Christian projects, programs, and theologies framed as past-oriented endeavors?

Perhaps this is why so many (re)ligious organizations and people (re)sort to (re)clamation projects in (re)action to the perceived problems that (re)sult from our denial or failure to (re)cognize that we have indeed entered into a new and different era – a place that we have never been before.

The impulse to (re)ach back into the imagined past and attempt to salvage some measure of order or to (re)orient ourselves to this new landscape in understandable. The danger, however, is (re)sounding as we endeavor to become (what the fantastic book title labels) ‘The Way We Never Were’.[2]

It is notable how many contemporary religious/spiritual projects employ a motive that begins with the prefix ‘Re’. Admittedly, there some important words in scripture that begin with ‘Re’. Words like redemption, reconciliation, and restoration are indispensable examples. Two other powerful words that would complete that constellation would be repentance and reparations.[3]

Unfortunately, these five ‘Re-’ words are not the ones that show up the most in Christian circles or are found the most in spiritual literature. While ‘revelation’ and ‘religion’ may be the most prominent offerings, they are not the only ones. Many religious projects are framed with words such as:

  • Revisit
  • Reclaim
  • Restore
  • Return
  • Renew
  • Reform
  • Renovate
  • Reframe
  • Redefine
  • Remember
  • Recall
  • Re-imagine
  • Re-present
  • Reinforce
  • Revive
  • Reexamine
  • Redeem
  • React
  • Respond
  • Retreat

The above group of ‘Re-’ words may have a comforting and comfortable ring to them,

but they are insufficient for the challenges that we are up against. One of the major challenges of this past-oriented thinking is that it places the vital energy in the past – like a sort of big bang or a pool cue striking the cue ball and sending it crashing into the group – the initial energy is dissipated and we are slowing losing steam (and power) to atrophy.

I would argue that the nature of Christianity is incarnational – so the past is not the sole determining factor for our present or future expression. We have access to an untapped reservoir of power for the present. We are being compelled or called (lured) by the possibilities of the future. We can never re-turn to the past. The nature of time and reality do not allow us to revisit but only to remember.

Deconstruction is loving the past enough to not simply conserve or preserve it.


The danger of deconstruction is that you never get back what you gave up.

The difficulty of deconstruction is that there is no end to the process.

[1] I have a whole big program that includes a 125-page masters thesis on contextual theology and a 11 year web archive dedicated to innovating and updating for today.

[2] Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (BasicBooks, 1992).

[3] More could be said on exploring those five Biblical concepts for the 21st century. The primary problem with the past may be that it is too easy to romanticize some notion or concept in isolation without addressing the larger structures of injustice and exclusion that it was embedded in or birthed out of.

The Danger with Deconstruction

Deconstruction is a word that is growing in popularity with groups like the ex-vangelical, post-christian,  and even younger evangelical crowds.

As with many concepts that get diluted for mass dissemination, the popularized version of the term is more generic, palatable, generous or even hopeful that the original.

Said another way – deconstruction in its more raw form is difficult, critical, suspicious, and subversive.

Why am I bringing this up? I have noticed two trends within evangelical (or post-evangelical) types when talking about deconstruction.

  1. Many use the word to simply mean “asking bigger questions for the first time”. Now, asking bigger questions and examining ones tradition or beliefs is fantastic. I just want to be clear that asking bigger questions is a good first step but is not all that deconstruction is about.
  2. Others have taken to always pairing deconstruction with reconstruction. I have even seen it given the initials D/R (or De/Re) as if they go together.

Neither of these is the best development and so I thought I would just speak up in favor of the original impulse or sense of deconstruction.

I would like to say something in the positive and then in the negative (which is appropriate for the topic)

Positive: Deconstruction is love. It is not destruction. It is not demolition. Think of deconstructing an old barn. It is taking it apart timber by board, one nail at a time, in order to see (or show) how it is put together and how it stays together and works (functions). It wants to expose how it is assembled and where the various parts come from and where it fits in the function of the whole farm. Deconstruction may or may not ‘salvage’ what could be useful (or repurposed) in a different format.

Deconstruction is neither knocking the barn down with a bulldozer (demolition) nor is it setting the barn on fire (destruction). You have to love the thing to justify the time and painful energy to painstakingly pull it apart in an orderly and examined way.

If you didn’t love it you would either smash it in anger or just walk away and abandon it.

In the past I have used a plant analogy about how potted plants can get rootbound when they have been in the same pot too long and how it not only stunts their growth but how the roots will circle back and grow in on themselves. Institutions are like this. I still use the root-bound analogy for organizations, denominations, and groups … but it doesn’t have enough bite (or teeth) for the task of deconstruction.

Negative: You will never get the original thing back. You deconstructed the barn because there was something structurally flawed and deeply unsafe about it. You didn’t deconstruct the barn simply because it was old or outdated or had outlived its usefulness. There was something troubling, suspicious, and unusable.

This is the limit of the plant analogy. You might pull at the roots of a plant and repot it in a more spacious vessel in order to sustain its life and let it grow. This is the re/construction impulse that hopes to prune the vine in order to stimulate new growth.

I love the plant analogy and embrace the pruning for new growth mentality … I just want to be clear that this is not what deconstruction means.

I wrote several years ago about deconstruction and I still hold to much of my outlook from back then.

The one thing that has changed is that deconstruction is come into more common usage and its popular version is safer and less edgy than the non-diluted original.  So I want to be clear about something:

Deconstruction is not repairing the broken elements of something or tweaking the outdated parts. Call that renovation or restoration.

Just to be clear:

  • Destruction and demolition have their time and place.
  • Renovation and restoration have their time and place.
  • Even reconstruction has its time and place.

None of them are the same as deconstruction.

Deconstruction interrogates, second-guesses, mistrusts, speculates, and may even subvert that which is being investigated.

Deconstruction may come from a suspicion that something is fundamentally wrong.

Why does this matter? There is a growing tension between the increasingly common-use of the term deconstruction amongst parishioners and seminarians versus the agitation that term causes those in institutional leadership. It is obvious to see why those who run churches and seminaries don’t like deconstruction: they are inherently preservationists and conservationists. It is the nature of the job!

Evangelicalism is construct. It is a loosely configured constellation of loyalties. The boundary has to be highly guarded and aggressively defended because it is so fragile and temperamental. So those in charge of its unstable institutions don’t want their members and participants poking around at the foundation, calling everything into question, and pulling at every loose thread to see if it holds together.

Of course church leaders and seminary administrators are not big fans of deconstruction – it feels like sawing at the very branch you are standing on. It is somewhere between unsafe and unwise.

Having said that, it might be a good reminder that deconstruction is neither demolition or destruction … but it is also not renovation, restoration, or reconstruction.

I know that all terms are prone to drift and migration from their original intent (just look identity politics or ‘me too’) but wanted to be clear that deconstruction is more than just asking big question about the inherited tradition and it is not primarily for the purpose of reconstruction.

The danger with deconstruction is that the thing you loved enough to spend energy on will never be the same. You can’t just rebuild or refurbish it back to its original condition. Both you and the thing you loved are trans-formed.

Athiest Churches: a fad or the future?

My news-feed has seen a steady stream of articles about the new trend of ‘atheist churches’ racing by this past week. Much of it seems to revolve around a successful publicity tour by British comedy duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, who are currently:

 on a tongue-in-cheek “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour around the U.S. and Australia to drum up donations and help launch new Sunday Assemblies.

It is an impressive campaign. From LA to NY to Nashville and back to San Diego they are taking their roadshow in a revival style to rally the non-religious.  It’s a fascinating attempt. Even if it turns out to be (historically speaking) not much more than a publicity stunt, it is an indicator of something larger.

Many are fond of quoting the statistics:

“The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study last year that found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.”

Others attempt to qualify and quantify those findings with categorical inconsistencies and clear definition problems*. Still, there is clearly some merit to considering the cultural shift.

 The question has to be asked: Are these atheist churches a blip or a significant trend? 

I think the answer is multifaceted. It is clearly more than a blip and is probably more like an outlier for what will eventually manifest. There is a clear challenge to this type of organization – their attempt to raise $800,000 has only resulted in $50,000 so far. One-night events are fun and exciting… sustaining that kind of energy is a different animal.

Which begs the question, “why would anyone give to, participate, or get excited about something based on what isn’t?”

It is a fun, if novel, moment, but sustaining that and providing direction to an organization-assembly requires more than that. MP9004065481-196x300

Here is the thing though … this is more than just a novelty. The foundations (I use that word intentionally) that we used to be able to count on are eroding. There is no doubt that the old buildings (and the institutions that occupy them) are in danger.

This matters to me. I wrote an essay more than 15 years ago (on a note-pad thank you very much) about the form of the church. As a young pastor I saw the oddity of what we did and how easily most of what we do could be imitated or replaced.

Let me say that again:

 most of what we do as the church could easily be imitated or replaced.

Unfortunately that is the problem with having a successful form. Of course there are always a dedicated minority who is really invested in worship music, liturgy and proclamation. A cynic might say that most people, however, will sing just about any lyrics** that are thrown up on the screen  and from the sermon they really just want some help being better people.

I have held for a long time that technically you could cobble together nearly every element that you get from church by intentionally seeking out a collection of experiences:

  • concert (group singing)
  • dinner/drink with friends (communion)
  • self-help seminar (information/inspiration)
  • AA meeting (accountability/confession)
  • work & give to a charity (contribution/conscience)

Which leaves only two things left to be said!

1. The beauty of the church is that you find all of those things in one place. That is the nearly miraculous thing about that list. It takes so much work to imitate and replicate what is all available in the community of saints.

2. The importance of the word ‘nearly’ . Even with the 5 elements that I suggested, for the believer there is still something missing: the transcendent.

In conclusion, while I see the merit and appeal of ‘atheist assemblies’ as a public announcement and maybe even protest, I am not sure that they are sustainable. What I am more concern with is that Christian churches of every stripe use the opportunity to evaluate what it is that we bring to the lives of people that they can not get anywhere else. I would argue that this is a gospel issue.

* The article is clear that “Pew researchers stressed, however, that the category also encompassed majorities of people who said they believed in God but had no ties with organized religion and people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” 

** just look at the huge success of the CCM worship song “Like A Lion” last year

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. 

Hipsters and Zombies: the end of civilization

Ballard says in Kingdom Come

Consumerism rules, but people are bored. They’re out on the edge, waiting for something big and strange to come along. … They want to be frightened. They want to know fear. And maybe they want to go a little mad.
– Ballard, Kingdom Come

When we live in a time when like ours, where the as-is structures are assumed and there is a certain giveness to the system, we view them as final applications. Nation States and capitalism are just two areas where this can be seen (Tripp explains this well in the interview).
In this consumerism as culture humans are defined by their external signs and symbols. These become signifiers that form more than our image, they project our identity. It is in this cul-de-sac and the end of the wide road of consuming that the monotony of round and round sameness becomes soul-numbing. You can see why things on the fringes, that lurk in the dark and just below the surface begins to titillate and become attractive.

We are bored.

Alasdair MacIntyre (who asses the situation so well in After Virtue – even though I disagree with his solution) says this about what the church becomes

nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences and who understand that world solely as an arena for the achievement of their own satisfaction, who interpret reality as a series of opportunities for their enjoyment and for whom the last enemy is boredom.

Our fractured and contentious societal situation is inflamed by (at least) three cultural elements: consumerism, globalization, and pluralism. The first is the disposition of individuals within a society, the second impacts the proximity of different communities, and the third affects the posture when approaching a disparate series of relationship for communities.

Consumerism is hyperbolized in an examination of Hipster ‘culture’ by Douglas Haddow entitled “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization”.* Haddow provides a vicious critique when he says:

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

It this both the dislocation of generational continuity and the isolation of consumerist aesthetics that are troubling about the brand obsessed and all too self-aware ironic sensibilities that alert one to the incredible disenchantment and disassociation of the youth culture. It is these very same consumerist influences and institutions that give rise to their embodied expression and vague angst that manifests in such irresponsible yet elaborate demonstrations of the Hipster’s intentionally senseless displays.

Ironically, we have more stuff and access to more toys, information, and treats than ever before … but we are soul-numb bored. This is the danger of thinking that what we have is everything in it’s final form. That our representative democracy, that our free-market economy, that our United Nations are the pinnacle and the end of history.

This is why that Zizek quote about living in the end times is so great – that it is easier for most Christians today to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine living in some other economy beside capitalism.

Hipsters and the suburban fascination with zombies and vampires … are trying to tell us something.

* The subtitle of this article says “We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum. So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality. “
Mark Douglas Haddow, “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization | Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters”, n.d.,

>Clearing the Air – 4 changes


I have been doing Everyday Theology for the almost 3 years. I love it. Of all my projects, it is my favorite. 
As I continue my transition from being a local church minister (only) to an academic and a public theologian – things will necessarily need to change.
There are four changes that I just wanted to  “get out on the table” to talk about what is going on behind the scenes or what is driving this conversation from my side. 
Here are the four things:
  1. I believe that almost everything about the Christian faith needs to be updated for the world that we live in.  The first implication is that   
  2. we have to get rid of words like “supernatural” 
  3. I need to start quoting people by name for accountability and credibility  
  4. there are some big and/or fancy words that I need to get comfortable using. I will always try to define and explain things as we go – but some of these words are too good and too helpful to continue not using them.  
Number one is obvious. There is no aspect of our lives that has gone unchanged in the last 2000 years. From basic things like food and sex to more complicated things like politics and economics , everything has changed. 
It’s not that these things have changed entirely – it’s that nothing has gone entirely unchanged. 
Religion is in this category. Christianity, both in it’s revealed nature (revelation) and it’s organization (religion) has evolved, adapted, and transformed immensely. I think that is a good thing. The only thing about it that is not good is that some believe that is has not changed or that it isn’t suppose to change. That is where the problem comes.
In the coming month I will be floating some thoughts about prayer, biology and reading the Bible in light of these necessary and good changes. 
The second thing is an immediate casualty. There are many things that are gained by updating, but there will also be some things that get sacrificed in the transition. This involves moving away from the supernatural.
I do not believe in the supernatural. I still believe in miracles – just not in the supernatural. Neither the word or the idea is in the Bible and it is really hurting us in the post-modern (and modern) world.
sidenote: the fact that most people do not know how that is possible shows how limited our conversation has been around this issue. 
What we call the super-natural is really just left over language from the pre-natural mindset of ancient times.  I believe that God’s work in the world in the most natural thing in the world. It is not SUPER-natural, which really means UN-natural. It is just natural.  Everything is natural.  Praying for someone to be healed is natural.  Someone who you are in relationship giving you their car when they hear about your need is natural.  
It might be miraculous (surprising to us) but it is not super-natural or un-natural. It is just natural. It is how God works. [if you want to read something similar that I wrote about discerning God’s will click here]
The third change is quoting people. I have avoided this for three years because sometimes people are scared off by name dropping as it can seem too academic or highbrow.  I think that avoiding author’s and expert’s names has been the right decision up to this point, but that continuing to do so will be limiting. For both accountability and credibility I need to make this change. I know that some people will be turned off by it – but hopefully we can meet in the middle!
The fourth change is using some multi-syllable words. I have avoided this for the same reason as I have avoided quoting authors. But the simple fact is that this conversation is framed by some ideas that are encapsulated in good words. I need to become proficient is using these words well and being comfortable explaining them and integrating them. I will try to do this with clarity and caution – not for the sake of using the $10 word, but for  reasons that it propels the conversation forward in a good and helpful direction. 
I just wanted to clear the air. Two main points A) as I continue to learn and translate and participate in public theology, I wanted to show my cards so that everyone knew where I was coming from.   B) Sometimes people push back on me (which I enjoy) but are surprised that I don’t just repeat the same ‘apologetics’ answers that I learned in Bible College (Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Ravi Zacharias, etc.) 
I want to be really clear about what I am doing. I am participating in a great global conversation about updating the faith for the 21st century that is both: 
  • in continuity with the historical christian tradition 
  • relevant and has accounted for the realities of the world in which we live
If you want to know why I am doing this read this article by N.T. Wright – or on his website
If you want to check out the kind of thing I am after check out this article by F. Leron Shultz [link]

>Is God a Man?

>God as She – Some people get upset if others refer to God as ‘she’ when they are talking.

and I kind of see why, as I think I use to be one of the one that would twinge, but in the end I just chalked it up to the person either wanting be novel and cutting edge, or irreverent and challenging.

But there are two things that that come out of the Bible that have made me reconsider this
(and a third thing out of church history that almost convinced me).

The first thing to notice is that God is bigger than gender definitions or human parameters that we have. In the beginning, it says, he made them male and female, he made them in his image: both male and female are in God’s image. If we were to draw a Venn Diagram (those overlapping circles) and put “male” in one circle (yellow) and “female” in the blue, we would notice two things right away: first, there is an overlapping section (let’s call it ‘green’) of share traits between the genders and this is shared humanity. In my opinion, this green section is very large as I think that males and females have more in common as human than they do that is distinct to their gender.
But it is the next thing that really makes you think. Not only would you have these three categories of Human, Male and Female but you would also have a fourth category called ‘other’ or ‘none of the above’ and that is the area around the two circles. This represents the things that are true about God that are not contained in humanity. Because I think that we could all agree that God is bigger than God’s creation and that saying ‘God’ is not just saying ‘human’ loudly. God is not just the collection of all our best hopes projected onto the heavens. So while God made them – male and female – in the image of God , God is not entirely defined by what they show or reveal about God. While they reveal something about what it is ultimately true, what is ultimately true is not shown in it’s totality in them.

Women are created in the image of God. Men are created in the image of God. Humans show some of what God is like, but God is not only or entirely found in or defined by what we see in humans.

The second thing to notice in the Bible is that the authors used masculine pronouns when talking about God and even where the original language might gender neutral the translators into English went ahead and used the masculine ‘He’. Now some people let it rest there and say ‘Jesus called God “father” and that is enough for me’ as there capstone. Cased closed. Period.

It is also interesting to notice what else the Bible calls God. More than 40 times the Bible says that God is a rock. It is interesting because we would not say that God is a cold inanimate object. We don’t think that God is actually a rock! We know that is metaphor, it is a word picture, a language device – some call it ‘Theo-poetics’ or the way we talk about God. The Bible also says clearly that ‘God is light’ (1 John 1:5) but we don’t think that the Sun is God. We don’t flip the light switch on and say ‘oh God is in the room’. It is a metaphor – a word picture. It’s how we talk about God. It is not revealing the totality of what is true about God. Other places in scripture talk about God having wings (5 times in the Psalms alone) but we don’t think that God is a bird. We don’t have hearing about what kind of feathers God’s wings are adorned with. There are not denominations that insist on pictures of God being in flight and others that prefer the flightless picture of the penguin version of God. Come on -that would be silly. It is a word picture – it is metaphor – it is the way that we talk about God. So we understand these as cultural expressions of different conceptions of God in their language. Yes God is Father , just like God is a rock. But God is not actually a rock! and that Rock is not God. It is Theo-poetics. Yes, God is light – but God is not actually defined in totality by light. It is a world picture. I could add tons of more examples and I’m not trying to get ridiculous, but if we hold too tightly to these, we have a picture of the Rock Father flying with his wings at the speed of light – or something.

We all know, at some level, that this is the gift of language. It allows us to use comparatives (whether metaphors or parables) to say ‘I will use this thing that you know to tell you something that you don’t know.’ That is the message.

Bottom Line : God is bigger than our conception of God and it not totally defined by our ability to conceptualize or communicate it.

Some people are going to object. They are going to say
A)the Bible reveals God as male and
B)B) when Jesus came, he came as a man. (a big ole’ hairy man)

But I would just like to point out that A) the Bible is the expression of a culture and time. It is a story and not everything in that story is good. Sometimes God’s people do things that God is not sanctioning or validating. It is simply telling us what people in that time and place thought. It was a very patriarchal society and some of the views express that. We need to be careful we don’t make women second class citizens in our churches and families BECAUSE they were when the Bible was written. If we do that, we might be missing the entire trajectory of the story: that redemption…and restoration… and reconciliation had come to earth and that after the veil was torn in two (the first symbol of what was to come) and then the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. and the people of God were dispersed (Diaspora) – they were not to import the old order but to initiate a new order. That would even outgrow that Apostles writings (the Epistles) as this message crossed rivers and into new lands it was to invite the Kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. Unfortunately – it got co-opted by actual Kings and brought into the kind of hierarchy and authority structures that earthly Kingdoms are defined by and built upon.

But that is a story for a different day.

B) As far as Jesus coming as a man… well – that is really something worth considering!
Stop and think about why that might be so important.
Is it because God is a man? No – we know that everything that is feminine is also found in God.

Is it simply cultural? No, I think that is too simple and misses that point entirely.

Could it be that Jesus came as a man to give us new model for masculine?
An invitation to a different way to be a man?
The possibility for a new picture of humanity?

I think that it is noteworthy that if Jesus came as a women and did the sort of things that he did in the culture to which he came, two things would have happened. A lot of people would not have even noticed. Women were expected to serve and take care of the hurting and be compassionate. Most people would not even have marked how remarkable it was that God had come as a parable – to use something we know in order to show us something that we did not know.
Some people would have confused the message and would have focused on the fact that God was female and would certainly elevated Female to god and began to worship the feminine. Missing that that too was a metaphor and would have thought that it was the message. This was a common conception the cultures all around Israel- Babylon to the East, Egypt to the South West and Greece & Rome to the North West. This was actually a real danger in that region in ancient times.

I think that it is significant to note two things about Jesus in this regard:

1) The gospels record at least 4 significant interactions with women. In all four of these cases, Jesus challenged or broke the cultural expectations, boundaries and barriers. He clearly was not that interested in reinforcing, maintaining or even abiding by the gender categories of his culture. (see John 4, Luke 10, Luke 7, John 12 – Mark 14- Matt 26)

2) Jesus’ radical non-violence, his heart for service (I came not to be served but to serve Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28) his use of mother hen imagery “Oh Jerusalem Jerusalem how I longed to gather your children like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” Matthew 23:37) borrowed from the prophets, and so many other examples portray Jesus as a different sort of man. It is actually a portrayal that gets some people quite riled up. I have actually heard two different pastors – both nationally famous – say recently that this portrayal of Jesus bothers them. One said that if Jesus had come as a women and did the sorts of things that he is reported to have done, most people would not have thought much of it. That is what we, generally speaking, expect from women : self sacrifice, service, etc. I don’t think that he meant it in a bad way. The other guy however… said that he hates the modern portrayal of Jesus as an effeminate and the bottom line is that he can not worship someone that he could beat up.

Here is the thing. This isn’t the 1600’s anymore. You just can’t pine for the old days and claim that you are being faithful to traditions of the faith. The core of this religion we call Christianity is this thing called the Incarnation. It is a manifestation of God in a given place in a specific time. We have to manifest that message in this place at this time… and Jesus modeled for us how to do that. He not only showed us what God is like, told us what God values but he released us to do the same in our context in our community.

Having said all of that, I close with this. Women are made in the image of God. They show something amazing about God. They are not second class citizens.
God values women just as much as a man. Sure, our physiology is different. Biologically there is uniqueness. We have different parts. We play different roles sometimes… but in the end – with generalities aside – every human contains, reflects or portrays the Image of God (choose you language). God created them , male and female, in God’s image. Yes, the Bible may use the masculine pronoun in reference to God. and we can debate if that was cultural or if that was simply limitation of language. But in that debate – to say that God is Father is no more of less true than saying that God is a rock or that God is light or that God has wings or that God is love or – if someone were so inclined – saying that the Great I Am is not the great unknown but is instead – She who Is… That the I am who I am and the Un-namable Ground of All Being is one and the same with ______ . Whatever language you choose… is no more true of false than saying that “Jesus lives in my heart” or that “God is on the throne” or whatever else you want to say.
In the end this is Theo-poetics (at some level).
This is metaphor and parable and word picture.
These are not exact formulations or legal expression of definitions in their totality.

God is a much a Mother as He is a Father. My mother is as good a picture for me of what God is like as my father is. My wife is far more like God than I am – and anyone who knows me will know that that is true.

We are missing something about God because of the way we think about God.

Our communities are missing something because of the way we talk about God.

Our world is missing something that it desperately needs because of the way that we think and talk about God.

So in summary :
God is bigger than God’s creation.

God is bigger than our conception of God.

God is not defined by or contained in our ability to talk about God.

I look forward to hearing from you on this. I welcome you posts, emails and comments.

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