Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



The Gospel of Mad Magazine

Mad Magazine is ceasing its publication of the print edition. This is going to be a huge loss.

Mad Magazine used parody, caricature, and satire to lampoon the ridiculous elements of our age.
This was the role of parables in Jesus’s age.

We have been taught to read parables poorly. They have been neutered, sanitized, and de-fanged.

Many of us were taught to read parables as:

  1. Aesop’s Fables
  2. Proverbs
  3. Allegory

Parables are none of those things.

Parables are small stories about birds and farmers, widows and foreigners designed to come in underneath the listener’s radar to that their defenses are down … and then once in, to interrogate assumptions and undermine (subvert) the status quo.

Both Mad and Jesus’s parables utilized irony, skepticism, exaggeration, and satire to poke holes in the hypocritical and unjust elements of the establishment.

Mad’s legacy has now passed to TV shows like the Simpsons, South Park, the Daily Show, and even Saturday Night Live.

Here are two great articles about the end of Mad Magazine (one in the LA Times and one in the NY Times) .

Watch this video and let me know what you think.

Be Brave (it might not work)

Here is a short encouragement that I shared with a seminary class recently.

Be brave. Be bold. Be daring. … it probably won’t work anyway.

The systems is so powerful and so dominating that it can absorb, adapt to, and even appropriate any protest or critique.

Parables, by the way, are not earthly stories with heavenly meanings.

Parables are earthy stories with heavy meaning.

Parables come in underneath your radar when your defenses are down … and then ask you to subvert, undermine, and interrogate the presumptions that you came in with from the as-is structures of the powers that be. 

>Jesus and Pigs


There is a problem when it comes to reading the Bible in the modern world.  It’s not that big of a problem – unless we don’t deal with it and then it becomes a huge giant nightmare.

Let me say something positive first. I am a fan of everyone having the Bible in their own language and in their own hand. I am a proud Protestant. I would not want to live in an era where everyone did not have access to the Bible in their language.  I like this aspect of the world and era that I live in.

We read the Bible. Not reading the Bible is not our problem. Sometimes preachers get on people for not reading their Bibles enough. I disagree.  I think that people are generally reading the Bible enough. That is not our problem. (I know these are generalities – just go with me for a second)

I do, however, think that there are two problems when it comes to reading the Bible.

  1. The first is that  we don’t know enough about the first century.
  2. The second is that we don’t know enough about the genres that the books of Scripture are written in.

It is difficult for me to express how important this issue is in our contemporary situation.
It would be overstating it to say that we don’t know how to read the Bible.  
It would be understating it to say that we just need to read it more.  One might even go as far as to say that if we are reading it wrong, then reading that way more will just create more of a problem!

This is what I want to address over the next 4 weeks with this conversation.

I will start with a story that illustrates both the points (about the 1st Century and about the genres).

The story of Jesus and ‘Legion’ (you can go read this is  Mark 5 and Luke 8)

Here are three readings of that story:  modern-Literal, Political, and Post-Colonial

In the modern-Literal reading, Jesus goes over to this region called the Decapolis which is primarily inhabited by gentiles. He finds this guy chained up because he is being tormented by a large number of demons and had become a danger to himself and to the town folk. Jesus comes over – the only time he was ever in that area on that side of the sea – and he casts out the demons. But the demons make a deal with Jesus and so he casts them into a herd of pigs – which immediately run down the hill into the sea and drown. The townspeople are not happy with Jesus for wrecking their economic livelihood and agricultural income.  They ask Jesus to leave. The guy – now freed from his torment – asks to come with Jesus and Jesus tells him to go back into town and testify.
It is not said if he wanted to leave because a) he was mad at the people for chaining him out there or b) the people would be mad at the guy for what happened to the pigs.

This is a straight forward reading and when one does not know much about the first century … it is probably the reading that you would go with. The story is about demons, pigs, and people. And that is about all.   The application is that Jesus loves this one guy more than a bunch of livestock and is concerned with the wellbeing of a single person more than the livelihood of an entire town.

In a political reading, the lens of first century politics gives the story a different look. Jesus goes into a Roman occupied territory (think about the name Decapolis). He encounters a man tormented by a foreign occupier with a Roman name (Legion is a military term) and frees this man who is bound by casting out the alien presence into pigs – which are unclean to the Hebrew mind.  It is also notable that a pig had been sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple in the time between the Hebrew (older) Testament and the beginning of our newer (christian) Testament.
The story that we get Hanukkah from is found in the Maccabean revolt. This uprising was ultimately set off by the sacrifice of a pig (called the abomination of desolation) in the Temple.
But in our story,  what to do with the pigs drowning is water?  I have heard two good explanations.The first revolves around the Egyptian army drowning in the Exodus and so drawing of the imagery of Jesus (as a Moses character) liberating his people out of captivity.  The second has to do with Shamanism (both ancient and modern) which puts extracted bad things (tumors, spirits, venom, etc.) into water to neutralize them.

Either way – knowing about the Political landscape of the 1st Century makes it possible to say maybe demons aren’t demons and pigs aren’t pigs in this sense.   

Of course the obvious thing  is to say “Well, can’t it be both?” that Jesus really did cast out the demons but that the way Luke told the story allows them to be not JUST demons.  This way, pigs are pigs but they are not just pigs. Demons, likewise, are real demons who are really cast out … but they are not just demons – there is another implication to them.

Here is my point though! You can not have the possibility of pigs not being pigs or pigs being more than pigs unless you know something about the politics of the 1st century!   Otherwise pigs are only pigs and nothing more.   In that case, we may be missing more than half the message of Jesus or at the message as it was portrayed by the Gospel writer.

Added Bonus:
After I had already written this post, I heard another take on this passage. At Big Tent Christianity last week, Anthony Smith (the Postmodern Negro) and Tripp Fuller (of Homebrewed Christianity) had a dialogue about post-colonial Pentecostalism and race.

In this lens the reading of this passage takes on a very different look. The story becomes a model or a type of parable that is recreated over and over again.

The man is in chains (slavery) and the free culture keeps him outside. Jesus finds him and Jesus frees him. This exposes the disgraceful treatment of this man by those who are free. The liberation comes at great price (the pigs) and collateral damage (the economy). The man wants to flee and go with Jesus but Jesus asks him to stay and testify to those that who had bound him – to be an uncomfortable presence for them and to not simply be an “out of sight – out of mind” part of their past .

A post-colonial reading talks of liberation, of exposing the shameful treatment of ‘the other’, and of speaking truth to power.  This is a powerful reading that places Jesus squarely in our midst again and allows the Gospel to speak with real power to our real situations.

It is important to note that post-colonial readings are not merely allegories or metaphors – they are read as real events that really impact our real world… but they are not simply literalistic one-dimensional readings like the our first model (modern-literal).

There are many more interpretations that merit to be in the conversation – I simply wanted to introduce these three in order to say that A) what was happening in the first century matters to how we read the newer Testament  B) what genre a text is written in matters to how we read it.

The post-colonial reading introduces a third:
C) that the world we live in is both a lens and a light through which we read and view the text. That is called interpretation and that is our focus for next week.  

>Did that Elephant say Merry Christmas?

>I thought it would be fun to share one of the Christmas messages I preached on the podcast.
[PODcast Here]

In case anyone wanted to chat about it, I have put a short set of bullet points here.

  • Trying to explain our holiday celebrations to someone from outer space or from a foreign land who had never seen them might be tricky. To get from a poor family having a baby a long time ago to our massive shopping sprees and gift exchanges might take a while.
  • Consumerism is one of the elephants of Christmas. It’s that giant presence in the room that’s just easier to ignore than to acknowledge and address.
  • The “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” controversy exposes another elephant. The fact that this whole holiday is centered around the gift of love and humility makes it tough to sell when it gets entangled with cultural constructs and political realities.

  • The Gospel of Matthew has two things that none of the other Gospels in our Bible have. One is the slaughter of the innocents where King Herod (King of the Jews) tries to murder all boys under two years of age in the region. The second is Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt. It is clear that Matthew includes these because he is trying to tell us a distinct type of story: an Exodus story. He includes images and allusions to portray Herod as a Pharaoh character and then connect with this to Egypt in a way that makes it impossible to miss. ( There are many other devices that Matthew uses to construct his gospel in a way that mirrors the Pentateuch.)
  • These two elements from Matthew’s Gospel reveal biggest of the elephants of Christmas. The Christmas story is couched in, set in a context of, violence. When we ‘Hallmark’ this holiday we sometimes sanitize it and sterilize it to the point that it is unrecognizable from the Gospel accounts.
  • Let’s be honest, as these two Jewish young people flee to Egypt to become illegal aliens, foreigners in a land that holds deep cultural implications for their people, the idea of people saying ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘ Happy Holidays’ seems pretty irrelevant.
  • In fact I think that this exposes two things. The first is that the “Merry Christmas” controversy is not about this at all but about something else entirely. The second is that we are disconnected from the violence of that first Christmas.

  • When the angels say “Peace on Earth – goodwill toward mankind” it might have seemed redundant to those that first heard it. The region already had a Peace : Pax Romana. The Peace of Rome was enforced this way — you obey the rules and there will be peace. If Jesus came as the Prince of Peace he comes into the context of the Pax Roman and provides a different kind of Peace.
  • We miss this point because we are disconnected from the context of that original Christmas. when the Magi say to Herod “we’re looking for the one born King of the Jews” they are speaking to the one appointed by Rome ‘King of the Jews’. this would have been a subversive sentence. “ Peace on the earth” would have been a subversive sentiments to the Peace of Rome – saying that it wasn’t good enough. Many Christians don’t know that the phrase “Jesus is Lord” is a mirror to a very popular saying in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ. people in every direction from the place Jesus was born would have said “ Cesar is Lord”. So when Jesus’ followers would have said that he was Lord they were in an act of subversion saying that Caesar isn’t Lord.
  • The Christmas story is couched in violence and is violence to the ways and powers of this world. It still is today. The Christmas story says to the structures and institutions of this world ‘ you don’t get to stay this way’. The peace that you provide commerce through violence and submission and victory and is not a real peace. when we sanitize, sanctify and sterilize the Christmas story we lose this part of it.

  • Revelation 12 is the Christmas story as seen from heaven. It is distilled to us through a genre of literature known as Apocalyptic. It is the Christmas story nonetheless.
  • You never see Christmas cards of the image of a pregnant woman lying on her back with a dragon perched between her legs ready to eat the baby as it comes out. I’ve never seen a Christmas card carrying the image of the slaughter of innocents or of a terrified couple fleeing into the wilderness running for their life.

  • The Christmas carol “Oh Holy Night” is probably my favorite. I especially like the big notes of the chorus: Fall on your knees! Oh hear the Angels voices! Oh night divine Oh night when Christ was born! Oh night divine… and mostly I’m just hoping that I’ll be able to hit that big note at the end. Mostly I don’t. But it’s such a climactic moment in that song that after it’s over afraid I’d miss the next chorus because I’m thinking about how I can never hit that note outside the shower!
  • It’s a shame because that next verse is amazing. And in the context of what we are talking about — the violence of the first Christmas And the subversive nature of the story– it makes a lot more sense.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

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