Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



T is for Theopoetics (modified)

What is your favorite poem?

Poetry is so different than math. Math is wonderful and necessary in many arenas … but there are certain things that just can’t be captured in a formula where X+Y=Z.

God seems to be one of those topics where poetry is more appropriate than math. The divine-transcendent-eternal-cosmic beyond is not something that fits easily into a series of mathematical formulations.

Theo-poetics is a way of thinking about and talking about the divine-eternal that allows for the playful, uncertain, mysterious, and intriguing to capture our imagination of might be and what can be.

Don’t be intimidated

Sandra Schneiders (in the essay “Biblical Spirituality” from The Bible and Spirituality) says:

To begin with, we need to recognize that the discourse about “theopoetics” in general and particularly in relation to the interpretation of Scripture is a quite recent development arising at the intersection of theology and literary studies much like “biblical spirituality,” which arises at the intersection of biblical studies and spirituality. The interactive meeting ground of literary biblical studies, theology, and spirituality is precisely theopoetics or a theory of the spiritually transformative power of biblical texts as texts, actualized through a certain kind of reading or interpretation . . . It would probably be accurate to say that theopoetics is the literary or textual face of the wider concern with theological aesthetics as an approach to spirituality.

The origins of the contemporary idea of “theopoetics” are traceable to Stanley Hopper and a 1971 speech.[1] Hopper’s student David Miller offers that “theopoetics is not merely the “poetizing of an extant religious faith or theological knowledge,” but is “a reflection on poiesis, a formal thinking about the nature of the making of meaning, which subverts the -ology, the nature of the logic, of theology.” In other words, theopoetics is an attempt to subvert lifeless theology and metaphysics with beauty and a poetic sensibility.

It is a mode or flavorof theology.

J. Denny Weaver is someone who has thought about these things and here is his heady explanation:[2]

A non-poet’s definition of theopoetics might be that it is a hybrid of poetry and theology. But to call it that misses the mark. It is an entire way of thinking. From the side of poetry, it shows that ideas are more than abstractions. They have form – verbal, visual, sensual – and are thus experienced as least as much as they are thought . . . What one learns from the theology side of theopoetics has at least as much importance. One observes that theology is more than an abstraction. It is a way of thinking, visualizing, and sensing images of God. And at that juncture, theologians should become aware that traditional theology . . . is a way to think about the divine but is only one of multiple ways to consider God. Thus for theologians, theopoetics will underscore their (sometimes reluctant) admission that theology is one form of truth but ought not be confused with TRUTH itself.[3]

It has a heavy emphasis on the importance of aesthetic, sensual, and experiential knowing. It discourages the growth of “gate-keeping” mentalities in which people must learn to speak and think a certain way to have their voices heard. It is a post-modern inflected style of theological discourse without the (sometimes) slippery slope of skepticism leaving people with no ability to say anything.

As a Christian thinker, what is most compelling about theopoetics is its insistence upon the incarnational not just in content, but in method. Theopoetics wants the practice of theology to be a spiritual practice and accepts the limitedness of humanity,  affirming that there is a possible power in our words without having to pretend otherwise. It is the language of theology spoken in the accent of someone whose first tongue is not academic but sensual, whose dialect betrays an origin of flesh, and whose tone suggests that at any moment we might all be caught up in some grand dance.

Why should we encourage the development of poetic sensibilities in theological discourse? Because we were all — even theologians and pastors — made to dance, not merely think of dancing. Because when we close our eyes there is a gripping duende to the music of this world which makes us want to cry and make love. Why theopoetics? Because I believe we owe it to ourselves and to the hope of our God to live and write and pray as if the world was a gift and each Other a reminder of that which gives.

I am immensely indebted to Callid Keefe-Perry for helping me with this article.

[1] entitled “The Literary Imagination and the Doing of Theology.”

[2] In the foreword to Jeff Gundy’s Songs from an Empty Cage

[3] A useful distinction to make is one from David Miller in his essay “Theopoetry or Theopoetics?” Whereas “theopoetry” is just “an artful, imaginative, creative, beautiful, and rhetorically compelling manner of speaking and thinking concerning a theological knowledge that is and always has been in our possession and a part of our faith,” theopoetics concerns itself with “strategies of human signification in the absence of fixed and ultimate meanings accessible to knowledge or faith.” That is, theopoetics is decidedly not about saying the same old same old but with spiffy new verbiage. Rather, it begins with an acceptance of “the absence of … ultimate meanings” (very resonant with some of the work of Derrida and Foucault in regards to our inability to have certain, fixed, language) and yet insists that ours is the task to attempt to put words to that which we know we cannot get right. To eff the ineffable, as it were.

Another Trinity

Christians believe in a 3in1 God. The Trinity has become too root-bound and concrete.

It needs to be updated.
Here is another way to understand the Trinity:

Christ is the power of the past (forgiveness)
Spirit is the power of the present (faith and ministry)
God is the power of the future (possibility)

Watch the video and let me know your thoughts. Also check out Perichoresis

Daddy God

More than masculine imagery is needed for health and wholeness.

The divine – transcendent – eternal is so much more than the metaphors and analogies that we utilize is worship and prayer.

“The rule of prayer is the rule of faith” has migrated historically from prayer to sacrament to preaching and, now in our musical age, to worship. See also Worship Words Determine Faith [link]

Our language about God functions – Elizabeth Johnson

This is why we must both account for and attend to a more well-rounded and balanced approach to our imagery about God.

Please support the work of Naked Pastor

Watch this video and let me know your thoughts about my nuanced and constructive proposal.

Here is the comic from Naked Pastor


Theopoetics of Transition

I had the pleasure of being on the Theopoetics Podcast to talk about my transition away from evangelicalism.

I retired from evangelism early this year but have not really had the chance to debrief that with anyone. My friend Tim reached out to offered me the space to do that publicly.

It was a wonderful experience and we covered a LOT of ground. The 1/4 was about the past but then we moved into the present and the future.

The episode is called Theopoetics of Translation (episode 13)

Please listen and let me know your thoughts. 22382211_1012141218928936_5950252956256749811_o


Sacraments As Enacted Parables

Here is a way of thinking about sacraments that is congruent with the 21st century because it takes seriously both the way that the world works and the way that words work.

  • Baptism is an embodied metaphor
  • Communion is an enacted parable
  • Weddings are performed symbols

Let’s be clear about the difference between a sign and a symbol.

A sign is a signifier that points to a reality beyond itself. A symbol is much bigger – it is a sign that participates in the reality that it points to.

Sacraments are enacted symbols. In this way, they are both signs that point to a greater reality and they are performed signifiers that can never fully reveal or contain the antecedent they are attempting to signify. Sacraments are both significant artifacts of the church and they are gifts and graces (charis) that both form and inform our faith and practice.

In this sense, sacraments are symbols that participate at some level in the reality that they point to. When we are at the table, we are re-membering the body of Christ as the members of the body. It is beautiful symbolism. When we stand in the waters of baptism we have entered the body – like the waters of birth, we are now born of both water and spirit. The same is true for the wedding ceremony – the two become one in the company and community of witnesses. Wearing a wedding ring is an enacted-embodied-performed symbol.

Sacraments and corporate worship are then a parable of the kin-dom. Jesus used parables (not earthly stories with heavenly meanings but earthy stories with heavy meanings) to slide underneath the listener’s defenses in order to interrogate the ‘way things are’. Jesus did this to subvert the unjust status quo and turn upside-down the listener’s presumptions about the way things are and the way that God wants them.

Said a different way: Parables are often misunderstood. Not just the meaning of the parable – those are often elusive – but the very nature of parables.  Many have been told that parables are ‘earthly stories with heavenly meaning’. This is not true!

Parables are better thought of as ‘earthy stories with heavy meanings’. We error when we think that what Jesus was talking about was pie in the sky or the great beyond.

Parables cause the listener to investigate their assumptions (the Samaritan is the ‘good guy’?) and change their mind (literally: repent).

This is the prophetic ministry of the church – to imagine the world a different way and to image what that looks like to the world around us.

The next time you are preparing to come to the table, or enter the waters of baptism, or attend a wedding … remember that you are participating in an embodied metaphor, an enacted parable, and a performed symbol.

God Never Changes … or does She?

I got an email from a friend asking me:

“ … there’s just one thing that I’m still not sure about: the idea that God changes over time. And the reason this bugs me is because, to me, that means we can never know who/what God is. How do we know that God really is love? What if God really use to be as violent as He/She/It was back in the Old Testament?”

I thought it would be good to post part of my response here and compare notes (theology, after all, is dialogical).

 There are 3 things that we need to flesh out (pun intended) about this question:

1. While God may not change, how humans view and speak of that God evolves. There is little doubt that over the centuries how we conceptualize and even construct our language about God (or Gods) has changed, adapted, morphed, absorbed and modified.  There is no reason to shy away from that. It is a healthy response to growing awareness and – I will even say – progressing revelation.

God is at work in our midst and God has also given us Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us. We say that God is infinite, but as I have heard it said “then no matter how much we know about God – there is infinitely more to know.”

The only objection to this seem to be a ‘you think that your better than them?’ defense of the ancients. Seriously – that is the only real defense I hear of conserving antiquated notions of God. Don’t you dare going moving stuff and changing what they set down! 

That is silly. We must acknowledge as Merold Westphal told us in his visit to the podcast that all our knowledge is situated or what we call perspectival. This is where Elizabeth Johnson’s book “She Who Is” becomes so valuable. I wrote about this in ‘She Who Is Not’ and ‘Horse Gods’.

2. Many groups and thinkers would challenge the notion that God doesn’t change. As Keith Ward points out in God: a guide for the perplexed 

 “ it is important the see how different the classical view is from the popular view. Whatever the Trinity is, it cannot consist of three distinct ‘parts’ in God, who has no parts. Whatever is meant by ‘God becoming man’ is cannot mean that God changes by taking on human flesh. Whatever is meant by the Holy Spirit working to sanctify the hearts of man and women, it cannot mean that God is actually changing by acting like a finite being in history. All statements about God changing and acting, wether they are in the Bible of not, must be metaphors, All changes are in finite things, and not in God, who is changeless.”

Ya see – the old Platonic conception of changeless ideals means that there could not have really been an incarnation. The stories in the Old Testament about God ‘changing his mind’ must be anthropomorphism. You run into to real problems really quick if you say that God never changes.

Now, having said that – we can say, as a matter of faith, that the character and nature of God never changes. In fact, I would go as far as to say that when we say that God never changes, what we are commenting on is God’s loving nature. You want to know why I can say that so confidently as a Christian …. it’s because I believe that the highest  revelation that we have of God in this world is in Jesus.

 3. Process thinkers have an especially helpful take on this.  Built into a Process theology is a dipolar nature of God.  They distinguish between the Primordial nature or God and the Consequential Nature  (some get even more advanced and add a Superjective nature … but that is for another time.)   The Primordial nature sets out all the possibilities  – the Consequential nature is the perfection of the divine experience. Therefor the Primordial nature of God, what God desires, is preserved and can be said to ‘never change’ while God is fully participatory and even impacted by what happens.

 What are your thoughts?  Is there anything I could add to make this stronger? 

Moving Mountians

I was reminded again in my morning reading of the beauty of following Jesus. It’s something that is never far from my mind but which is always bursting through the crust of everyday life with new freshness like a blooming tulip in the Spring while the landscape all around it is still gray and brown with dirty snow unmelted in the shady edges.

I am also painfully aware of the presence of something quite different when I read the words of Jesus: a gap.  I am stabbed by the realization that Jesus not only spoke a different language than me but that he used words very differently than I was taught to.

Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. Matthew 21:21  NLT

I was taught to be literal. I was told Jesus was actually saying that if you had enough faith you could do anything! Nothing was impossible. I had, coincidentally, never heard the world ‘hyperbole’ before.

Now it seems so clear. Jesus spoke in parables and Jesus spoke parabolically. He was not a philosopher or a scientist in our modern sense. I have blogged recently about a better way to read the Bible and I think that this fits in with that.

Jesus was not telling us that we could rearrange the topography of our region. He was not telling us that we could reorganize our geological and geographical surroundings.

I feel bad for anyone who has prayed about something – or even ‘claimed’ something – and thinks that it is their fault that it didn’t happen because they didn’t have enough faith. I am horrified that we have taught people to read the Bible this way. In trying to be exacting and literal – in an enlightenment/ modern sort of way – we have warped the message of the Bible to be something that it was never meant to be.

It’s a tough one. Whenever I tell people that Jesus did not mean that we would literally move mountains with just a little bit of faith, one of two reactions happens.

  • they tell me a story about this one time that some people they never met in place they have never been did it.
  • they say something about taking the Bible literally and how I am making it allegory.

The second one really gets me. Because parable is not allegory. Allegory would be like taking the story about the widow who used three cups of flour to make bread and asserting that the three cups of flour represent the three continents that the apostles would take Jesus’ message to: Asia, Africa and Europe.

Allegory is very elaborate. Reading the Bible poetically, prophetically or parabolically makes in simpler – not more elaborate.

I used the example of a person finding out that there is no Santa Clause and the Jesus was not born on December 25th and concluding that Christmas, if it is not literal, has no meaning. They, of course, would be wrong.

So it is with casting mountains into seas by faith. Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point. That does not steal from it meaning, it points like a sign to the real meaning.

Next time: beyond allegory

Jesus and Storms

There has a been a vibrant conversation this week about whether God is in control of the weather. (see what I did there?) I have learned a lot from the people who believe that ‘he’ does send, direct, and control things like hurricanes. They are sincere in their belief and many have really thought about how to reconcile the tensions that come up in the discussion.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a threshold that the conversation stalls at. There is just a moment when these two ways of reading the Bible seem irreconcilable. I am not intending to ‘bridge the gap’ but I do think that there is a way to help those who think that God sends hurricanes to see how those of us who don’t still read the Bible.

I want to talk about Hermeneutics (the way we read the Bible) and specifically the Second Naivete. Here is a 9 minute video by Image of Fish that explains this well.  Here is a quick summary for preaching the text this way.

My thesis is this: when we come to passages like Jesus calming the storm, it is impossible for us in the 21st century to read it or understand it as people did in the 1st century. The pre-modern mind had a different relationship to story, idea, text, and experience than we have. So even when contemporary believers attempt to have a pre-modern reading of the Bible, they can not. When they try to reconcile their world and experience to the world and experience in scripture there is an inherent gap.  That gap must be bridged or accounted for or it becomes prohibitive. The tension represented by the gap becomes untenable for one’s faith.

Here is how I read the storm stories in Matthew 14:22-23, Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21. I believe that the event really happened and the disciples really experienced that moment. I take it by faith. Now I have said before that the point of the story is not for me to walk on water or for me to tell storms to be quiet. The point of the story is to hear the word of Christ to ‘be not afraid’. It this sense, I think that the important part of the text is not physics (how did Jesus walk on water) but poetics (what is the message). The problem for some modern readers is that if Jesus did not literally walk on water then they can not literally be not afraid. It is a 1:1 rational. I get that. and I will even concede that to them if they will talk to me about hermeneutics.

But – and this is a big but – it is quite a leap to move from the disciples’ experience of Jesus calming a localized storm on a sea while he was incarnate, to the contemporary believer watching satellite footage of last week’s hurricane on the Atlantic coast and  asserting that God is ‘in control’ of the weather. That is an irreconcilable set of assumptions.

When Jesus was incarnate he calmed a storm one night does not equal God sent Hurricane Irene.

Some people have a real problem giving up a naivete or even wrapping their head around it. I  had an amazing conversation with a Bible College student about Emergence Theory and the first 3 chapter of Genesis. When I explained how I thought the importance of the text was not a literal report of those first 6 days (or why in one story man is created after plants and in the second story it is before – Gen 2:5-7) but the truth about HOW God works with God’s creation to bring about a new and preferable reality. This person got really annoyed and said “then why even read Genesis at all if it is not real?” I explained that it was real. That really is how god works with humanity and creation.

After a while I said, ” you are like the person that finds out that there is no Santa Clause for real and that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th and says “then Christmas doesn’t mean anything- it is not worth celebrating”. You would be wrong. Christmas is the most beautiful thing in whole world. It is the message behind it (the poetics) that give it it’s meaning.

I know that reading the Bible while being aware of the gap (between the pre-modern world and our contemporary mind) can be jarring and disorienting. I get why not everyone will want to do it. But I also think that it is far better than the other option which is to insist on fabricating a pre-modern reading when one does not have pre-modern mind. It just can’t be done with integrity. It is better acknowledge where we are at, admit that things have progressed & changed, and to authentically engage the text from our radical and particular located-ness.Jesus calms the storm

Next time: I will address how much more FUN it is to be a Christian once you embrace the hermeneutical gap!

The world is not ending

Here are some collected thoughts about the events of the week:
IF we don’t know how to read the books of the Bible within their genre, AND we were taught that time is scripted from the beginning, THEN it makes sense why people are so fascinated with the end of the world.

It’s a bad way to read the Bible inside an faulty way to understand history… of course it all comes crashing down (in our minds).

I thank God for Harold Camping. I didn’t realize how many people thought “well he is half-right. It is going to happen, it’s just that we don’t know when” until this week. This has been eye opening.

May 21 will pass without incident, but then 2012 is hanging over head.

Jesus said that all these bad things he was predicting would happen “within this generation” (Matthew 24:34).  I think it was all in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ad.  Others say that he was somehow referencing that founding of Israel in 1947. But we have to be coming to the end of that ‘generation’ too.

At some point we are going to have to admit that we may have taken a wrong turn or we may be reading the ‘map’ wrong.

At least part of the wake up will be realizing that it is not a “map” at all – but an ancient style of political critique that is couched in prophetic imagination. 

It’s called Apocalyptic literature and since we don’t know how to read it – we think that Revelation is some sort of Newspaper account written ahead of time. It’s not. It is theo-poetics addressing the Roman Empire of the first century.

I would love to get your comments or hear any questions that you might have. I want this to be a safe space for honest conversation.

Here is a post after the last round of Earthquakes and Prophecy talk: LINK The Bible is not about the end of the world

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