Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Argument Culture

Disagreeing Well

I had the opportunity to be on the UMC podcast Get Your Spirit In Shape.

My interview is Ep. 43 called Disagreeing Well.

It’s no secret that people disagree, sometimes vehemently. When our opinions match, it is easy to have a conversation. When we are on opposite sides of an issue, talking can be far more challenging, but often more fruitful. In a time when opinions are strong in both our public and church lives, learning to disagree well is important.

To learn some techniques for disagreeing well, we talked with the Rev. Bo Sanders, a United Methodist pastor who leads his congregation in weekly conversations about a variety of topics. Bo shares great tips for getting out of our “echo chambers,” and learning to listen and talk to those with whom we disagree.

You can watch the youtube video , or listen on Stitcher, or Itunes (where it comes up as episode 1 right now because it is most recent)

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, and concerns.

You might also like to hear the background thinking behind Interactive Church on my church podcast.

Please share these with your friends and followers – I am trying to starter a larger conversation!


Civility or Resistance?

Last week on the Peacing It All Together podcast, Randy and I talked about ‘the call for civility’.

Next week at the church’s pub-chat, the topic is the same.

Randy and I came up with 3 ideas about this and I want to reflect on them here.

First, it is important in ‘The Argument Culture’ (as Deborah Tannen famously called it) that we don’t prioritize policing people’s tone or vocabulary. Yes, we don’t want to inflame the situation and make it worse… but policing tone is not our highest priority.

The bigger issue is committing to stay at the table. Part of problem right now is that people can tune each other out, turn the channel, unfriend or mute voice they don’t agree with. Our self-selecting news feed becomes an echo chamber and bubble.

Staying at the table even when things get heated is an important first commitment.

Second, humanize – don’t demonize those with whom you disagree. A gift (or grace) that we can give our fellow members of the human race is to spend our time and energy imagining them as more fully and faithfully human. It is a dangerous thing when we make people into non-human things like monsters and animals.

Third, if push comes to shove (as they say) make sure that you punch up and not down. Focus your critique and concern on those who have more resources and influence than you do. Don’t take swings at those who are marginalized or disadvantaged.

Use your voice, your influence, and your resources for those who have less access to influence, fewer resources, and less power than you.

Is there any that you would add to our 3 suggestions?

Z is for Zebra (understanding our opponents)

There is a great danger – especially in 2018 – of not understanding the thought and convictions of those you disagree with.

I was taught to refute evolution. From 5th grade Sunday School, through youth group to Bible college and into my early years of ministry. It was a cornerstone to evangelical apologetics.

I did not understand evolution well, I only learned how to combat it.

Zebras and their stripes were a popular example used to refute evolution (along with the human eye and other things). If the stripes are for camouflaging a herd of zebras from

predators … then the first striped offspring would have actually stood out from the heard and thus been an easy target.

This is an example of getting ahead of oneself without fully entering into the school of thought one is trying to combat.
We saw this same problem with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s banana conversation [watch the video here:].

You can’t simply start with where we are and extrapolate backwards from there.

You have to understand the primary concern:
• Science has a commitment to the process.
• Apologetics has a conviction of the conclusions.

We can’t pretend to honestly engage in asking questions if we begin with the assumption of the answers. That will always result in coming out with twisted conclusions.

Admittedly, scientists have been baffled over the zebra’s stripes for a long time. Recently some strong studies1 has have shown that the stripes are not about camouflaging herds from large predators but about flies. {Link here}

The region where zebras dwell has a breed of flies called tsetse that are legendary in their viciousness. Scientists have historically known that flies have an aversion to landing on striped surfaces. The zebra’s striped pattern acts then as a natural deterrent. This leads to greater health with less blood loss and therefore greater vitality which benefits reproduction – passing on those key genetics to offspring.

It turns out that zebras stripes are not about herds camouflaging from large predators but about individuals deterring small pests.


This means that the initial zebra ancestor to have that genetic variation would have benefited and thus that attribute would be more likely to be passed on to the next generation.

The apologetics argument I learned is flawed and would not refute the point it is intended to.

That is the first problem with not fully entering into an idea well enough to understand it – there has to be a commitment to the question not just a conviction about the conclusion.

The second problem is that much of the suspicion from creationists about evolutionary thought is based on the hard and cold version of survival of the fittest from a century ago. Many don’t know of newer strains of evolutionary thought that incorporate cooperation, mutuality, and emergence thought (see O is for Open & Relational).

Evolution has evolved in the past 30 years but many creation apologists prefer to takes pot-shots at the straw man caricature of Darwinian schools of the past. They have perfected taking swings at shadows of where the theory used to stand.

As we wrap up the ABC’s series, I wanted to acknowledge that not only has Christian belief evolved and adapted over the centuries but to encourage you to embrace these historic adjustments.

The gospel is itself incarnational and the universe is evolutionary. Those two things go together beautifully. The gospel is good news and is constantly in need to be contextualized to new times and new places. The scriptures are inherently translatable and come into every language and culture. This is one of the unique aspects of the christian religion (K is for Kenosis).

If evolution is true of the universe, Christians should have no need

to avoid or refute it. We can embrace evolutionary thought wholeheartedly.

Christians should, after all, be people who love truth.

If we want to contest certain aspects of the evolutionary theory, we should at least understand its claims thoroughly so that we can do that well.


This is the final week of the ABC series for Sunday School. See preview here

Opting Out of the Argument Culture (follow up to 4 > 2)

Last week I put out a fun challenge for Good Friday: repent of either-or thinking. It got a great response and a reader asked how one might pursue a conversation differently.

After a decade of trial and error, these are the three things (appropriately) I have found most helpful in breaking down the inherited dualisms: diagrams, vocabulary, and intentional complexification.

Diagrams: I am a believer in the power of shapes. I heard Len Sweet talk one time about how the two scientists that finally solved the riddle of DNA actually had all the necessary proteins and elements figured out for quite a while … but could not break the code. It wasn’t until they had that now famous shape – the double helix – that they were able to put the puzzle together.
I tell people

“You can have all the right content and be forcing it into the wrong shape.”

My use of the Venn last week to create 5 categories out of 2 would be an example of this. But it comes from a deep conviction that even when given 2 categories, there has to be more to the story – so look for a third. (The book Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen is excellent on this point).

Draw the person’s spectrum and then bend it (as I did here) for them. Take their two options and put it in a matrix (like the Urgent/Important matrix below). Just become convinced that there is too much data for it to be crammed into a pre-made little mold – it just won’t fit. You end up discarding too much data once your little tins are filled.

Vocabulary: When people are too familiar, too entrenched, and too comfortable, you may have to change the terms of the debate in order to unseat the status quo.

In the never ending Calvinist v Arminian debate that Calvinist love, I will teach them that Arminius was a Calvinist, but  just ‘not calvin enough’ and then, in reaction, the Synod of Dort went more calvin than Calvin to come up with T.U.L.I.P. So when Calvinist portray all free-will theologies as Arminian, that is like an American saying that all non-republicans are democrats: its just not true. They are basically just two sides of the same coin … but certainly not representative of the whole array of options. If they want to read an actual Arminian they should check out Roger Olson and his book Against Calvinism. Once you know what a real Arminian looks like, you will stop mistaking everyone who is not Calvinist for one!

Intentional Complexification:  Since dualism is destructive and deceptive, resolve to never let two contradictory-adversarial positions stand as the only options. Search far and wide, at all costs find a third option. Become inquisitive, Become imaginative. Who doesn’t see it this way?

In the abortion debate you must take away the entrenched or given labels that people assume are the only options. Pro-Life is usually just about one stage of life (unborn) and is less concerned about the life of the mother after her child’s birth, the education of the child 5 years after birth, our  country’s foreign policy and being pro-life in an age of perpetual war, and the ever increasing rates of incarceration, death penalty, etc. To be pro-life you also have to be pro-health care, for education, against militarism, anti-death penalty and should probably do something about hand guns and assault rifles ( I’m not talking about your deer rifle Mr. NRA, that is not what is being used to kill people in these shootings).

If you don’t care about the health of the mother, the education of the child, the life of soldiers, and the life of inmates then you are not pro-life: you are just anti-abortion.

When I see the conversation being set up in an us v. them scenario, I will just boycott by saying “until a women has control over her own womb and she can walk away from a pregnancy like the fella can, we can not even have this conversation. It’s impossible.” I just won’t concede the terms and allow the conversation to be set up like that. It is a false binary and it never leads anywhere except ‘both’ sides (as if there is only 2) feeling justified in their own self-virtue.

So those are my 3 suggestions. I would love to hear what things you have found help us get out of the either/or rut and change the parameters conversation!

Bending the Spectrum

I have never been a big fan of ‘spectrum’ thinking. The language of far left and far right  just rings hollow for me. It is insufficient for the most part and in the end, inaccurate.

I read the book The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen more than a decade ago and said out loud “Oh! So THAT is why I bristle at the either/or, Republican/Democrat, Right/Left dichotomy! – now it makes sense.”

I reject the spectrum at every turn … but recently I have begun to make an exception in regards to the spectrum. The spectrum is only applicable for someone who thinks that there is a spectrum. I will only try to get them to see that not everyone exists on a spectrum nor are they accounted for by a right-left binary. I no longer try to dislodge them of the notion as a whole – I only try to introduce that a spectrum is incomplete and insufficient.

Lately I have been overwhelmed – probably because it is an election year – by binary language and dualistic thinking. In these conversations I have discovered that it can be quite effective to introduce a simple word play. Spectrums are not straight lines – like light, they bend.

You may think that this sounds overly simplistic but just think about the rise of the Tea-Party and the emergence of the Occupy movement coming in roughly the same window of time. Now those two groups would say that they stand for completely different things. To an outside observer, however, for all the minor distinctions they share a ‘Major’ concern: the system is broken and we can’t trust our leaders to fix it.

This week, I am starting a series working though the Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges. He begins the book with a 25 year old former Marine walking along a highway in Upstate NY that I driven. He is disillusioned with the economic and political systems and is getting ready to do something about it. At one point the young vet says:

“I could see there was no difference between the two main political parties. There is a false left/right paradigm which diverts the working class from the real reasons for their hardships.”

I am looking forward to the series in the exact inverse proportion to how much I am dreading this election cycle.* I have lots of Tea Party types in my life and many Occupy sympathizers as friends. I hear them both saying that the system is not working and that those in charge are not capable of fixing it, that we the people need to be more hands on.

Chris Hedges analyzes the crisis and articulates the root causes better than anyone I have found. The slant of the series will revolve around one simple question “IF Hedges is right about the world – how then should we do theology?

The Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, the global economic crisis and the ongoing wars are telling us something … and it is not about the End of Days. Doing theology in this environment will inherently have some continuity with historical approaches but it will require some tools that may not be familiar to us as well as some necessary innovations.

 The left and right think that they are far apart, but in a bent system they are closer than they would believe. At some point on an arc the far right and the far left almost touch.

I end the way Hedges begins, with a quote from George Orwell:

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.  “Freedom of the Press”

* Tavis Smiley has been saying for quite a while that this will be the ugliest and most racist election in modern times.

I also posted this at Homebrewed

Clowns to the left of me Jokers to the right

The old Stealers Wheels song says “clowns to the left of me – jokers to the right” , when I do watch the news I find myself humming “wingnuts to the left of me – nut jobs to the right” here I am stuck in the middle with you. Of course, it’s not that simple – nothing is. 

Over a decade ago I read an amazing book called The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen that forever changed the way I was able to see and participate in the toxic, adversarial, binary system that had evolved. It haunts me as I watch the political environment and media circus unfold in front of me.

The other day I stumbled across another good reminder from the past. Alasdair MacIntyre was credited with saying

all contemporary debates are really between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals.

I found this in a Dictionary of Theology, where the author added “Thus there is little room for the criticism of the system itself.” In a post the other day I said that “in the end the structure is nearly unchanged. The system is never in danger. The machine doesn’t even slow down. The Powers are never in jeopardy. It eats new ideas with barely a burp – let alone beginning to buckle.”

Stated simply: there is a real danger is assuming our inherited  structures. When we presume the giveness of our constructed systems we are inflicted with a blindness that is more than debilitating to dialogue – it is corrosive to the very intent and virtue of our stated ideals. When the system is assumed:

  1. we begin to major on the minors.
  2. we create blind-spots that leave us vulnerable to critique.

The result then is that we either take on a defensive posture, turn aggressive, or become paralyzed and withdrawal all together. It is the social equivalent of  the “Fight-Flight-or Fright” reflex .

When we don’t examine our inherited assumption or unwilling to engage our constructed social conditioned-ness, we open the door to something quite hazardous to the Gospel message. Beyond compromise and conflict as either/or options is a real cancerous effect on community.

Our political views and denominational persuasions are not the all or nothing ‘far right vs. far left’ spectrum with a huge gap in the middle that has been presented to us. They are kinds within the same system. They are not different in kind – they are only different in degree. And when we realize this, we are afforded the possibility to step back from the arena and gain some perspective on the structure as a whole. That is is the only way that system itself will ever be critiqued – the only ways that the Powers the Be will ever get challenged. Continue reading “Clowns to the left of me Jokers to the right”

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