Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Pastors don’t have the same job as Jesus

There is no other way to say this – Jesus wasn’t a pastor and it is ridiculous to hold any contemporary pastor to that standard. 

 I should probably back up.  I was minding my own business last week reading Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization by Arjun Appadurai  and I decided to take a break and check in on Twitter.

That is where I saw a tweet from the folks at Two Friars & a Fool (who I love love love) and smashed into an expectation that just seems objectionable to me.  [I have gathered their and my tweets in chunks for smoother reading]

Worrying that truth or justice will cause anxiety in your congregants isn’t “pastoral”.

More likely you are projecting your fear over job security, to excuse not speaking/living more boldly.

It is not a pastor’s job to protect their congregants from difficult truths, big ideas, or stark injustices.

I cannot think of one instance where Jesus withheld hard truths or talked around a subject out of “pastoral concern”.

My point is that if Jesus withheld them, you wouldn’t know about it. That’s an argument from silence. What we know about Jesus is what his disciples remember and re-presented to us. We don’t know what didn’t happen so we can’t cold contemporary pastors to a non-existent standard.

 They countered with: The Gospels could have had a story where Jesus was gentle with an interlocutor, then turned & told his disciples the truth.

Or we could have revelations in epistles etc… of “hard teachings” Jesus spared us from.

Or even instances where Jesus slowly led his disciples into a hard teaching with progressively less gentle versions.

I can also frame this argument positively: Jesus confronted people w/ hard truths often & is our model of what is “pastoral”.

I stated  that comparing what we have of Jesus in the Gospels to contemporary pastors in like comparing apples to oranges. You just are not looking at the same things. It’s nearly impossible to compare.

Their response:  Is comparing pastors to Jesus apples to oranges? Is imitation not implied in baptism?

I guess I would say that my job is fidelity. Do my best to see/speak/live the truth. Let the Spirit work out who can hear it.

And I’m more curious about what you think of the point that it isn’t “pastoral” to coddle congregants intellectually?

I often think pastors give their congregants too little credit & too much power.

Most can handle more than we allow, & it’s far from the end of the world if we piss a couple off.

Here is my condensed point:

If Jesus withheld teaching, you wouldn’t know about it. That’s argument from silence

You can’t be hard on contemporary pastors because of something Jesus DIDN’T say. It’s apples to oranges.

contemporary pastors are apples to Jesus’ Galilean orange 😉 Context, language, and expectations are different

Pentecost & Christendom alone would be enough. Add to it modern media, Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, WWII, 911 it’s just so different.

Pastors ARE beholden to what their congregants can hear. We know Jesus through disciples’ reports.

We know what the Disciples HEARD. We don’t know what they DIDN’T hear. Can’t be hard on contemporary pastors for that.

I just don’t want to tee-up modern pastors because of what their congregants can’t hear

You may say tough things from the pulpit – but you are situated in a location & context! What preceded you that allows you to say it?

I just can’t abide raking modern pastors w/ 401k & dental plans & seminary student debt or kids going to college for not saying things people won’t pay to hear! It is the system that we are in.

I guess what I’m saying is that Jesus wan’t even a real Rabbi in his day … let alone a post-christendom pastor with student debt, house payments, medical insurance, kids school payments … not to mention an ordination board, district superintendents, or a congregation with building – let alone tithing congregants with kids serving in the military.

It is contemporary apples and Galilean oranges at some point. 

How do I approach this? 
I have mashed together what I have learned from Cornell West, Slavo Zizek and Marc Ellis to say that all churches in North America fall into 3 primary categories: Prophetic, Therapeutic or Messianic.

  • Prophetic churches critique the as is structures to confront the system.
  • Therapeutic churches help folks exist within the system. ‘Chaplains to the Empire’ as we say.
  • Messianic churches focus on helping one survive until God delivers you from the system. This can be rapture, evacuation, eschatological, etc.

So, each of us in embedded in a unique modern social imaginary – a construct of meaning within a context, location, denomination and tradition that asks certain things of us and provides certain opportunities.

Our job is to be as faithful as possible within those parameters to the both the example and message of Jesus that we have.

We are not Jesus. No one is Jesus. Jesus didn’t do what we do for a living. We do the best we can within the frameworks that we have been given. Some are inherited, some need to be renovated, some are up for debate, some need to be challenged and maybe even discarded.

Without recognizing that located and situated reality we can not just take what we don’t see in Jesus and put it over a contemporary situation. It is just apples to oranges – an unfair comparison.


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.,

Buying Books

I had a wonderful opportunity to buy some books this week. I had not seen my folks since I finished my Masters (they had been out of the country) and as part of my graduation gift I got to shop on Amazon!  What a gift.

It was especially fun since I am in this new program and have some books that come up frequently in my classes – books that I have not read and do not have in my collection.  So I got 12 new books. pretty exciting for a grad student

After the flurry of activity was over – I had to make some quick decisions between my official ‘wishlist’ in Amazon and the unofficial list in my Moleskin notebook – I got the confirmation email from Amazon and an interesting trend developed.

Most of the books that I picked fell into two broad categories: the diversity of the early church and the multiplicity of the world that we live in now. This was an interesting revelation to me and I realized that the place where those two things come together really is my passion. As a Practical Theologian in training, my concern is the intersection of the theological diversity of the tradition & the practices in the world as it exists.

“Where the diversity of the past meets the multiplicity of the present” really does sum up the great concern of my heart for the church.  It is interesting to see the juncture of these two themes in a single book order.

Books that I am most excited about:

The Past

– The Churches the Apostles left behind  by Raymond Brown

– Unity and Diversity in the New Testament by James Dunn

– The Emergence of the Church by Arthur Patzia

The Present

– God is not One by Stephen Prothero

– Transforming Christian Theology by Philip Clayton

– A New Religious America by Diane Eck

– Modern Social Imaginaries by Charles Taylor

honorable mentions

– Oil & Water: Two Faiths – One God by Amir Hussain

– Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington

– Theology for the Community of God by Stanley Grenz

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