Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Trinity of Belief

There are 3 elements of belief that overlap and interact to form what we generally refer to as ‘faith’.

I am fascinated with how these layers stack up and both empower the other layers but also limit the options of each other.

The 3 elements are:

  • narratives (story)
  • practices (action)
  • relationships (connection)

Narratives are powerful because the stories that we tell ourselves – or the stories that we are told and buy in to – frame our actions and give direction to our relationships.

Each of us live in a story.

Practices are important because ideas don’t just remain ‘theories’, they translate into actions, habits, and ultimately practices. Some of these are intentional, others are by default. Regardless, they reinforce the story that we live into and they connect us with others who become our community.

Relationships are vital because we are essentially (and fundamentally) social creatures. There is not one aspect of human existence that isn’t relational. We are born into a family of origin, and even the words we use to form our own thoughts are given to us. In fact, who we are connected to defines us as much as anything else and determines what we are allowed to believe or not allowed to believe.

  • Our stories frame our experiences and inspire our actions.
  • Our practices em/body and en/act our beliefs and ideas.
  • Our relationships connect us to a web of meaning and creates community.

It is the interplay between these 3 elements and specifically the spot where they overlap that has become my fascination.

Here is a short video – let me know your thoughts.

The reason that I call it the ‘trinity’ of belief is because each of the 3 elements can correspond to a ‘person’ in the Christian trinity: the story of God (the Bible is primarily narrative), Christian practices are founded in the incarnation and embodies presence, the Spirit is how we all connect to one another (community).

Wisdom of the Wesleyan Quad

The Wesleyan Quad is my 2nd favorite theological concept.

  • Scripture
  • Tradition
  • Experience
  • Reason

In this video we look at those 4 configured as a living web of interpretation. I hold that it is far better for community discernment than a foundationalist approach (the classic sequence).

Let me know if you have questions or concerns – especially about the little game of 3 minus 1.

Imitation, Simulation, and Repetition – How We Imagine Ourselves

Imitation, Simulation, and Repetition

Madan Surap’s Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World is the most expansive and impressive examination that I have encountered around the issues of societal conception and cultural identities. His basic assertion, which is expanded as the work progresses, is that “ identities are not entirely determined … we do not have homogenous identity but (instead) have several contradictory selves”.  By interacting with such historic figures as Lacan, Baudrillard, Foucault, Said, and Kristiva, Sarup provides a tour-de-force of elements contributing to a modern conception of self, identity, community, and culture.

Identity has a history. At one time it was taken for granted that a person had a ‘given’ identity. The debates round it today assume that identity is not an inherent quality of a person but that it arises in interaction with others and the focus is on the processes by which identity is constructed.[1]

The construction of someone’s identity involves a process of selection as to which elements will receive consideration and emphasis. “Social dynamics such as class, nation, ‘race’, ethnicity, gender and religion” are then organized into a narrative.

[2] This is the process by which a subject’s story emerges for both presentation (by them) and evaluation (by others).  Sarup utilizes a three themed approach for illustrating the transitional nature of one’s identity:

  • the meaning of home
  • the journey of the migrant and
  • the crossing of the border.

It is clear from the above three keys that Sarup is employing a moving motif. There is transition of movement built into the conception of self and community. By articulating this framework as one expecting migration, he provides an inherent instability and liquidity within the process of conceptualization. Identities within this expectation “do not remain static, but they change according to the strength of social forces, the dynamics of class, nation, religion, sex and gender, ‘race’ and ethnicity”. [3]

The reality that becomes available within this approach is that each of those contributing elements also is a moving target that can, at times, be as transitionary as the personal identities that are framed within it.

It is not difficult to isolate any one of the contributing elements and illustrate how that one category has undergone layers of adjustment, adaptation, evolution and challenge:

  • class (Marx, the Royals of England, modern India),
  • nation (from the French Revolution to post-colonial movements),
  • religion (historic drift of the Methodist from Wesley to today),
  • sex and gender (Foucault, Kinsey, and the feminist revolution),
  • race and ethnicity (see How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev).

The points on which the web of constructed identity are anchored seem themselves to be migrating and moving elements – albeit at a tortuous pace in comparison to personal identity markers.

In order to address the underlying influences and their contribution to the process of formation, Sarup asks a set of leading questions:

  1. How do frames of culture, for example, hold the individual personalities in place?
  2. How are places imagined and represented?
  3. How do they affect people’s identities?
  4. How do the worlds of imagination and representation come together?[4]

I find the questions as helpful at this point in the address as any polished explanations. It is precisely the presumed ‘giveness’ of both identity and community that has triggered my abandonment of former inherited constructions and a subsequent willingness to explore the nature of socially conditioned conceptions of oneself as well as constructivist theory of knowledge (which will be touched on at the conclusion).

Sarup’s three themes introduced earlier (the meaning of home, the journey of the migrant and the crossing of the border) provide a way forward in examining the frameworks associated with a mobile or transitory conception. To clarify, he is saying that “identity is to do not with being but with becoming”.[5]

  • While home is always a place, notions of home are not the same in every culture.
  • Immigrant communities may have home-land but essentially home is a place rooted into one’s family.
  • We are always born into relationships and those are always based in a place.
  • Frontiers are places of separation and articulation.
  • In contrast, boundaries are constitutively crossed or transgressed.
  • Strangers are both aware of their strangeness within and unclassifiable to those without. They are undecidables. The stranger blurs boundary lines.[6]
  • Many strangers attempt to erase this stigma by assimilating.
  • A foreigner is one who does not belong to the group, the other.

These markers and designations form the structure in which Sarup explores the evolving landscape of contemporary global communities and individual conceptions of self and belonging. Ultimately he concludes that:

Identity is a construction, a consequence of a process of interaction between people, institutions and practices and that, because the range of human behavior is so wide, groups maintain boundaries to limit the type of behavior within a defined cultural territory. Boundaries are an important point of reference for those participating in any system.[7]Boy at Cockflight_3

The transitory nature of the cultural boundaries and increasingly fluid conception of personal identities that are framed within them – or in contrast to them – make addressing either the stable elements that exist or the migrating ones difficult without a historic referent or a narrative frame. I am pleased that with a historic approach like social imaginaries/ imagined communities (Taylor and Anderson) and several narrative frames (like the one provided by Sarup) that some progress can be made in examining this issue of socially constructed notions of self, identity, belonging and community.

Sarup warns against several mistakes that those who try to address issues of identity often make:
– One danger is in focusing on an influence or social dynamic in isolation. By isolating only race, or nationality one overlooks the “multiplicity of factors”[8] that contribute to the construction of one’s identity.
– Another danger is found in over simplifying the view of social structures that frame an issue and not analyzing them as significantly complex issues. Among his other cautions, an important aspect to consider is negotiation of “the past-present relation and its reconciliation”.[9]

The past is important because it is though narrative that people represent themselves to themselves.

The representation of the past to oneself becomes vital especially in an American context. Baudrillard has a vicious critique of America’s lack of (perceived) history and how that lack creates an environment where everyone is expected (and has the opportunity) to re-create themselves everyday. He says that America has no ‘ancestral history’, no roots ‘except the future’, and that America is ‘weightless’.[10]

America, according to Baudrillard, is a realization of the hyper-real that is an idealized imagining of an anticipated reality.

In the next post we will begin to get religious. 


[1] Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 14.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 171.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] This is where Sarup interacts with the work of Julia Kristeva’s Strangers to Ourselves.

[7] Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 11.

[8] Ibid., 39.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] Jean Baudrillard, “America After Utopia,” New Perspectives Quarterly, Fall 2009, 1.

How We Imagine Ourselves: Technology

I am fascinated by how we both image ourselves and imagine ourselves. The connection between them is significant and the implications are even more so.

In March I wrote about how conceptions of a ‘people’ and a ‘nation’ have come through historic transitions in the past 2 centuries. More recent authors extend that concern beyond just text to the escalated pervasiveness of electronic media.  Appiah frames it this way:

The worldwide web of information – radio, television, telephones, the Internet – means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere, too. Each person you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities: to say this is to just to affirm the very idea of morality. The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.[1]

This radical re-formation of belonging, obligation and security holds major opportunities as well as obstacles to conceptualizing social identity and participating in imagine community for the 21st century globalized existence. [2] Arjun Appadurai pins media and migration as the two interconnected (and similar) effects that work on “the imagination as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” because “they offer new resources and new disciplines for the constructed imagined selves and imagined worlds.” [3]

The rate of change provides a rupture – not merely a transition but an exponential increase in connectivity and complexity.complexity

The power of this new media, according to Appadurai, is not only as a direct source “of new images and scenarios for life possibilities” but in that fact that “imagination has now acquired a singular new power in social life.”[4] Think back to Taylor’s earlier assertion that those in previous centuries not only didn’t have the ability to conceptualize themselves with a life outside of immediate connections but that it probably would have never even dawned them to try.

The capacity to conceptualize or imagine oneself in a radically different place, group or life scenario has not only become possible but it the primary realm of constructing an imaginary.

This shift is facilitated by media technology and is “one of the principle shifts in the global cultural order”. [5]  

Technology is radically changing the way that we conceptualize (imagine) everything from identity, belonging and who we are connected to as well as in what way that happens.

In the next 3 posts I begin to flesh out what this change looks like.


[1] Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, xiii.

[2] It is worth noting that a walk down a large avenue in a major city would “have within sight more human beings that most of those prehistoric hunter-gatherers saw in a lifetime.” Even Greece at its heyday or Rome at its peak would have paled in comparison. Ibid., xii.

[3] Appadurai, Modernity At Large, 3.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 115.

[7] Ibid., 117.

[8] A similar case might be made for women who have been disgruntled based on the patriarchal remnants still influencing them and their sisters even though they are aware that they are 51% of the population as a whole. A great deal is made out of the number ‘51’ in juxtaposition to matters of access, equality and compensation. Much is made of that number. What if, one might ask, if that number was changed. Would the case be harder to make? What if only 42% of the population was women? Or what if it turned out that an error had been made and actually 64% of the population was women. Would that make the current inequalities and unjust practices more grotesque?

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

When Good Is Not Enough (3/3)

This week I have been writing a little about my interest in Practical Theology (PT) and  the subsequent philosophical orientation with which I will be engaging research: social constructivism. 

I had some very heady (and public) conversations with colleagues this Summer who desperately wanted to paint me as a ‘Liberal’ who is afraid of my own shadow (afraid to admit it/come out of the theological closet, etc.)

My assertion was that, as a social constructivist, I am more in a agreement with communitarian concerns than I am with liberal loyalties. Communitarians have a very harsh critique of liberalism where it:

considers classical liberalism to be ontologically and epistemologically incoherent, and opposes it on those grounds. Unlike classical liberalism, which construes communities as originating from the voluntary acts of pre-community individuals, it emphasizes the role of the community in defining and shaping individuals.

While I clearly hold some positions that overlap with liberal stances, and while I do presently serve at a classically Mainline church that exists within the liberal tradition of church expressions … I do not do so as a liberal. I grew evangelical, went very charismatic and then emerged into whatever kind of deconstructed christianity this is.

I jokingly said that I don’t identify as a liberal for the same reason that I don’t wear a medium-size Tshirt. It doesn’t fit and doesn’t cover some things I find important (ie. my belly).Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

The problem with being progressive:

I have flirted with the idea of just being a progressive even while I bristle at the notion of societal evolution, inevitable progress or the consequences of a colonial notion of ‘civilization’.

I realize that some liberals have engaged in post-colonial, feminist or liberation approaches – so that those concerns are not mutually exclusive.

So what do I mean when I say that Liberal doesn’t go far enough?

 Take post-colonial concerns

Classic liberalism has had two responses to the colonial problem. I will call them:

assimilation and reservations.

They can either come to us, act like us, learn to think like us, speak like us and live among us … or they can go over there and do their own thing without bothering us.

In fact, is it self-congratulatory either way. If indigenous folks assimilate we feel validated as open and accepting – even multi-cultural or diverse! If we ‘give them their own space’ we pat ourselves on the back for being understanding and accepting of other cultures. Let’s be honest – at least it isn’t conquest and genocide after all.

Neither one of those approaches is satisfactory. The first is unacceptable because it still presumes the hegemonic power of the dominant culture and it is looking at the indigenous community as something that needs to be absorbed, adapted or modified. The second is unacceptable because it sees the two cultures as incommensurable without realizing the power differential to  conquest.

I am not looking for a nicer, more gentle version of colonialism or empire. As a researcher-advocate, I want to hear the voice and experience of impacted communities in their own words. If that leads to an opportunity for partnership, great. If not, I have to accept that I am not in control of the outcome nor am I referee to make sure that people play by my rules. In the post-colonial context, indigenous peoples are not to be adopted & adapted … nor are they to be ‘left to their own devices’. Neither of these approaches is acceptable.

Something else is needed. Practical Theology and its qualitative methods provide me a starting point to engaging in a different way – one that addresses larger issues of systemic and institutional concerns, one that hears the voice of the communities most affected, and one that provides the possibility of change in the real lived experiences of those involved.

Let me give you an example. James Cone writes near the end of ‘The Cross and The Lynching Tree’:

White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people. One must suppose that in order to feel comfortable in the Christian faith, whites needed theologians to interpret the gospel in a way that would not require them to acknowledge white supremacy as America’s greatest sin. 

Then Cone comments on perhaps the quintessential evolving- liberal theologian that America has ever had:

Reinhold Niebuhr could write and preach about the cross with profound theological imagination and say nothing of how the violence of white supremacy invalidated the faith of white churches. It takes a lot of theological blindness to do that, especially since the vigilantes were white Christians who claimed to worship the Jew lynched in Jerusalem.

I hope that these past three posts have helped to clarify why Practical Theology holds possibilities for me as a discipline and why I have chosen a social constructivist orientation within the research.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read these 3 posts and to give me such high quality feedback and/or affirmation.

I asked Rob Bell about planting another church – he talked about Eucharist

In the a recent episode of Homebrewed Christianity, I asked Rob Bell what he would do if he were starting from scratch again.  I was particularly intrigued for three main reasons:
1) I actually am starting a new gathering so I wanted to pick his brain.
2) Bell is so creative and innovative – who better to ask?
3) His answer was somewhat surprising.

“I would have Eucharist a lot. And I would make it really clear to everybody that the Eucharist is our only hope. Because otherwise, there’s a thousand forces – the entropy is overwhelming…preferences and particularities…there are a thousand ways for a church to go in all these different directions – you end up just barely being able to hold it all together. But if you have the bread and the wine, and on a really regular basis, you put the bread and wine on the table and you say “Okay everybody – here you go: Body broken, blood poured out…”

I am not the most sacramental minister in the world so I pressed him on it a little bit. I said that both my co-pastor and folks like Nadia Bolz-Weber are really sold that Eucharist is the thing! I have even heard some RO types say that it is the only thing that can fix the world.

I heard  that and thought … look, I like communion as much as most (I would guess)  – but really Rob? The eucharist?  So I said (basically) “Yeah, I guess I’m just not that into it.  I’m more relational about it.”  By that I meant that when we sit at any table, the Spirit of Christ is with us and in that sense we are communing. When it is at church and we have special elements, it is Communion (capital C). I just don’t get into the ‘real presence’ thing at any level.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Roger Haight (and his book Jesus: Symbol of God).  I get the difference between a sign, symbol, and sacrament. I was just a little surprised that if Rob Bell were going to start from scratch … Eucharist is the first thing on the table?  (pun intended)

Rob doubled down. He said “Well it is relational!” He went on to clarify that you put the bread and the cup on the table and then ask:

“Alright – everyone have their rent payed this month? Anyone have any medical bills?”

I was stopped in my tracks. I was inspired. I even said to Rob that he almost converted me.

It’s moments like that where you realize when we say Eucharist or Communion … we may not all be saying the same thing.   It is sad at one level.  It is also inspiring at another level.

All I know is that I sure am glad that I asked that follow up question. Bell gave an incredible answer and really has me thinking about community, service and communion differently.

I recognize the gap between my and Rob’s take on this … but he has me thinking.


Eucharist isn’t Enough to Combat Consumer

Early today I wrote about my appreciation for a book by John Reader entitled Reconstructing Practical Theology: the Impact of Globalization. I mentioned his use of Zombie Categories and promised to tackle a specific issue today.

Globalization and technological developments pose unique challenges and potential assaults on the conception of “self”.  Reader examines three manifestations of these developments: Self as Commodity, Self as Consumer, and Self as Project.  While admittedly the “human capacity to reduce oneself to an object is nothing new”, there is a unique capacity for the loss of dignity and of ones integrity that is of significant concern for issues of ministry.

When an individual views themselves as a commodity, defines themselves as a consumer, or constructs a new identity to project there are social behaviors that have communal implications involved at every level of engagement. Each implication carries a legitimate concern regarding community and pastoral care.

Reader addresses specific concerns about globalization by interacting with writers from various camps who are attempting innovative critiques or corrections to some of the challenges provided in globalization. At one point he examines Radical Orthodoxy and the approach of John Millbank and William Cavanaugh, who promote the Eucharist as an antidote to globalization’s blurring of boundaries.

It is suggested that globalization fragments space and dislocates the individual from location and community as a result of the fragmentation. Whereas “globalization is a master narrative, one which claims universal truth and authority for itself”, Eucharist is promoted as being trans-historical by collapsing “all spatial and temporal divisions” in its catholicity.

Reader has serious concerns about Cavanagh’s (and Radical Orthodoxy’s) solutions to globalization’s challenges:

I will next raise some questions and reservations about his solution to the problem of how Christianity might be a site of resistance to the excesses of global capitalism. The value of his book is that it draws out issues which are central for practical theology as it engages with globalization and one can agree with his analysis without agreeing with the proposed antidote.

This provides a significant distinction for Reader will readily agree with Cavanaugh’s (and Milbank’s) analysis of the zombie categories and strongly affirm the profound danger of the commodification of church and the packaging of religious programming for appeal to a consumer driven market.

It is crucial that communities first acknowledge the realities of globalization and its impact upon the congregation (including the individual members that make up the congregation) or else it will be in danger of becoming an enclave that has simply created a fantasy for use during meeting times. Groups that do this create a toxic dichotomy in the lives of members – one while the group is together and another for the real world outside the meeting. While innovative approaches are much needed and deeply appreciated they must be constructed in full awareness and admission of the epic shifts happening in every society.

This really hit home with me for several reasons. The biggest reason is just how much I hear about communion. As one who has emerged from an evangelical upbringing, participates in the emergent conversation and is employed at a mainline church – I hear about the importance of Eucharist, communion and breaking bread. While I am willing to admit that there might be something I am just not getting about this issue, I am shocked at how much stock the folks I interact with talk about it.  And it’s a diverse group of folks:

  • New-monastics in intentional community
  • Lutherans
  • United Methodists
  • Emergent types
  • Radical Orthodox
  • House Church folks

That is quite a spread. So I should probably admit that I have never bought into trans or con substantiation. I am allergic to the whole debate about ‘real presence’ and I am nervous anytime someone calls it ‘sacrament’ hoping that they actually know what sacramental means theologically and are not just using that like religious ‘special sauce’ to sprinkle on things we want to give elevated importance to.

 I think that it is beautiful symbol, an important ceremony and true sacrament. So this thing that the Rad. O folks try and do to use Eucharist to combat consumerism is just funky to me. Its not just a stretch – it might be missing the point all together. Do we need to combat consumerism? Yes.  Is this the way to do it?  I don’t think so.

Having said that, I will agree with two things:

  1. Communion can combat consumerism. I’m not talking about the Eucharist, I’m talking about actually communing – sitting around a table and eating bread with others while talking about Jesus and being the body of Christ. But a religious ceremony, especially one that is administered by salaried officials? I don’t think so.
  2. The only way that I could get behind this Eucharist idea is if the wheat for the bread was grown by community and the soil that the grapes grew in was known and visited by them! IF communion was a way to reconnect with the earth and with a location – THEN I could get down with the suggestion. That would combat combat consumerism is a significant way.  But then again, I suppose at this point I am really supporting localism and not anything to do with Eucharist!

Consumerism needs combating. I just don’t think that rehabilitating old categories and ancient practices are going to be the solution. I do think that ancient practices should be a vital part of a whole integrated approach and an import anchor in the church’s web of meaning. I just get nervous when there is so much importance placed on Eucharist and that is often the first, and sometimes only, thing mentioned.

But if we go buy the bread and juice then provide people a religious service of them consuming it like they would a biscotti and latte?  They leave the transaction feeling better about themselves … that might actually be feeding their consumeristic mentality!


When I first posted this at HBC, I got lots of good feedback and some pretty heavy pushback. One of the main concerns was that I didn’t put forward enough positive alternatives. (tough to do in under 1000 words) so I will endeavor to concoct a post with some positive alternatives 😉


Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Cautions?    -Bo

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