Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Why Things Seem So Bad (part 1)

This week I want to offer a 4-part series that addresses some issues behind the current state of affairs.

People are concerned about what they see happening right now. There are geographic divisions that seem increasingly pronounced. There are generational, political, and racial division that are inflamed at troubling levels. The news cycle, social media, and institutional corruption (banks, schools, churches, government, hospitals, Hollywood, Washington, etc.) provide a constant string of crisis and controversy.

Things seem to have escalated quite a bit in the past couple of years. Some people will say ‘every generation thinks things are chaotic and out of control’ and there is some evidence of that. However, we live in a unique era when there are the some distinct factors causing an intensification that is notable.

Change is a constant, we know that. Change at this rate, is not. We live in a time of exponential (not just incremental) change. It is no wonder that this environment breeds so much conflict and chaos.

One of the things that I would like to explore is the way that following 3 factors come together in a troubling way:

  • Consumerism
  • Globalization
  • Pluralism

The connection between those three might not seem clear initially, but it is the way that they come together in the 21st century that is relevant for our conversation.

Consumerism is so assumed that it often goes unnamed. It is as if we are on automatic pilot. Buying things has become second nature. I know people who claim to be Christians who can go a whole day (or days) without praying but can’t go a day without making a purchase. Capitalism is the real religion of the West. [1]

Consumerism makes us individuals – or is it that individualism makes us consumers? … either way, we have exposed the root of the problem. Speaking a language, participating in an economy, procreating and raising the next generation, and nearly every other human activity is a communal enterprise that requires cooperation and mutuality. Individualism is a mental fiction we have been sold that fails us at nearly every turn.

Globalization has brought our communities into closer proximity than ever before. We have never had this much access to or contact with one-an-other. It almost doesn’t matter where you live anymore, you have access to goods from all over the world. In fact, you do business with, go to school with, and stand in line with people from all over the world. You may all have different religions, worldviews, or notions of community and belonging. We live in age of radical connection and proximity …. but maybe not overlap. And therein lies the problem for our concern this week.

Pluralism is then a relevant factor that completes our trio. As individuals whose communities are in great proximity to each other, we have to develop an approach to one-an-other.[2] Some of us feel like we have does this well. Which is why it is so baffling why it cause some of our fellow citizens so much agitation and even anger. ‘Difference doesn’t need to lead to division’ we say, and if attitude or acceptance was the only issue we might be right. The problem is that the first two ingredients to trio are the wood and gasoline that make our current environment so flammable. Attitude (or our approach) is just the spark that makes that situation combustible.

Here is the most important thing to understanding our current culture:

Our society is a set of fragments – leftover remainders – of previous expression that may not be compatible with other or newer expressions.

Again – our society is a set of fragments, leftover remainders, of previous expressions that may not be compatible with other or newer expressions. More on this tomorrow. The examples of this phenomenon are endless once you know what you are looking at. Think about religion, Christian denominations, theories of educations, economics, politics, nationality and race, pre-1975 military, for-profit prisons, policing strategies, parenting styles, marriage equality, even grammar and texting language.

Here is a picture that I want to utilize for this 4-part series. It is a piece by my neighbor Jeff and it really speaks to me.


Our circles (communities) have diversity and differentiation within them. Those circles are in close proximity to each other and are even connected … but without overlapping. They are not integrated. They do not bleed into each other. They are distinct from one-an-other.

What makes this proximity profound is that the newer circles are smaller and bolder but are foregrounded on other circles that are faded but still present. Those larger circles are older and not as pronounced but influential. They haunt the work. They are ghosts and shadows to the primary feature. They are echoes of the past who still exert their voice. Their influence has faded but their effect still remains. The current configuration and focus wouldn’t make sense without them.

Tomorrow we talk about the nature of these remaining fragments and how people who think about such things differ on the subject.


[1] There are so many great  books on this, including For The Common Good by Daly and Cobb and What Money Can’t Buy by Sandel. I would also recommend the non-academic book The Suburban Christian by Hsu.

[2] I find this way of writing it helpful. It may seem clumsy at first but it will bear fruit later in the series.

Is Jesus Kin(g)?

This week’s video asks if ‘Kin-dom’ language is more accurate and helpful than the old ‘kingdom’ idea.

It is an alternate translation of Greek word βασιλεία, (‘basileia’) and can unpacked a number of ways.

Watch the video and let me know what you think.

You can find a short articles here [link] on kin-dom and another video about implications for worship songs here [link]

Maybe the Mayans were right!

In all of the hub-bub surrounding the Mayan apocalypse that came and went without incident, it was tough to resist the funny one-liner on Facebook and Twitter. We have become so calloused against the doomsday predictions that have fueled the religious airwaves, TV broadcasts and book sales of the last 30 years.

I get that. I came to faith during the cold-war in the heyday of characters like Hal Lidsay, Harold Camping and the Left-Behind phenomenon. Y2K was a bust and everyone was holding on for the December 2012 end of the Mayan calendar.  But I’m afraid that in our hurry to make funny quips we may have missed something important:

This actually could be the end of time.

It is similar the snark-fest regarding the Hostess bankruptcy and the end of Ding-Dongs and Twinkies.  Lost in all of the jokes was the reality of unjust labor practices by the cooperate execs of Hostess who, even at the end when massive layoffs could have been averted, continued to pay themselves ridiculous salaries and bonuses.

Hostess stole money from it’s workers pensions to use for things like operations – the whole while paying millions of dollars in bonuses to it’s 19 executives who were leading it into bankruptcy.

We didn’t address the illegal, and unjust practices of the mis-management, I suspect, because  there were just too many jokes to be made about Twinkies.

It appears that a similar scenario has blinded us to the reality of the Mayan calendar.

Never mind that the Mayans didn’t predict an end-of-the-world on the actual day – only that the calendar ended. 
Never mind how the ancient people may have conceived of the cyclical nature of time.
Never mind the odd fascination that descendants of European colonist have with indigenous artifacts from a genocidally exterminated people.

Jokes about the Mayans provided too many punchlines.

The Mayans were made a joke. 

But, like the Hostess bankruptcy, I wonder if a much bigger issue was ignored in the flurry of Facebook snark and apocalyptic themed parties.

What was lost in all the end-of-the-world banter was a sobering look at the realties that we face as humanity and that, if one had ears to hear, would sound an alarming warning signal that the world as we know is in real crisis.

I fear that like the proverbial frog in a kettle, that we have slowly adjusted and grown comfortable in rising temperature of the water and have failed to acknowledge that things might soon boil over.

Just take three areas

  • Economy
  • Environment
  • Military Tensions

Long ago, I left-behind the reading of Revelation that causes so many to live in fear of an impending catastrophe. But I’m not sure that people of faith can afford to grow comfortable thinking that the world we see is in it’s final form. Capitalism, Democracy and Nation-States are assumed to be the as-is realities on the planet.

 Zizek is oft-quoted as saying Christians are fascinated with the end of the world because it is easier to imagine life ceasing to exist on planet earth than it is for Christians to imagine an economy after capitalism.

 Global capitalism has bankrupted itself. The European Union (with countries like Greece and Spain) is in real trouble. The American economy is being exposed with its massive debts and downgraded dollar. China has mixed capitalism in with a form of communism – and a massive population – in a way that leaves most experts baffled.

 The environment is being degridated. It is conceivable that our ground water could be toxified, our warming oceans could cause extinction of the seafood we eat, and our thirst for easy energy (what the Frack are we doing?) could have repercussions that would make the planet uninhabitable for the human species.*

 That is all before nuclear fallout. Tensions is the middle east, America’s admittedly endless war on terror, and desperate global disparity are now more consequential than ever.**

It one takes the failing global economy, the toxification of the environment and the realities of perpetual war – maybe the Mayans weren’t wrong after all.

Maybe we have moved into the end of time.


* The practice of ‘mountian-top’ removal in places like West Virginia coal is instructive about environmental impacts.
** The Isreal-Palestine conflict and America’s role are especially illuminating.

God is in charge of the economy?

I have always been suspicious that what I am about to say was true. If you follow out the way that folks talk about an interventionist God who meddles, tinkers, intervenes and interacts with ‘His’ (always his) creation … then it has to follow that some within that stream will think that God actually runs the economy.

I have met people who think this. I have reported it and based some of my posts on it – only to have it be consistently rebuffed as a case a few superstitious, uniformed or immature people or groups. Then, last week this article by Paul Froese came out in Religion & Politics called “How Your View of God Shapes your View of the Economy”.  It turns out that it is worse than I even thought!

People who look at data and conduct surveys and polls are always looking for variables. One of the wrinkles that has gotten a lot of attention lately why some conservatives – mostly based on social concerns like abortion and gay marriage – vote against their own economic interest.  Why do those who are not benefiting from the current economic structure continue to put forward policies and candidates who reinforce the status quo and hierarchy?

It turns out that even though Jesus says you can’t serve both God and mammon (whatever that is) but what if you didn’t have to make that distinction? What if within the protestant work ethic there was a mechanism by which God was in charge of the economy?

 To put this more concretely, approximately 31 percent of Americans, many of whom are white evangelical men, believe that God is steering the United States economy, thus fusing their religious and economic interests. These individuals believe in what I call an “Authoritative God.” An Authoritative God is thought to be actively engaged in daily activities and historical outcomes. For those with an Authoritative God, value concerns are synonymous with economic concerns because God has a guiding hand in both. Around two-thirds of believers in an Authoritative God conjoin their theology with free-market economics, creating a new religious-economic idealism. Nearly one-fifth of American voters hold this viewpoint, signaling that it can be a major political force.

It is actually a fascinating set of findings in the study (I would encourage you to read the whole article). The search becomes twofold:

  1. Does the willingness of God to fix the economy become dependent on us to deal with our social ills? In other words: does prosperity result from faithfulness?
  2. Believing in this Authoritative God, depending on where you live in the world can lead one to a socialist conclusion or a non-capitalist structure. Why in the US does it mean a unquestioned allegiance to a laissez-faire ideology?

The article explains:

… the United States stands as a clear exception. Americans who feel that “God has a plan” for them and their country are much more likely to think that “success is achieved by ability rather than luck” and that “able-bodied people who are out of work should not receive unemployment checks.” And over half (54 percent) of Americans who think God controls the economy feel that “anything is possible for those who work hard”; in contrast, only one-quarter of Americans who rely on human resourcefulness, rather than God’s plan, feel this way.

Perhaps it is the fervent individualism of American Christianity which makes free market capitalism seem like a Divine mandate. Because evangelicals assert that you alone are responsible for your eternal salvation, it makes sense that the individual is also responsible for his or her economic salvation without government assistance, especially if God is the only assistance you really need.

I am fascinated by this. I have written (and talked on TNT) so often about the implication of this type of evangelical-charismatic-protestant mentality that believes in personal piety (small) and super-structure cosmic spiritual warfare (large) but has no framework for (linking middle)  ‘powers the be’ in systems, structures, and institutions.

If God magically made the world in 6 days, made the Sun stand still, can time earthquakes to get Apostles out of jail and one day will pull back the clouds and ride into to dole out justice and end the whole bloody thing… I guess it makes sense that God is guiding the economy.

This is why I am so passionate about a better way to read the Bible – we need a mature hermeneutic that see the text with its eyes wide open, aware of the world as it is not just the way we want it to be or we used to think it was. Last week I wrote about the effects of Globalization and how it impacts our theological thinking. Global capitalism is no minor issue – how we think about the economy and participate financially as consumers should matter to believers.

I might need to apologize for my sassy tone here – but I truly am interested in your thoughts.

Haunted by Zombie Categories

I have spent that last two weeks reading and shoring up my familiarity with Creation Ex Nihilo and the Trinity respectively. As fascinating as that has been,  I have to admit that am speculated out. I can only take so much speculative theology. This is part of why I am so happy to be in the field of Practical Theology. The other reason is that I have a real heart for the church.

I love Practical Theology. It is a fascinating field that is in the midst of a significant reinvention of itself. As an interdisciplinary engagement within the academy, it interacts with local faith expressions (like the church) in the hope to mutually benefit both the local church and the academy as a sort of go-between.

One of the major changes in this reinvention comes from the recognition that Practical Theology had not doing its own homework. It had fallen into a stale habit of simply attempting to apply the work of other disciplines. Applications of other’s work is fine at some level, but that is no way to gain credibility within the academy. If you want to be taken seriously in that world, you have to endeavor to innovate and explore – just like everyone else.

John Reader is one of my favorites. In the book Reconstructing Practical Theology: the Impact of Globalization the author examines the impact of globalization on everything from families and spirituality to the economy and ecology. There are two specific aspects of the book that I want to post about today and tomorrow: ‘Zombie Categories’ and ‘why the Eucharist isn’t Enough’.

Zombie Categories

Change can be seen in the categorization used within scholarship, specifically as it applies to fields such as practical theology. Reader borrows the term “zombie categories” from Ulrich Beck to refer to existent categorization that are fundamentally dead but which still limps on refusing to go away quietly. This situation forces us to exist temporarily in parallel worlds both utilizing “old, familiar and increasingly redundant” categories alongside “new, emerging and untested” ones.

Reader examines the historical developments and transitions, quickly surveying from the early church to the professionalism and secularism of the twentieth century. This is why it is so important for contemporary theologian to interact with fields such as psychology, sociology, economics, and even the political. As much as I appreciate and have learned from the Big 4 of Theology (Systematic, Historic, Biblical and Philosophical).

In a quick survey of the territory it is becomes clear that the issues encountered under the heading of globalization are not simply a series of incremental changes to which we must adapt to keep operating. The impact of globalization challenges the very frameworks and concepts that are familiar to the practice of Christian ministry.

I get push-back all the time for saying that we need to reexamine and desperately reinvent the very frameworks and vocabularies with which we engage in ministry.

The concerns of local ministry and pastoral care along with the conduct of worship and the diverse challenges needing to be addressed in any context ask something very distinct from us now. The transient nature of globalization paired with a virtually liquid social structure requires a different set of questions and a unique collection of frameworks to adequately address the challenges of ministry and spirituality in a world where the boundaries are constantly shifting. These concerns are most appropriately addressed by re-imagining internal categories inherent to the tradition, partnered with the resources made available by engaging with “the insights of other disciplines”.

This is not about answering the same old questions in slightly different ways for our new context – this is about asking entirely different kinds of questions about the formation of self, the family relationship, construction of community and the nature of religion.

Tomorrow I want to look at how consumerism forms our concept of ‘self’ and why the Eucharist – no matter how tightly we hold to it or how faithfully we perform it – address what is going on with us these days. But first I needed to state how deep the change is and how profound its impact on us is. Cleverly updated answers to the antiquated questions are not going to cut it anymore.

Something else is needed. Our world is not simply a bigger version of what used to be. When people keep insisting that ‘this’ is just an amplified version of ‘that’ they may be missing the point of what it is exactly that we need to be doing here.  “Doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday” may be the worst idea in the history of the church. It may not be –  but it is sure to kill us while we lie in the very bed that we made for ourselves. 

Originally posted at HBC 

the Death of the Liberals is killing us

In chapter 1 of his book Death of Liberal Class, Chris Hedges sketches both the height of the Liberal era in the 19th century and its cataclysmic implosion with the arrival of World War in the 20th. The disillusionment of human evil, aggression, and suffering deflated the optimism of innate human goodness and inevitable progress that Liberalism is founded upon.
To understand the profound impact of Liberalism’s demise, it helps to make sure one understands the difference between Classical Liberalism and it’s contemporary milquetoast descent that slinks around in straw-man form on our 24 hours news cycle.
Hedges explains (pp. 6-7) “Classical liberalism was formulated largely as a response to the dissolution of feudalism and church authoritarianism. … (It) has, the philosopher John Gray writes, four principle features, or perspectives, which give it a recognizable identity. It is :

  • individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against any collectivity;
  • egalitarian, in that it confers on all human beings the same basic moral status;
  • universalist, affirming the moral unity of the species;
  • and meliorist, in that it asserts the openended improvability, by use of critical reason, of human life

Both John Cobb (Mainline)  and Clayton Crockett (Radical Political Theology) use very similar formulations in their recent Homebrewed  podcasts. Cobb, by focusing on the demise of the Mainline and Crockett, by focusing on the Evangelical and Religious Right, articulate the monumental shift in the religious-political landscape in the past century.
The Mainline denominations are in a collapse narrative and it makes perfect sense why when one examines both the way liberal thought partnered with power in the 20th Century and the way that conducted itself (largely) within the shifting landscape of post-war realities at home and globalization abroad.

“In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality. It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue. It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite. But the assault by the corporate state on the democratic state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims…
The inability of the liberal class to acknowledge that corporations have wrested power from the hands of citizens, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have become irrelevant, and that the phrase consent of the governed is meaningless, has left it speaking and acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. It has lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist.”  (pp. 9-10)

We talked yesterday about the fictitious nature of the supposed Left-Right spectrum.  For those of us who participate in christ centered communities and organizations, what does this mean?  While incomplete, here is my little experiment to come up with a game-plan for a start.

  1. We stop using the label ‘Liberal’ generically for anything that is not Conservative… especially to be dismissive.  Liberal is a very specific ethical  framework and it takes quite a commitment to liberal. It is not a default position.
  2. We disavow the left-right , conservative-liberal split as farcical. It doesn’t exist. Obama is a Centrist Democrat. Romney is a Centrist Republican. Any idea that Obama is a radical is ridiculous.* We repent of lazy language & thought.
  3. We wake up as the church that the role the Liberals used to play in the system does not function. There is no moderating or buffering presence to bring a corrective to the system. Thus, participating in the system as-it-now-exists will not fix the system. The corporate hold over every aspect of our political system is pervasive.
  4. We step up as the church in the revelation that government is not going to fulfill the expectation to
  • bring good news to the poor (Economy)
  • restore sight to the blind (Medical)
  • release to the captive  (Legal)
  • lift up the broken hearted (Compassion)

The church can do these things! We have deferred to the political system for too long. We have outsourced our responsibility to society but now live with the remains of the bloated carcass Christendom. With the death of the liberal class resistance to corporate rule and unchecked consumerism is impotent. The Citizen’s United ruling is just one step on long trail … but we know where it leads.
There are churches in every community and there may be no greater existing potential than us! **  I know it sounds dreamy, but in the rest of this series I want to flesh it out. By the end, it might not seem as far-fetched as it does right now.
– Bo Sanders
*Wall Street campaign funding, legalizing assassination, and Guantanamo Bay are your first 3 hints.
**  The danger of course is that we keep voting based on two issues while turning a blind eye to  corporate rule, environmental deregulation, and perpetual war.


This post is the beginning of a new series and was co-posted on Homebrewed Christianity.

Economy and Ecology: the future of the past (part 3 of 3)

I left off in part 2 by imagining what might be on the other side of the ‘bridge’ after we get past the two trolls of colonial christianity and environmental dualism. My hope is that there is a different way to be in the world.

I admit that we can’t go back. We can’t undo Colonization. We aren’t going back to family farms. We can’t refreeze the polar ice caps or re-create the Glaciers in Glacier National Park.  As they say ‘we shall not pass this way again’.

My hope is not to reclaim some previous ideal of human community. My desire is to explore a realistic assessment of what is possible (and preferable) given the past developments and as-is structures of existence.

Here are three groups/conversations that give me a little hope:

The Environmental-Philosophical crowd. People like Bill McKibben have been sounding the alarm for quite a while and have since moved to talking about a radically different planet termed “Eaarth” in which we will need to go small and local.

On a larger scale, our whole civilization stands on the edge of collapse because the data inputted into our risk management models come from the last couple of hundred years, a very atypical time. A giddy time, high on oil… Our time, on every front, has been marked by the dizzying Alice-on-her-first-pill explosion in the size of the human enterprise. For almost all of human history, our society was small and nature was large; in a few brief decades that key ratio has reversed. – p. 105

Native Communities: Three years ago I got to take part in two conferences that altered the way I see the world and think about the future. The first was the Theology of the Land conference at George Fox Seminary. The second was a NAIITS gathering at the George Fox undergrad campus. Randy Woodley continues to be a voice of reason and reconciliation in an increasingly complex environment. I am anxiously anticipating the release of his newest book this year that deals with the concept of Shalom and Creation.

Process and Eco-Feminist Theology:
Last month I helped organize an event that brought together the Emergent church and Process theology.  One of the key folks in that conversation is John Cobb, author of Spiritual Bankruptcy. Cobb’s and others in the conversation are deeply involved in both ecology and economy from a theological perspective. I was greatly encouraged to hear about projects from around the country of communities taking seriously the reality we find ourselves in. From small neo-monastic communities to universities to political & civil engagements, there is a growing awareness that something has got to change.

  • The way that we have lived
  • the rate at which we have used resources
  • the expectations for perpetual growth
  • and economic prosperity

have exhausted creation and bankrupted modern human civilization.

This is not a ‘the sky is falling’ mentality. This is a ‘new reality’ perspective that the damage is done and we can not go back or turn back the clock. This just is the way it is now. But if global capitalism, and its mutant offspring – consumerism, continue to go unchecked … let me say it a different way: the church has a message and a historic practice that can engage voices of health and community. Unfortunately, the church herself has been seduced and gone into the business of supply and demand. Those days need to come to an end. It betrays her calling and compromises her message.

The first step is to repent of the Cartesian dualism and the second is to resign from the colonial impulse. After that we can embrace the truth that we are both a product of and a participant in nature and that mutually edifying, inter-connected, trans-national, multi-racial community is our hope for the future.

The expectation of one big global community is ruining us. The future is small, diverse, multiple, and interdependent.

originally posted at Ethnic Space

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