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.

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.

The Pornography of Fundamentalism

Normally I try to be as generous, welcoming and irenic as possible. One of my favorite slogans actually comes from my venerable partner Tripp Fuller at Big Tent 1 when he said that the ‘tent’ should be big enough for every former incarnation of our self … but I was never a fundamentalist. I flirted with being one in Bible College but never converted.

This past week I was flying back across the country after visiting my family and I was rummaging through my Ipod to see if anything caught my attention. I stumbled on an old Slavo Zizek lecture. As with all Zizek lectures he wandered through almost every topic under the sun – but two caught my attention: pornography and fundamentalism. I want to try and connect them here.

In a pornographic movie, the dialogue is secondary. It is merely window dressing. Think back to your younger years – before you were a christian. The dialogue is a thinly veiled, contrived scenario to get the actors into the same space. It is little more.

 A handyman comes over to a lonely women’s apartment to fix a hole in the wall. She says something about another hole that needs attention.

You get the idea. The dialogue is superfluous to the real intention. It is poorly written and even more poorly delivered. The dialogue is a facade, it is merely intended to set up the main activity. It allows for the suspension of suspicion so that one can enter into the fantasy. 

 Dialogue performs the same function for Christian Fundamentalists.

Don’t misunderstand me – I am not saying that the verbiage of fundamentalists is insincere or disingenuous. It is not. Fundamentalist believe it with all their heart. What I am saying is that the words in church perform the same function as dialogue in porn. The words that are spoken are secondary to the main activities: nationalism, militarism and capitalism (some would add patriarchy).

When I was in Bible College I used to set my VCR to record TV preachers while I was at school. I loved listening to preachers. I wanted to be one and I modeled myself on the famous ones. I even sent money to folks like Chuck Swindoll so I could get their tapes and listen to them over and over.

The more I read the Bible, however, the more I realized that something was wrong. At my evangelical college we studied the historical context of the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East. We even touched on some Roman legal stuff for the New Testament –  while avoiding things like Empire for the most part. [Jesus’ message was spiritual after all, not political.]

I started getting a pit in my stomach when pastors would shoe-horn modern issues between the lines of scripture. It made me nervous when they would draw a direct line from ancient Israel to modern America. My fallout actually came in two parts:

  • Step one was simply (but quietly) objecting to the lack of translation or conversion between Old Testament Israel  which was a theocracy and America which was democracy … and a pluralistic one at that.
  • Step two was the vehement (nearly venomous) push-back I got when broached the subject.

It was in the vicious rebuffs that something grotesque was exposed. The words that were spoken – while important and delivered with conviction – were secondary to the real driving influence and aim. The real engine is nationalism, militarism and capitalism. Those are the real gods of American fundamentalists. The christian verbiage is the fiberglass body. It is important, visible and gets most of the attention but it is not what is driving the machine.

Like dialogue in porn, it is only utilized to get the players into proximity with each other. It is only used to set up the main (real) activity.

Ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. Why are voices raised, fists shaken, and teeth gritted when fundamentalists talk about God pouring out love for us in Christ and salvation being found in ‘the way, the truth, and the life’? Why doesn’t the medium match the message?
  2. Why is there unquestioned support for modern Israel regardless of their atrocities and unjust behaviors?
  3. Why is it permissible to be so aggressive with people who disagree with you on issues like who is allowed to be married (a civil union) by the state?

The reason that the medium doesn’t match the message is because the real message is not found in the words. Like dialogue in porn, it is only meant to set up the scenario for the real activity. Spend all the time you want on analyzing it or the logic behind it, but it is like capturing fog. It is a temporary holder for the main event. In fundamentalism’s case, that is nationalism, militarism and capitalism. Don’t get distracted by the christian verbiage or the message of Jesus – you will only be frustrated and baffled. No, there is something else driving this machine.  Just ask questions, even quietly, and you will hear where the real priorities are.

I know that normally I am not this critical,
but as you will see in the following posts,
we have a real problem on our hands.

Why this matters so much is covered in part 3: It’s a Sign.  

Violence in the Short Story

This was part of a post two weeks ago on HBC.
It had been a contentious week for God on the internet.

  • This week the parents of Trayvon Martin rejected the apology from George Zimmerman. According to CBS News:

The parents of Trayvon Martin say they have a hard time accepting George Zimmerman’s nationally televised apology.
Last night, in his first interview since killing the unarmed 17-year-old, the former neighborhood watch volunteer said the shooting death must have been part of “God’s plan” and that he prays for the Martin family daily.
“I simply really don’t know what God George Zimmerman is worshipping because there’s no way that the God that I serve had in his plans for George Zimmerman to murder my son,” Tracy Martin, the teen’s dad told CBS News.

What God is George Zimmerman talking about? It is a fair question.

  • This week Rachel Held Evans duked it out with the Gospel Coalition.

Two guys, Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson, said some nearly unbelievable things about sex within the complementarian theology that women complement men (or is it compliment?)  vs. the view that they are equal to men. Rachel takes them on:

The two have insisted that they advocate mutuality in the bedroom, and yet, according to Doug, “the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party,” but instead “a man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants” while a woman “receives, surrenders, accepts.”  What does he mean by that? What’s wrong with an “egalitarian pleasure party”? (Sounds like fun to me!)
In other words:  How is complementarian sex supposed to be different than egalitarian sex? Does preserving male authority mean that a man must always initiate sex? Does it mean that the missionary position is the only acceptable one for Christians? Is it too “egalitarian” for both a man and woman to be pleasured? Does “submission” mean that a woman must perform sex acts she doesn’t like in order to please her husband?

What is an eggalitarian pleasure party? Why can’t that be honoring to God?

There seems to be a recurring problem that is inherent to the traditional view – it is tough to get around the fact that the short story is a violent one.
What I call the “Short Story” goes like this: A short time ago (say 10,000 years) God created the world in a short period of time (6 days) and He (always ‘he’) will come back shortly (any day now) and set things right.

The short story comes from an elementary reading of both the first book and last book of the Bible that is unaware of the two different genres they were written in. It is a violent reading because (in English) it makes it look like God does what ever God wants – or shall we say – whatever God wills. God acts both unilaterally and coercively to bring about what God desires.
As one of my favorite thinkers explains

“We now know that our world, rather than being created in six days, was created in something like 16 billion years.  This quantitative difference is so great that is suggests a qualitative difference in the nature of God’s creative activity.  The idea that God spent some 16 billion years creating our world suggests that God’s creative power must be persuasive, not coercive, power.  This is the natural inference, that is, if we continue to think of the world as God’s creation.  …

Rather than a return to a premodern or early modern view: We can understand God’s activity at the beginning of our universe as of the same type as God’s activity in history. No supernatural origin must be assumed. We still have, however, the question of God’s activity at the end.  Can God as consummator be understood in the same terms?  Classical theologians certainly did not think so. For example, a book entitled Armageddon says: The second coming of Jesus Christ to earth will be no quiet manger scene. . . . Cities will literally collapse, islands sink, and mountains disappear.  Huge hailstones, each weighing a hundred pounds, will fall from heaven, the rulers and their armies who resist Christ’s return will be killed in a mass carnage. No more Mister Nice Guy!

According to this theology, in other words, God’s past mode of activity in Jesus would not suffice to bring about the eventual victory of divine over demonic power.  God would have to resort to a degree of violence that would outdo the violence of the forces of evil.  The revelation of God’s love in Jesus was not, accordingly, a revelation of the divine modus operandi: The true nature of divine power, which is supernatural, has been, for the most part, held in reserve, and will be fully manifested only at the end.”

This is not a consistent God. God acts unilaterally in the beginning, has violent periods in the Old Testament – even while being loving, is mostly super nice in Jesus, and then turns mean again at the end- which allows it to end abruptly and violently. The God of the short story is a violent and inconsistently inconsistent god.
This what we were going after on the most recent TNT. That god is a false god and an idol. It must be repented of and renounced.
I will add something here that I did not say there: people who hold that view of God are most nice people who always hold in reserve the possibility and potential right to be violent in order to bring about the will of God. It is how their God acts and they might need to imitate ‘him’ in order to bring about ‘his’ will.

  • It explains how George Zimmerman’s actions could have been a part of ‘God’s plan’.
  • It explains how the guys at the Gospel Coalition could say that “a man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants” while a woman “receives, surrenders, accepts.”
  • It explains how people can say that while what happened to the American Indians was ‘unfortunate’ it may have been ‘for the best’ or ‘necessary’.
  • It explains how Jesus flipping over tables at church translates into carrying concealed firearms and using drones to drop bombs.

People who object always use the same 3 defenses:

  1. (S)words – Jesus told his disciples to buy swords and said that he came to bring a sword – but those are all misunderstandings we dealt with here. 
  2. Tables & Whips – snapping a whip and turning over tables isn’t the same as packing heat or using drones to bomb enemy combatants. We dealt with that here. 
  3. Spiritual Warfare – it is of no value if we deal with personal piety and the spiritual realm but skip the systems, structures  and institutions that comprise the ‘Powers the Be’ as Walter Wink called them.

Here is the simple fact: Neither Jesus’ sayings about swords, his flipping over tables or Paul’s allusions to the spiritual realm justify this permission toward violence. It is not OK to justify aggression toward minorities, women, or other religions. Our God is not behind it and does not support it. Quote all the Bible verses you want but this is not the real and living God. It is an idol and a graven image.
We need to repent of this line of reasoning and own up to the fact that we have created a God in our own image who loves all the things we love and supports all the things that benefit us.

 – Bo Sanders 

Church & State are Married in a Civil Union

Originally published at HBC

A good questions can get to the heart of an issue – or expose the underlying assumptions that lie behind an issue.

I learned early on in ministry to ask a simple question about marriage: If I as an ordained minister perform a wedding ceremony for a couple, but they have not secured a license from the state, then when I say “Before God and all these witnesses – I pronounce that you are husband and wife. What God has joined together, let no one separate.” Are they married?

Overwhelmingly the answer is ‘no’. That they are not married until that paper is signed and it is legal.
So it is indeed that piece of paper that is marriage and not the Christian ceremony that we perform.

This actually happened to me one time. A young couple had secured the marriage license but in all the fun and frivolity of the reception and photos, they forgot to get the paper signed. They were just about to get on the Cruise ship when they realized the mistake!
No big deal, we got it taken care of. What was a big deal was the family’s reaction! What would have happened if they had consummated the union and they weren’t even married??? (legally).

If what we are doing is nothing more than a thin Christian veneer over a civil institution, then one has to wonder why we are also so concerned about who can get married – or even have civil unions – according to our biblical morality.

It seems that the Church wants it’s wedding cake and to eat it too.

But that is a second conversation. There is a different conversation that we need to have first. Like I said, I know hundreds of people who do not (because of what they claim is their christian conviction) support same-sex unions or homosexuality in general. I get that. But why does that then translate into legislating one’s religious belief into a legal morality imposed upon others?

My point is that there is a secondary mechanism involved. There is something else working behind the scenes.

We see this in legislating who can get married based on a reading of the Bible … but we also see it in the assumption of when someone is officially married: when the Christian minister declares it or when the State license is signed.

We try to have the second conversation without having the first and that is why we never get anywhere. Christians ask the question “should same sex unions be allowed” without first addressing “why are Christian ministers performing as agents of the State?

If the answer is what I suspect it is, then we may want to take the ‘separation of church & state’ verbiage down a notch and start thinking about how we are going to fund ministry if our tax-deductible status was not so convenient for people to ‘give’.

The same-sex union is a second conversation.
There is a conversation we should have first that no one seems too eager to entertain.

on 18 years of marriage

18 years ago I got married to my wonderful wife. In the past 15 years of ministry I have been able to preform 37 weddings. Some are still married, some are not.

I have had the pleasure of talking with and learning from friends who are life long singles, divorced, remarried, couples who live together and couples that have been married far longer than we have.  I have heard some great stuff along the way and really enjoy thinking about relationships and our deep interconnectedness as humans.

This is my favorite piece of advice. I typed this up and gave it to my friend on the eve of his wedding. I thought it would be fun to post it here.

Treat your marriage like it was a third person in your house. There is you, your wife and your marriage – it is an entity all it’s own. You need to invest time in it, invest energy in it and invest money in it. You could be doing well and your wife could be doing well but your marriage… not so much.  In your budget make sure that there is a line for your stuff, her stuff and your marriage’s stuff – don’t deny that all three of you need and deserve a line item.  In your scheduling make sure that you get some time, she gets some time and it gets some time.

At your wedding the preacher will say “the two are one”. That is true in one sense. The other side of that truth is that you have created a new reality that must be cared for as a ‘third’.

Everyone I know who does something like this has a marriage you can live in, everyone who does not do this sees the effects of not doing it. When it comes to marriage, there a lot of variables, but here are two things that I am pretty confident of:

  1. Marriage is not a 50/50 proposition. It is a 100/100 endeavor. It takes everything you can give it to really make it work.
  2. Marriage is not two, it is three. Whether you call it a third strand that binds you together or a covenant or something else, it is more than just the two of you.

I want to thank all our friends and family who make our life so rich and wonderful. Thank you for all your love.  -Bo

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