Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



10 Minutes on Holy Spirit

Faith Basics continues with 10 minutes on Holy Spirit – from Prophets to Pentecost!

10 min on Holy Spirit from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

Our 6 topics are: Pentecpstspiritumsanctam

  • Words
  • Bible
  • Shape
  • Scope
  • Fruit
  • Gifts

Let me know any questions, concerns or comments you have and we will tackle them.

Speaking in Tongues Isn’t What It Used To Be

On the latest episode of TNT I was asked to quickly define ‘Glossolalia’ a.k.a. speaking in tongues. I said some things in that opening segment that I want to clarify here.

Here are 4 thoughts:

Initial Design 

The original miracle that we read about in Acts 2 and the story of Pentecost is that people heard the gospel message in their own tongue. While the speakers, filled with Holy Spirit power, were unaware of the language they were speaking, the hearers were not.

This is a significant point because the original miracle of speaking in tongues was an outward-external boundary crossing event. It was missional. It would be one thing if the gift of tongues was that I could suddenly speak French and knew what I was saying. But that is not how it happened. The miracle is not on the part of the one speaking but on the side of the one hearing. Tongues wasn’t about the speaker … it was impactful for the hearer.

Change Is Not Bad 

Most contemporary pentecostal manifestations of glossolalia are no longer boundary-crossing missional expressions. Modern tongues speaking is almost exclusively within the context of ecstatic worship services and are meant to edify the person with the gift and the Lord who they are praising.

Now before anyone becomes defensive … keep in mind who is saying this. I am not a conservative at any level. I am always calling for the faith to be updated and modified. I am convinced that the church is called to adapt and evolve in order to accomplish in our culture what Jesus did in his and the early churches did in theirs.

I don’t think that change is a bad thing – quite the opposite. We are called to continual change.

The only reason that I bring this up is to clarify that what is called ‘speaking in tongues’ today is not exactly the same thing was happening in scripture. In scripture it was a missional move – an external focus – that crossed cultural and linguistic barriers.

This is what we call ‘historic drift’.

Master Signifier 

How we see speaking in tongues today often accomplishes the opposite of that original aim. Speaking in tongues is now an internal matter – not out on the streets but inside a house of worship.

Speaking in tongues is also no longer missional (external in focus) – for the hearer – but is actually an internal matter of both personal edification and (here is the important part) belonging to a community.pentecost01

When glossolalia is held up as a mark of validation it become a boundary marker (or master signifier) for who belongs to a given group. When the sign is a validation or litmus test for membership, it has ceased to be what it was originally designed for and has become something else.

That is all I am saying. Speaking in tongues today is almost never the same thing that we see in the Bible. It has largely become a master signifier for membership in pentecostal-charismatic communities.

One of the reasons I believe this to be the case is that our churches have not been boundary-crossing missional organizations. They have become internally edifying communities of belonging – which is not a bad thing! It’s just not exactly the same thing that we see in Acts 2.

The Opposite of Cessation 

I was asked by our guest on the podcast if I was a cessationist. I said that I am the opposite of that. I believe that the revival of tongues (most point to the Azusa Street Revivals of 1906 as key moment) in the 20th Century to be a genuine work of God’s Spirit. I know that in many parts of the world – especially areas in S. America, Africa, and Asia – that the pentecostal expression has been a wild-fire of renewal for the church and has been a primary force in its mission and zeal.

In saying that I also want to point out that glossolalia doesn’t only happen in Christian contexts. It also manifests with Hindu gurus, in the syncretistic Haitian religions, and in shamanistic spirituality around the world.  Why do I bring this up? Because I think it important to clarify two things:

  1. God’s Spirit is not only at work in Christians. So much of what we have inherited in Christendom and Colonial frameworks does not allow us to recognize this.
  2. Glossolalia is something that humans experience in ecstatic worship.  It is not super-natural. It is quite natural.

Being that glossolalia is neither exclusive to christians nor super-natural, I think it would be interesting to ask what role it might play in crossing boundaries for our multi-national, cross-cultural, inter-racial, bi-lingual, pluralistic world of the 21st century. What if we confessed that speaking in tongues had become a master signifier and returned it to it’s original missional design where the focus is not on the speaker but the effect it has on the hearer?

I have often been in meetings, cities and seminaries where over 100 languages are represented. It has stoked my imagination for what a new-type of glossolalia could mean for the church to come.

God After Easter: Jesu Babushka

Easter turns everything upside down. The temple veil is torn in two. The sealed stone is rolled away. The dead are made alive. In darkness we have seen the light. The powers are defeated.
I have friends who are transitioning back to paycheck & mortgage N. America after 15 years of international missions. For some reason they were on my mind all day as I went through the Easter services, egg hunt, and Loft gathering.
There is something about Easter  that haunts me.


Our conceptions of God are so powerful and how they impact our life is so fascinating. I wrote a sermon about this several years ago while in the Ukraine: I call this aspect of God  ‘Jehovah Babushka’. I got it while watching an Ukrainian grandma (babushka) knead dough.
It’s like God is always punching into the dough our life – to break the crust of the outside and expose the raw stuff on the inside. Always turning us inside out to expose that which is  in need of the air in order to develop and mash that which is crusty into softness again.

The story of Jesus does this too. He welcomes in those who had been on the outside or stuck on the periphery.
He pushes out those who assumed they were center.
He brought low the arrogant and the prideful.
He lifted up the lowly and the downtrodden.

He said it’s not about sacrifice or even law anymore.
He broke the crust of the old system to expose the loving heart of god to the world.
He turned the raw goo of the disciples out to the world as his public representatives on earth.
The spirit of god crashed in at Pentecost to turn upside down the priesthood.
Now we are all ministers.
The priesthood has been turned inside out and upside down.

God calls us to season of loneliness to expose our need of people. God uses tough encounters with people to show us something about ourselves and hopefully smash our conception of God – exposing the immature and underdeveloped while breaking in through the stale and crusty images we have allowed to become cliché.

Our idolatry of God is pressed out so our true identity can be pressed in.With Jesus there is no longer a female-male divide. There is not slave – only free. Jews and Gentiles are both connected to God.
Jesus smashed those old crusty categories.
The faithfulness of Jesus (pistis christou) mashes our certainty that we are saved by having faith in Jesus and exposes the raw reality that we are called to participate in the faithfulness of Jesus and that is what brings salvation to the world.Jesu Babushka kneads all the gas out of the dough – presses all the air pockets so that the finished product is fine and consistent.
All of this, of course, is only in preparation for the chemistry (yeast and rising) transformation to kick in and the eventual baking (heat) of the oven.

Who said faith was going to be easy? Or did you think Easter was all jelly beans and pretty dresses?

Personal Prophecy: a minority report (part 1)

I’m passing this work on to you, my son Timothy. The prophetic word that was directed to you prepared us for this. All those prayers are coming together now so you will do this well, fearless in your struggle, keeping a firm grip on your faith and on yourself.  – 1 Timothy 1:18 (Message)

 Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good
– 1 Thessalonians 5: 19-21 

 I was writing a letter to a friend the other morning about a devastating development in her family. I didn’t get to finish the letter so I put it on hold. A couple of days later I was watching the film The Minority Report (2002 with Tom Cruise) and had an epiphany.

In the film, Cruise’s character kidnaps a women who has cognitive abilities (pre-cog) to anticipate and ‘see’ the future. At one point he is smuggling her through a mall and she says to him “The women in the brown sweater will recognize you” just seconds before it happens. Then she stops another women (a stranger) and warns her, “He knows – don’t go home.”

It was jarring to me because that is how many people wish that God worked. I come from a charismatic background and in the past I have participated ‘prophetic words’ where secrets were revealed and the hidden was brought out into the light. I always enjoyed those unique occasions where something like this occurred. An openness to God was my general posture … but I was never quite comfortable with forming lines at the alter after every service with people lining up every week to ‘hear from God’. That seemed too forced, or too rote or too presumptuous. 

I have talked before about my progressive take on pentecostal stuff (after the Leif Hetland interview) and getting my mind around miracles. But personal prophecy seems to be an even bigger issue. For those who run in charismatic circles, words of personal prophecy (or ‘reading someone’s mail’) are something that they come to lean on. That is what makes me so nervous.

Let me be clear: I take the passages in the Bible where Jesus talks about hearing the ‘voice’ of the Father very seriously. I have taught hundreds of folks how to ‘listen to God’ in the past. I am neither apologizing for that nor am I explaining it away.
What I am wanting to address is when people

  1. expect it
  2. come to rely on it
  3. abandon other ways of ‘knowing’ because of a dependance on it.

I’m not talking about folks who pray about trivial stuff like prime parking spots or who try to discern which color to paint their fingernails (both are common). I am talking about real people who have said  sentences like the following over the past decade of ministry:

  • Why didn’t God tell me it was cancer?
  • Why didn’t God warn us not to let her take the car?
  • Why didn’t God alert us our that child was being abused?
  • Why didn’t God direct us and help us find the body?
  • Why didn’t God tell me that my spouse was cheating?
  • Why didn’t God expose the treasurer’s embezzling?
  • Why didn’t God say the Doctor’s diagnosis was wrong?

I am not making these up. These are real sentences I have been asked. (and I have many more examples)

I want to say two things:

That is not how God works. It’s just not. Look, I get the power of personal prophecy! I have called out things that I wouldn’t know in my own capability. I am not a doubter. I am just saying that if we come to rely on this way of knowing we could really endanger ourselves and those around us. We need accountability with our church’s finances because we can’t trust that the Holy Spirit would tell us if something was up.

Process has given me a framework to explain how this kind of prophecy works. I don’t want to quench the Spirit, or hold prophecy with contempt, or lose what is good and explain away some of the miraculous stuff I have seen over the years. I know that some will dispute that personal prophecy is what is meant when the New Testament speaks of prophecy – and it is illustrative to my about the contemporary church that many have NO frame of reference for this activity (it seems like voodoo to them) and yet for others it is their MAIN connection to God and they know of no other type of definition for prophecy.

Tomorrow I will post ‘The Process of Prophecy’ – but for now I just wanted to say that The Minority Report is fiction. That is not how God works. Yes, I think it is cool that we can know stuff we normally don’t have access to. BUT we have to be really careful that we don’t turn off other systems of navigation because we like playing with this one. People are getting hurt (by others) and are discouraged with God because we are playing with a toy that was never meant to be a real steering wheel or compass.

Personal prophecy is not a guide to life. It can be a sign (like in the Gospel of John) that points to a greater level of trust and awareness and creates a desire. However, it can not be our main go-to mechanism for making our way in the world. Prophetic words need to be integrated into a web-of-meaning that incorporates scripture, community, and reason. 

Why didn’t God tell you? Because that is not how God designed it to work.


if you have never encountered this type of thing before: check out this instructive blog about maximizing the impact your prophetic word.

Then you may want to check out my post “what has changed since I was your pastor”.

Reflecting on Pentecost part 2 (duck the dove)

Originally posted as “Poetics of Pentecost

This past weekend was Pentecost – here is part 2 of my reflection.

Hopefully, most here agree that reading the Bible like contract, constitution, instructional manual or newspaper report is wholly unhelpful [since that is my starting point].

Yet when it comes to Pentecost – it’s almost as if we get lazy in our hermeneutic and revert to a Children’s Church level engagement of the text. I say this as a Children’s Minister who is a big fan of teaching kids to read the Bible… it’s just that I don’t want adults to read the Bible at level.

Yes, we are to have faith like a child – but that does not mean a childlike understanding of our faith.

The language of the Bible is read so much more effectively if we employ a relational component to the words and phrases. So in Christ, it’s not that we are brothers and sisters literally. It’s that we relate to one another as brothers and sister do. We can’t be too literal and wooden with this. Otherwise we end up making elaborate ontological and metaphysical gymnastics to explain how it COULD be literal. It’s not. It’s relational language.

So what if we applied that relational hermeneutic to (expressive language instead of exacting representative language) the passages about the coming of Holy Spirit? 

For instance, what if the descending of Holy Spirit was as a dove descends and not AS a dove?  One could imagine the same with the flames of fire. It may be better to think a little poetically and not so literally. The presence of Spirit on the disciples appears as tongues of fire appear. [you have to admit the funny play on words in English with speaking in tongues … tongues of fire … that is fun.]

 I’m afraid that our centuries old compromise with super-natural thinking conditions us to magically import things into the text that don’t necessarily need to be there. It kills our poetic imagination. Whenever something sounds wild, instead of asking “how does the literary device function? How does the text work?” We just splice in ‘magic’ Doves and Flames without examining what poetic mechanism might have been employed.

It is far more beautiful and makes way more sense to read that God’s Holy Spirit descended as a dove descends.  A nice side effect is that we don’t need to insist that it happened literally, make adults feel embarrassed about the chunkiness of the story , and then have to scramble to explain why stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore and have to contrive elaborate secessionist explanations about validating the apostles in order to authenticate the writing of the Bible.

Signs and Wonders work a lot better poetically than they do literally.

Reflecting on Pentecost part 1

Originally posted as “A funny thing happened on the way to Pentecost

This past weekend was Pentecost in the liturgical calendar. As one who emerged from a charismatic evangelical background and is now employed at a mainline church, this is my favorite Sunday of the whole year!

Here are just 3 funny things about Pentecost Sunday:

Charismatics don’t celebrate it. Because the large majority of Pentecostal & Charismatic churches don’t follow the liturgical year, this Sunday goes unnoticed in any special way. It is just another rockin’ week of worship songs! I find that hilarious. When you exist in a context that does not observe Lent (or even Advent) then both Easter and Pentecost are just one more occasion for ‘feasting’. This is a glory theology and neither fasting nor waiting are on the menu (speaking in generalities).

It’s tough to be a Christian and get away from it. Reading the Bible as a white-westerner can cause disorientation and cognitive dissonance. In the Gospel of Mark, fully 65% of Jesus’ ministry was based around miracles, mostly healing and exorcism. If you are going to read the Bible, it is going to be tough to get around just how much time and effort the writers spend on this element of ministry. But if you are part of an educated (enlightenment) tradition that is primarily intellectual about faith … you may have never seen a miraculous healing, exorcism, or manifestation of God’s power. Most of things we call ‘answers to prayer’ are slightly amplified coincidence – like getting a job you applied for and were qualified for or finding it in your heart to forgive someone which brought about reconciliation.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think that those things are miraculous and answers to prayer. I just want to note that there might be a difference in intensity from what is recorded in the Book of Acts.

Africa, Asia and South America are foreign to us. We hear lots and lots of reports from the Southern Hemisphere about the explosion of Pentecostal and Charismatic (P&C) Signs and Wonders movements (S&W). Many are calling it ‘the Future of Christianity’. It is tough to argue with when you compare it to the decline in church attendance in Europe and N. America, the overly analytical and often paralyzed intellectual brand of church that is embarrassed at both the zeal and simplicity of the fundamentalist and evangelical branches of the family.

Here are my two hesitations about the southern hemisphere being the future of the church:

1) As many have noted, the latest turn in the P&C movement is one toward the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ and the wildly demonstrative ‘Signs & Wonders’ movement where the spectacular and the sensational are prized above all else! (including Biblical precedent). This is an ominous turn. I am deeply suspicious that with the rise of global capitalism, deregulated markets and multi-national corporations’ economic and environmental policies … the prosperity ‘blessing’ might be a one-generation phenomenon with a vicious cynical backlash waiting behind it. This bubble will burst and both the pain and disillusionment will be inconsolable.

2) ‘The weirder the better’ is an ugly mantra. I recently talked to a traveling Charismatic evangelist who was disappointed that his most recent rally did not have more pizzaz. Sure good things happened and people reported both salvations, significant personal growth (like forgiveness) and a couple of minor healing (anorexia, etc.) But nothing really demonstrative or spectacular. That is not the part that caught my attention (I am used to that). It was the reasoning behind it.

“ If you come from a background where you have never seen Signs & Wonders then you are less likely for it to happen to you. Seeing it happen creates something in you – a faith or an openness – that allows God to do it with you.”

I was stunned. Did he really just say that if you have never seen it, that it is less likely to happen? Well, actually that makes a lot of sense. If you have never seen someone be ‘slain in the Spirit’ then you may be less likely to go to the ground when prayed for (ever heard of ‘carpet time’?).  This is where testimony and teaching are SO valuable.

Now the funny thing is that this dear minister has no idea that I have Lindbeck & MacIntyre ringing in my head like alarm bells at a fire station! I wanted to say ‘Language not only helps us interpret experience … our language helps create our experience.”

Those two things – the Prosperity turn in the South and the awareness of language/experience – are the two things that keep me from being 100% stoked about the future of Pentecost.   – Bo Sanders


If you would like to read an interesting book on the subject, check out Philip Jenkins’ The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South 

Bo’s Blogs in November

Between a trip to San Fran for a conference and Thanksgiving in the mountains, I have not been blogging much this month. There are two things that I have been doing over at HomeBrewed Christianity that I am quite proud of.

The first is a conversation about the Cross.  It started with this blog post and then led to an hour long conversation with Tripp Fuller for a Theology Nerd Throwdown.  My basic take was that we have over-focused on the Cross and neglected both the empty tomb and Pentecost as Christian symbols and events.

Last week my friend A.J Swaboda said “Discipleship is photo-shopping the cross into every picture and angle of my life.”  I asked him if the empty tomb  wouldn’t be more appropriate. He said (wisely) that you can’t have one without the other.
So is that what we are doing? Is ‘the Cross’ shorthand for the whole story? Is it assumed that when we say ‘Cross’ we mean also Resurrection and Pentecost?
That would make me nervous.
Here is my concern: in the resurrection God spoke a new word over the world. I would like to live into that new word and participate with God’s Spirit who was given as a gift and a seal of the promise.
To obsess on the cross and related atonement theories is to live perpetually in the old word and to camp in the final thing that God said about the old situation.

The second is a conversation about being Charismatic/Pentecostal Continue reading “Bo’s Blogs in November”

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