Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Why We Love

This is probably the most daring sermon I have tried.  Enjoy the video – my sermon notes are below.

We live in a very strange time. The old Chinese proverb” may you live in interesting times” was a curse originally and many of us feel like we live under that curse.

It is an interesting time of reversal. For instance, just a couple months ago grocery stores all over the country banned plastic bags and wanted you to bring your own reusable cloth bags. As with anything in modern consumerism, this became a form of both utility but also virtue signaling. It caught my attention in March when grocery stores no longer allowed reusable bags. This is an interesting reversal.

We are seeing so many reversals! From which workers are considered essential to our definition or restriction of who is in our inner circle.

Even love is being reevaluated. It is a unique type of love that says I care enough about you and your wellness that I will distance myself from you. Strange times indeed.

I thought it would be good for us to continue on our journey as Easter people with looking at hope two weeks ago, face last week, and love this week. This triad of terms comes to us from the famous wedding passage in 1 Corinthians 13:13 that says “faith, hope, and love but the greatest of these is love.”

In the Greek language that the New Testament in our Bible is written in, there are several vocabulary words that all gets translated into English as love. Agape, eros, philia, storge, mania, pragma and ludos are examples. They cover a wide array and variety of loves.

We live in a time where some in our society have felt emboldened with what can be viewed as un-love. This manifests in animosity, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment. It is a sad development in what many of us had previously viewed as a time of progress and open-mindedness for acceptance and openness towards differences. (Some of our cultural opponents may, view this as permissiveness, pandering, political correctness and moral weakness.)

In contrast to that progressive churches like ours have become advocates for tolerance and justice issues. We view this as a type of love for the other.

I want to take this opportunity, as long as we are reevaluating things during this difficult time, to say that our notion of love for the other maybe flawed in a really dangerous way.

A common sentiment I hear from caring liberal kinds is the notion that “they are just like us except…”.

  • They are just like us except they were born in a different country.
  • They are just like us except that they have different skin color.
  • They are just like us except that they are attracted to people of a different sex.

This seems kind and caring on the surface, but there is a concerning misunderstanding underneath this seemingly open and accepting ideology.

We need to be careful that we don’t love other people because they are like us.

Do you see the danger? When we love people because we imagine that they are just like us except… this is certainly better than our opponent’s un-love (hatred) but as followers of Christ I want to be clear: that is not exactly love.

Love for others because they are like us concerns me because what if it turns out that they are not actually like us? Will we still love them despite the difference?

What if they value very different thing? What is they view the world very differently than we do? What is their goals and teams deliver them to a different destination then we had hoped for, what is they have different priorities or spend their money differently or raising children differently or have different sexual appetites?

Do we only love them because we are imagining that deep down inside they are exactly like us?

That is quite a dangerous fiction and ban become a very disappointing fantasy.

This is why as Christians we need to be careful and clear about who we love and why we love them.

1 John 4 says Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

You see it clearly here: God does not love us because we were like God–but for the very opposite reason! Because we were far from God, we were not like God, we did not prioritize what God did or value the things that God values.

This is love. Not because of similarity but exactly and precisely because of difference.

There is a sentiment in our culture that says, ‘an enemy is just somebody whose story you haven’t heard yet.’ As if to say that if you knew what made them tick or what they have been through in the past that they would no longer be your enemy.

Do you see the flaw here? As my favorite philosopher Slavoj Žižek points out that the problem with Hitler is not  that we didn’t know his story. Knowing someone’s story does not make them any less your enemy.

This is why Jesus calls us not only love our neighbor as ourselves, something that liberals pride themselves on, but Jesus calls us to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us.

Enemy love is not based in similarity but indifference. This is where I like to quote GK Chesterton who said,

“It’s not that the gospel has been tried and found difficult, it’s that it has been found difficult and left untried.”

Now in contrast to the un-love of anti-immigration sentiment, anti-gay rhetoric and the legacy of racism in our country… we may view our liberal and open-minded acceptance and tolerance as a form of love. And it is a kind of love. But I want to be clear that it is not Christian love.

Christian love is not rooted in similarity because deep down somebody is just like us. The spirit of Christ calls us – no, compels us – and empowers us to love across difference and even to love those with whom we disagree. It calls us to love our enemy.

If we love people because they are like us we have done Little more than the average republican. Everyone loves people who are like themselves. Even lawyers do that. Sex-workers do that. Elementary school teachers do that. Nurses do that. Everyone does that.

No, what we are called to is a greater love. Not because deep down somebody is like us but in spite of the fact that they’re very different from us.

This is the love of God that we are called to. This is the higher calling and as long as we are in this time of global pause before we come out of social distancing and stay at home restrictions it is a great time for us to reflect and adjust our trajectory for how we want to emerge out of it this time. Let us be people of real love across difference in spite of disagreement even to those who may despise us into work against our values, undermine our convictions, and even those who seek to destroy the things we hold dear.

As progressive types and liberals, we may be disappointed in the ways of the world is going… but that is exactly why love is so deeply needed in our time.

Lessons from Luke (ImBible Study)

Reading the Bible through a progressive lens is so much fun!  I recorded a video about what we have been learning by reading through the Gospel of Mark.

Join us this Wednesday at 7pm for a lively (and irreverent) time of reading the gospel.

It is not your average Bible study!  Join the zoom here:

The 4 layers of our ‘surplus of meaning’ and 3 surprises from the Gospel of Luke.

We ask the text 4 Layers of Questions:

  1. What would the original audience have heard?
  2. What has the text come to mean in history?
  3. What do we do with the text now? (application)
  4. What is the most the this text can mean? (future horizon)

Three themes that emerged in Luke:

  1. Jesus uses ‘Dog Whistles’
  2. the Bible reads differently for those on top or the underside
  3. Parables are not allegory

Deconstructing Faith

The Difficulty with Deconstruction

Yesterday I addressed the ‘danger’ of deconstructing faith: that you never get back what you gave up. You and the thing (text, concept, tradition) are never the same.

Deconstruction is neither destruction / demolition nor is it reconstruction, reformation, repair, or the recovering of some initial or earlier understanding.

Why is deconstruction so difficult? I have figured out how to introduce this topic in 60 seconds (like a postmodern elevator pitch)

The 20th century saw the height and culmination of something called ‘structuralism’ which examined the nature of things and their order. This was done in many fields, such as science, but in language/literature it starts like this:

  • Sounds are re/presented by symbols.
  • These symbols are letters in the alphabet.
  • Letters are put together to form words.
  • Words are put together to form sentences.
  • Sentences are put together to form paragraphs.
  • Paragraphs are put together to form chapters.
  • Chapters are put together to form books.
  • Books are put together to form libraries.

That is the structure of literature and a certain kind of knowledge.

Post-structuralism came along as said, “well yes … but no word completely contains the meaning of the actual thing is represents, and to be honest, it doesn’t even contain its own meaning. In fact, these symbols appear to be somewhat random and maybe even arbitrary.”

Deconstruction begins here.

Deconstruction then begins to ‘play’ with the text to see if there is any give in it. Is it pliable? Does it ever move or change? What is assumed about the text and by the text? Is the text aware of its assumptions? Do we know that author meant that? Is that the only the thing that the text can mean? Are there gaps, contradictions, blind spots, double meanings, or obstacles in the text? Has it grown rigid and brittle over time?

Deconstruction has fun with reading the text. It is often playful and whimsical, sometimes frisky and mischievous – sometimes it can be irreverent.

Most people who are open-minded are still ok up to this point. Where it becomes objectionable to many is when deconstruction inevitably takes on a posture or tone of criticism, sarcasm, accusation, transgression, or even mocking.

Deconstruction does not have a built in stop-gap or safety-valve. It has no logical end. It can feel like a free-fall or a bottomless pit. Deconstruction is intentionally disorienting and challenging.

This is all within the original area of literature and literary theory.

Now take that same impulse or permission and adapt it to spiritual or religious matters.

Take that above set of questions and begin to apply to:

  • Beliefs
  • Doctrines
  • Creeds
  • Traditions
  • Sacraments
  • Scriptures
  • Gatherings
  • Congregations
  • Denominations
  • Religions

You can see where people who are deeply invested in those arenas begin to bristle at the whimsical, critical, irreverent, subversive, or ironic movement of deconstruction.

This is the difficulty with deconstruction. It has no natural end. It can seem like an endless loop. It seems to get power (get drunk?) from its own activity. It is an omnivore that threatens to devour all it sees … and maybe even itself.

As my friend Jez Bayes pointed out, “deconstruction does seem to end up negative where it’s used … without careful limits or communal shared purpose.
That means that when people start deconstructing they aren’t able to stop, and it ends with unnecessary destruction of faith outside of any coherent community.”

For those of you who are new to my approach, I want to show my cards here:

  1. I am deeply suspicious of the past.[1]
  2. The only thing I like less than the past is people who want to take us back there.

I felt like I needed to tell you that before I show you my feeble attempt at the deconstructive voice. This is a thing that I wrote several years ago but shows my entry into the discursive process.

Please note: I am allergic to words that begin with ‘re’.

Post-structuralist and deconstructive writers use lots of slashes, dashes, and parentheses.


So why are so many Christian projects, programs, and theologies framed as past-oriented endeavors?

Perhaps this is why so many (re)ligious organizations and people (re)sort to (re)clamation projects in (re)action to the perceived problems that (re)sult from our denial or failure to (re)cognize that we have indeed entered into a new and different era – a place that we have never been before.

The impulse to (re)ach back into the imagined past and attempt to salvage some measure of order or to (re)orient ourselves to this new landscape in understandable. The danger, however, is (re)sounding as we endeavor to become (what the fantastic book title labels) ‘The Way We Never Were’.[2]

It is notable how many contemporary religious/spiritual projects employ a motive that begins with the prefix ‘Re’. Admittedly, there some important words in scripture that begin with ‘Re’. Words like redemption, reconciliation, and restoration are indispensable examples. Two other powerful words that would complete that constellation would be repentance and reparations.[3]

Unfortunately, these five ‘Re-’ words are not the ones that show up the most in Christian circles or are found the most in spiritual literature. While ‘revelation’ and ‘religion’ may be the most prominent offerings, they are not the only ones. Many religious projects are framed with words such as:

  • Revisit
  • Reclaim
  • Restore
  • Return
  • Renew
  • Reform
  • Renovate
  • Reframe
  • Redefine
  • Remember
  • Recall
  • Re-imagine
  • Re-present
  • Reinforce
  • Revive
  • Reexamine
  • Redeem
  • React
  • Respond
  • Retreat

The above group of ‘Re-’ words may have a comforting and comfortable ring to them,

but they are insufficient for the challenges that we are up against. One of the major challenges of this past-oriented thinking is that it places the vital energy in the past – like a sort of big bang or a pool cue striking the cue ball and sending it crashing into the group – the initial energy is dissipated and we are slowing losing steam (and power) to atrophy.

I would argue that the nature of Christianity is incarnational – so the past is not the sole determining factor for our present or future expression. We have access to an untapped reservoir of power for the present. We are being compelled or called (lured) by the possibilities of the future. We can never re-turn to the past. The nature of time and reality do not allow us to revisit but only to remember.

Deconstruction is loving the past enough to not simply conserve or preserve it.


The danger of deconstruction is that you never get back what you gave up.

The difficulty of deconstruction is that there is no end to the process.

[1] I have a whole big program that includes a 125-page masters thesis on contextual theology and a 11 year web archive dedicated to innovating and updating for today.

[2] Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (BasicBooks, 1992).

[3] More could be said on exploring those five Biblical concepts for the 21st century. The primary problem with the past may be that it is too easy to romanticize some notion or concept in isolation without addressing the larger structures of injustice and exclusion that it was embedded in or birthed out of.

The Danger with Deconstruction

Deconstruction is a word that is growing in popularity with groups like the ex-vangelical, post-christian,  and even younger evangelical crowds.

As with many concepts that get diluted for mass dissemination, the popularized version of the term is more generic, palatable, generous or even hopeful that the original.

Said another way – deconstruction in its more raw form is difficult, critical, suspicious, and subversive.

Why am I bringing this up? I have noticed two trends within evangelical (or post-evangelical) types when talking about deconstruction.

  1. Many use the word to simply mean “asking bigger questions for the first time”. Now, asking bigger questions and examining ones tradition or beliefs is fantastic. I just want to be clear that asking bigger questions is a good first step but is not all that deconstruction is about.
  2. Others have taken to always pairing deconstruction with reconstruction. I have even seen it given the initials D/R (or De/Re) as if they go together.

Neither of these is the best development and so I thought I would just speak up in favor of the original impulse or sense of deconstruction.

I would like to say something in the positive and then in the negative (which is appropriate for the topic)

Positive: Deconstruction is love. It is not destruction. It is not demolition. Think of deconstructing an old barn. It is taking it apart timber by board, one nail at a time, in order to see (or show) how it is put together and how it stays together and works (functions). It wants to expose how it is assembled and where the various parts come from and where it fits in the function of the whole farm. Deconstruction may or may not ‘salvage’ what could be useful (or repurposed) in a different format.

Deconstruction is neither knocking the barn down with a bulldozer (demolition) nor is it setting the barn on fire (destruction). You have to love the thing to justify the time and painful energy to painstakingly pull it apart in an orderly and examined way.

If you didn’t love it you would either smash it in anger or just walk away and abandon it.

In the past I have used a plant analogy about how potted plants can get rootbound when they have been in the same pot too long and how it not only stunts their growth but how the roots will circle back and grow in on themselves. Institutions are like this. I still use the root-bound analogy for organizations, denominations, and groups … but it doesn’t have enough bite (or teeth) for the task of deconstruction.

Negative: You will never get the original thing back. You deconstructed the barn because there was something structurally flawed and deeply unsafe about it. You didn’t deconstruct the barn simply because it was old or outdated or had outlived its usefulness. There was something troubling, suspicious, and unusable.

This is the limit of the plant analogy. You might pull at the roots of a plant and repot it in a more spacious vessel in order to sustain its life and let it grow. This is the re/construction impulse that hopes to prune the vine in order to stimulate new growth.

I love the plant analogy and embrace the pruning for new growth mentality … I just want to be clear that this is not what deconstruction means.

I wrote several years ago about deconstruction and I still hold to much of my outlook from back then.

The one thing that has changed is that deconstruction is come into more common usage and its popular version is safer and less edgy than the non-diluted original.  So I want to be clear about something:

Deconstruction is not repairing the broken elements of something or tweaking the outdated parts. Call that renovation or restoration.

Just to be clear:

  • Destruction and demolition have their time and place.
  • Renovation and restoration have their time and place.
  • Even reconstruction has its time and place.

None of them are the same as deconstruction.

Deconstruction interrogates, second-guesses, mistrusts, speculates, and may even subvert that which is being investigated.

Deconstruction may come from a suspicion that something is fundamentally wrong.

Why does this matter? There is a growing tension between the increasingly common-use of the term deconstruction amongst parishioners and seminarians versus the agitation that term causes those in institutional leadership. It is obvious to see why those who run churches and seminaries don’t like deconstruction: they are inherently preservationists and conservationists. It is the nature of the job!

Evangelicalism is construct. It is a loosely configured constellation of loyalties. The boundary has to be highly guarded and aggressively defended because it is so fragile and temperamental. So those in charge of its unstable institutions don’t want their members and participants poking around at the foundation, calling everything into question, and pulling at every loose thread to see if it holds together.

Of course church leaders and seminary administrators are not big fans of deconstruction – it feels like sawing at the very branch you are standing on. It is somewhere between unsafe and unwise.

Having said that, it might be a good reminder that deconstruction is neither demolition or destruction … but it is also not renovation, restoration, or reconstruction.

I know that all terms are prone to drift and migration from their original intent (just look identity politics or ‘me too’) but wanted to be clear that deconstruction is more than just asking big question about the inherited tradition and it is not primarily for the purpose of reconstruction.

The danger with deconstruction is that the thing you loved enough to spend energy on will never be the same. You can’t just rebuild or refurbish it back to its original condition. Both you and the thing you loved are trans-formed.

Why Use NT Wright?

This September we are going through both the Gospel of Luke (Sundays) and the book of Job (Wednesdays). I had pointed people to NT Wright’s Luke for Everyone as a resource for our study.

It was pointed out that NT Wright is conservative. While he is certainly more conservative than I am (and most at Progressive Bible Study), it does merit a look at why we would use his work as a launching off point.

The key is that many of our participants are ‘post-evangelical’ and so we are being careful to not ‘define ourselves by what we don’t believe’. It is a danger that many ‘exvangelicals’ and former evangelicals (and even post-christian folks) are more sure of what they don’t believe than what they do believe.

We are on a journey together and so NT Wright provides us a launching off point because he is the foremost popularizer of contemporary Biblical scholarship.

It is not enough to know how you don’t want to read the Bible but we want to provide something to start with about what a passage may mean before we run it through our ‘progressive lens’.

I take the concern about NT Wright seriously. I have been critical of his approach many times.

It is also why I always pair it with a more adventurous (and usually academic) resource. For Luke I have chosen “Mark & Luke in Poststructuralist Perspectives: Jesus Being to Write” by Moore. It is a wild look full of daring ideas.

Admittedly, it is not for everyone. It does, however, allow me to come around the back door and sneak in some alternative perspectives. I also use Postcolonial Bible Criticism by R. S. Sugirtharajah

I hope that helps to clarify my comfort with utilizing NT Wright’s ‘Everyone’ series.

Here is a quick video explanation

Christian Politics

Normally I am allergic to modifiers. I find them deeply suspicious.

Why reference someone as female comedian or author? You don’t call Stephen King a male author or Jerry Seinfeld a male comedian.

Randy Woodley is often referenced as a Native American theologian. That is fine… but why am I not introduced as a white theologian?

The worst is ‘biblical’. Every time I hear it used I think to myself, “this is probably going to be inaccurate and untrue”.

People talk about biblical marriage but that is an imaginary. There are between 9-15 types of marriage in the Bible. It is the same with a ‘biblical’ worldview. There are 6 different worldviews in the Hebrew and Christian testaments. People want to say that scripture speaks with one voice … but have you read it ? I wish it did!!  It just doesn’t.

All of that is to say that I DO have one modifier that I find helpful: Christian.   Not like christian bookstores, or christian radio stations, or christian colleges.

I find the modifier ‘christian’ helpful when it comes to politics and the underlying motivation behind them.

Watch the short video and let me know what you think.

Believe Different Things Differently

A short video (5 min) about how  progressives and liberals not only believe different things than conservatives and evangelicals … but they believe them differently.

From Missions to Eschatology -they both believe different things and they hold those beliefs differently.

Let me know your thoughts.

Skinny Jean Fundamentalists

Broderick Greer, who often writes insightful and sharp critiques on his twitter feed, set off an interesting conversation with his tweet:

“The evangelicals with instagram hipster aesthetics and churches that meet in theatres know EXACTLY what they’re doing: Misleading otherwise-progressive urbanites to adopt fundamentalism in skinny jeans, accompanied by a drum set.”

The conversation took a non-sequitur turn when subtweeted:

“I have personally been duped by churches where the pastors wear traditional stoles with crosses on them, only to find out years later that no one on the pastoral staff affirms the resurrection.”

The opinions that flew in response to her were varied and fascinating.

I have three quick reflections on these tweets that I would love to hear your response to.

First, in my year out of church ministry I had a chance to go to different church services each Sunday. I would mix it up between Evangelical and Mainline congregations mostly. Sometimes I went to multiple churches on the same morning. It was an eye-opening experience.

Perhaps the most interesting trend I saw was that the more conservative an Evangelical church was – the more fashionable the clothing style. It was odd enough that I would comment on it to my students (I was a visiting seminary prof.) They were well aware of this pattern.

Turns out that lots of non-LGBTQ affirming churches dress really hip.

I first noticed the trend about a decade ago, ever since the Mark Driscoll led Mars Hill Church in Seattle was so over the top at it. At first, I thought that maybe it was more pronounce here in the Pacific NW (I live in Portland) but then I asked friends around the country and it is actually probably even worse east of the Rockies.

I now understand why nearly everyone who visits a church has scouted the website first. Rock-n-Roll evangelical churches may say “all are welcome” but if they are not open-and-affirming or don’t support women in ministry … eventually it will come out.

Second, I am not sure how ‘progressive’ is being used in this current debate. When I use progressive (as in ‘Bible Study for Progressives’) I mean that:

  1. History has progressed and the present is not the same as the past.
  2. The arc of history is long and there is a trajectory towards justice.
  3. That trajectory is more inclusive and empowering of formerly marginalized and disadvantaged people and groups.
  4. The future is not found in reclaiming a romanticized notion of the past.

In this sense, I’m not sure that ANY of these ‘hip’ evangelicals would qualify as progressive. Broderick is Anglican so maybe Rock-n-Roll evangelicals are progressive when it comes to worship innovation?

How do you understand ‘progressive’?  I want to make sure I know what others are hearing when I identify as a progressive.

Third, I am amazed how any conversation about ‘the’ resurrection – both for and against it – presume a literalist physical view. The result is that both views miss the point of resurrection entirely.

The resurrection is one of my favorite topics because the either/or options that most people have been provided after the Enlightenment seem to be a real barrier. The conservative versus liberal arguments about a physical versus spiritual resurrection seem to focus on the probability and provability of a resuscitated corpse and sound dangerously close to gnostic notions of body and spirit.

The gospel narratives, on the other hand, point to a Jesus who had a glorified body post-Easter.  It could both walk through walls (for miraculous entrances) but was solid enough to make breakfast on the shore for His disciples. It bore the scars of Calvary so that (doubting) Thomas could touch His side where the spear had entered but different enough that He could be mistaken for strangers at first. He was neither a zombie nor a ghost – we have completely missed the point of Easter: glory.

Resurrection created an Easter people who live into hope, possibility, justice, imagination, and second chances. Life ruptured death. Christ penetrated history and split it in two. Hope overcame darkness.

New life rose up on the other side of this life. This is the proleptic moment. We know the future of every human and of all living things: New Creation.


I look forward to your thoughts.


Help Progressive Bible Study

I have read and learned a lot about the Bible.
Now I want to read the Bible again.

This has been a long time coming.

For the past 10-15 years I have been growing increasingly unsatisfied with the either/or options that were being presented.

  • Creation or Evolution
  • Catholic or Protestant
  • Democrat or Republican
  • Gay or Straight
  • Married or Single
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Public or Private
  • Think or Do
  • Talk or Act
  • Faith or Reason

I have come to see that these binaries are not only unsatisfying and impotent but are in reality inaccurate and often deceptive.  If nothing else, they result in a round-and-round series of dead-end debates that lead nowhere and only serve to produce cul-de-sac brands of christianity that where folks in one camp don’t trust and don’t even know how to talk to folks from the ‘other’ camp.

When it comes to reading the Bible, the either/or options seemed to be:

  • one-dimensional black & white literalism
  • reductive dismissal and criticism

Both of those are unsatisfying and impotent.

So over the past 4 years I have been comparing notes with trusted friends and trading ideas with respected thinkers and practitioners. I have tried some new stuff out on Sundays in the pulpit and I have read lots of books about the Bible.

About a year and a half ago I have got to the point where I was tired of reading and talking about the Bible … and I want to actually read the Bible.

I know better than to do that alone … so I went on a journey and I found some fellow travelers. We come from all over the country but we have crossed paths in Portland.

We want to take a classic and give it a twist:

Starting Wednesday September 6th at 7pm we are going to meet in a church basement with Bibles open and read the scriptures together through a progressive lens.

So it begins …


This is one of the blogs & articles that we have been preparing over at

I have asked a few close friends to take a look at it and now I am wondering if you will take a minute to help me out before we go public with this thing!

If you get a chance to look at it or to share it with someone who might be interested in the topic, that would mean a lot to us. You can post comments here, on that site, or email us at

Thank you ahead of time!


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