Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Cultural Chaos

I have lots of new friends and followers recently so I want to let you know about a series I did 2 years ago about the moment that we live in and why it is only going to get worse.

My favorite philosopher (Zizek) says that the light at the end of the tunnel is probably another oncoming train and I agree.

I am a naturally optimistic person but the past 15 years have alerted me to the very real turmoil and fracturing in society. I want to assure you of two things:

  • It will only get worse
  • That is probably a good thing

The original series had 4 parts:

  1. Why Things Seem So Bad Right Now
  2. Fragmented and Fractured
  3. No Such Thing As Neutral Anymore
  4. Everyone For Themselves

You can go back and watch all 4 videos (or read all 4 posts) but I wanted to summarize it for those who are new what I am doing here.

The two basic things that you need to understand about our cultural moment is that

  • Everything you see – and all of the competing tribes, opinions, and agendas – are remnants of previous eras.
  • We have no agreed upon arena in which to settle these disagreements and disputes.

Ours is a fractured and fragmented society in which incompatible agendas and projects compete for thinner slices of the collective pie. They cannot be reconciled to one another because they all house (are embedded with) different programs (to use a computer analogy) and sometimes entirely different operating systems.

It is not just that they have different goals, agendas, and methods … they are different to each other not just in degree but often in type.

This is why there is cultural chaos. We are both fractured and fragmented but each of those competing camps speaks an internal language game that makes in nearly impossible to translate between them.

It is not just Chess & Checkers but (to use a sports analogy) it is like asking a Baseball player how many touchdowns he scored. It is just not how it works. This is not like the difference between Ford and Chevy in NASCAR or the difference between quilting, knitting, and crochet. This is like trying to feed a banana to cell phone. They are two entirely different things.

So whether it is Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative and libertarian, creation and evolution, traditional and progressive, religious and secular – we talk past each other and often can’t even hear what the other ‘side’ is saying.

Then you take that confusion and you turn up the volume to 11 (as they say) and our self-selected echo chambers start to distort and become feedback loops that are unintelligible.

So how can I say that this is a good thing? Because we are being given the opportunity to finally deal with remnants and remainders of our historical legacy and the roots of our various programs. If we are willing to look at the genealogy of how we got here and do some discourse analysis (this is why I love critical theory) then we do an autopsy on our failing and faltering institutions and organizations.

People like to say, “the more things change the more the stay the same” but I would like to submit to you that has never been less true than it is right now. I say that they more things change they more they will continue to change at faster and faster rates.

The words for our time is history are agitated and accelerated. Changes is constant and happens not incrementally anymore but exponentially and perpetually.  This is why going back to the past will not save us. Our moment is begging for better answer but is asking us completely different kinds of questions.

This is why I do what I do. This is not a blip on the radar. What you are seeing in the news is not a fever that will pass. This is the world we live in now. It is not a season and ‘this too shall pass’. No, this our new reality. Covid, police protests, political dysfunction are not glitches or bugs in the system – they are now features of the system that need to be considered on their own merit.

So I will say it again: Everything you are seeing is a remnant of a previous project or program and we have no arena in which to settle the disputes. So there is no to think that things will naturally get better or that we will somehow find a middle-ground. That is the good news of this moment if you have ears to hear and eyes to see. Our public, political, economic, medical, and environmental crisis are not a sad side effect of an otherwise healthy system. They are the remnants and remainders of a pre-existing condition. They are the logical conclusion of a long history and now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Like it or not, this is our new reality and sooner we wake up and realize that this is no nightmare the better we can do at dealing with the fractured and fragmented nature of our society and world.

I woke up to this 15 years ago And lots of people have said, “it’s only a matter of time before this all settles down can we get back to business as usual”. But there is no going back and whoever we elect this fall won’t fix it. They can’t fix it because it is embedded in the system – it is baked in the bread.  So until we wake up and take a sober look at how we got here there is no reason to think things are going to get any better on their own.

The Future?

In this Easter series I have been using the notion of différance used by Jacque Derrida to illustrate how hope, faith, and love are always both different in some sense than we expected and also deferred to a degree.

Today I want to talk about the future.

For years as I have taught seminary courses I have tried to convince my students that the saying, “the more things change the more they stay the same” has never been less true that it is today.

In the 21st-century, the saying should be: the more things change the more rapidly they will continue to change.

We live in a time of unprecedented change that happens not at an incremental rate but at an exponential pace. This can be very disorienting and even discouraging for some.

This rapid rate of change affects everything from the economy and environment to technology, our families and our religious communities.

In the last 100 years we have moved from being a largely rural and agrarian society through an industrial and onto a technological society. These changes are profound and cannot be understated.

I recently found a saying that I really like

“the future was better yesterday.”

Many feel like this is too true. The future used to be bright and full of hope whereas now it feels uncertain, chaotic, and even concerning. We can no longer promise to our children that if they just apply themselves they will get a good job and be able to take care of their family.

The future seemed better yesterday.

This is where the notion of différance really pays off for me. The future will both be different than we expected and in some sense our hope will be deferred.

Know this may seem like an odd thing for a Christian minister to say. Some people may think that it is the job of the church to say “everything is going to be okay.” Well I’m not that type of preacher and that is not my understanding of the gospel.

In the post-World War II era many churches took on a very therapeutic rule to help people be well-adjusted citizens in a stable society. In many instances, and I would say mainline churches like the United Methodist in particular, became so overly identified with the surrounding culture but the culture actually took on many of the virtues and values from the gospel individually no longer needed the institutional church because the culture itself had become inseparable to large degree from the ecclesiastical community.

This is the secular age we now live in.

That shift was probably a good thing and largely inevitable. Of course the downside is that the mainline denominations fell into a steep decline narrative and it has caused a real identity crisis.  In that context the role of the church became Little more in some cases then embracing sentimentality and the warm fuzzies. We were chaplains to the empire.

I came of age in the era of the Cold War and I remember with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Berlin wall and communism in eastern Europe that many assumed we were in the end of history. We had reached our final form. Between capitalism, democracy, and nationalism you can hardly imagine a better way.

It became so impossible to imagine that there would be an economic form after capitalism or a  government better than democracy or day when the nation-state was no longer are primary identity.

A famous saying States that for many Christians it is easier to imagine the end of the world then the end of capitalism.

But we now live in a time of crisis. We are plagued by ongoing and perpetual problems: environmental, economic, political, educational, psychological, medical, and relational to name just a few categories.

So as a person of faith I have no interest in promoting some pie in the sky starry-eyed optimism. If that is your brand of faith that is fine and I’m not trying to burst your bubble.

For the rest of us however there is a growing concern that the answers of the past will not satisfy the questions that are present moment is asking about us.

I agree with my favorite philosopher, Zizek, when he said that the light at the end of the tunnel may be another oncoming train.

I know that may seem disconcerting but as a person of faith I want to deal with reality in the clear about what we are dealing with. As people of faith I want to be prepared for the fact that it may get worse from here.

I am uncomfortable with many of the conversations I hear during this global crisis of Covid-19 and the hope to return to normal in the near future. If that happens that I will be glad to say oh thank goodness.

But I keep asking myself what if we get hit by a second emergency? What if there is massive earthquake on the west coast? What’s there’s a terrorist attack? What if there’s an armed uprising by the second amendment crew?

I just want us to begin having a conversation about life beyond what has become normal.

So to begin that conversation I just want you to think about these ideas that I’ve presented today.

  • The saying,” the more things change the more they stay the same” has never been less true than it is right now.
  • The future was better yesterday.
  • The light at the end of the tunnel maybe another oncoming train.

If this is true, what changes should we make during this global pause to come out of this different than we went into it.

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.

Unknown Knowns

If you need a little encouragement today, here is a 6 min sermon.
It plays off of Rumsfeld and Zizek

  • known knowns (things we know that we know)
  • known unknowns (things we know that we don’t know)
  • unknown unknowns (things we don’t know that we don’t know)

Then Zizek reminds us that the 4th quadrant would be “unknown knowns”

If you like this you can also check out an early rendition based on Phronesis

Romans 5

Embracing Cynicism

It may be time to embrace cynicism.

Our cultural moment may be calling for it.

Several years ago I was part of a leadership development cohort of young people and on the final day before they sent us back to the places that we came from all over the globe the leader encourage us to stop working on our weaknesses.

It really caught my attention because up to that point I been under the impression that my primary job was to become a well-rounded person and leader into bring up my weakest areas so it would’ve matched everything else. He said “no, put almost all of your energy into you area of strength – the thing that makes you unique only work on your weakness to the degree that it would disqualify you from ministry or cripple your leadership take away your credibility”.

Don’t work on your weakness – put all your energy into your strength – only work on your weakness enough that it does not cripple you or disqualify you from leadership.

I’ve always thought that was an interesting idea and I logged it in the back of my head carrying around all of these years and once in a while I see something and I think this calls for that I was recently out of the news cycle in the political arena for several weeks due to illness and then work stuff and then caring for family and so I was out of the loop and coming back into it has been rough.

It has been really eye-opening and I’ve noticed that when people are cynical or critical that sometimes they have an internal message that the cynical suspicion is something negative to be resisted.

I want to consider today that it might actually be the perfect time to be cynical.

A couple of years ago my friend Tad DeLay wrote a book called “The Cynic and the Fool”and I was in conversation with him around that time.  I’ve noticed that it is not healthy to define yourself by what you’re not!  There’s no fruit in that. There’s nothing nourishing about defining yourself in contrast to somebody else or some other group

What I am saying is that because of how we participate in our society – especially in the media age (the Society of Spectacle is one of my favorite books) – that we are conditioned, trained, and well-practiced at being cynical. It helps us not be so vulnerable and susceptible to the stunts and lies that are constantly put in front of us.

Embrace the cynicism to the degree that it compels you toward action.  

So that’s my encouragement for today that that maybe this isn’t something to be resisted and that maybe it’s entirely appropriate for our moment and that it’s not a negative thing.

Maybe a little cynicism isn’t the worst thing in the world – especially if Zizek is right and the light at the end of the tunnel is another oncoming train.

3 Types of Church

There are three types of churches when it comes to their ‘relationship to power’: [1]

  • Messianic
  • Therapeutic
  • Prophetic

Messianic churches look for ‘help’ from outside the system. Whether it is the 2nd Coming of Christ or intercessory prayer, there is an expectation of an intervention (even salvation) from a source outside of (or beyond) the current order. This is often an unseen realm.

Therapeutic churches help you adjust to the system the way it is. These churches want to help you have your best life now. The priority is to help you be the best citizen you can be (at minimum) or to excel in your field so you can be an influential person within your networks.

Prophetic churches are looking to change the system. They want advocate for those on the margins and the disadvantaged. They utilize advocacy, community organizing, and protest to leverage those in power to change public policy and legislation toward justice and equality.

Here is where it gets more interesting:

Each of the primary expressions has a secondary emphasis … and an unfortunate neglected element.

Messianic churches (change from the outside) seem to have a therapeutic element where they help people to adjust to the system as it is while they wait for deliverance from above (or beyond). Unfortunately, these churches often neglect the prophetic aspect (changing the current system) because it seems like ‘rearranging deck chairs on the titanic’. There can be a resignation or ‘other-world-liness’[2] as a side-effect of this approach.

Therapeutic churches (helping you within the system) seem to have a prophetic element which focuses on issues of  ‘social-justice’ in order to change certain givens in the equation to variables that can be adjusted. Unfortunately, these churches often neglect the messianic component which believes that there are any resources available from outside the system (or established order). This can result in a generational (or personal) crisis that asks “who or what is it exactly that we believe in / pray to ? And what exactly are we hoping for here?”

Prophetic churches (changing the system) seem to have a messianic element which looks to a power ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ that will supply a needed element of transformation in order to bring justice and deliverance to those in need. Unfortunately, these churches can neglect the therapeutic component of religious belief and practice. This lack often leads to participants feeling worn-out or burned-out, depleted and discouraged. Hope in the messianic aspect, without the therapeutic, becomes even more vital.

When I present this in the seminary classroom I give examples of each:

  1. a Therapeutic/prophetic church (like I am at currently) that struggles with messianic spirituality because the ‘interventionist’ view of god seems problematic.
  2. a Prophetic/messianic church that does protest and ‘action’ but struggles with therapeutic spirituality because it is soft or too ‘me’ focused.
  3. Messianic/therapeutic church (like I use to be) that struggles with prophetic action because of ideas like the ‘2 kingdoms’ which has the spiritual realm (or kingdom of god) as over and above the kingdoms of this world.

Here is an introductory video. Please let me know you thoughts, examples, concerns, and questions.

[1] Power is alternatively known as: the ‘system’, the powers that be, the man, institutional power, and the status-quo, among other things.

[2] NoTW – ‘Not of This World’ is an odd consumer expression of passages like Romans 12:1-2, John 15:19, John 17:14 & 16, John 18:36, Colossians 3:2, Philippians 3:20-21, Ephesians 6:12, and 1 John 2:15-17.

Change the Past, Present, and Future

I just wrapped up a 3 week series on change with a sermon called “I would prefer not to”.

The first week we asked “Can the past save us?” The answer is ‘no’.

The next week talk about “the Life of the Ages” which is so much more than eternal life. We looked at how Jesus updated present religious practices in his time.

This past week was a 4-layered experiment with responding to change.

The videos are here – you can also listen to the podcast audio if you prefer (below)

Past (can it save us?)

Present (Life of the Ages)

Future (I would prefer not to)

Podcast Audio

Real Fake HyperReal Cynicism

It can be difficult navigating our hyperreal, liquid, fluid digital culture with any amount of discernment and sincerity. Disney Land is plastic and fabricated while branding itself the ‘happiest place on earth’.

Vampires, Zombies, Super Heroes and demonic exorcisms populate our movie theaters. Comedians are great at doing caricatures of TV preachers and faith healers. Surely there is something real somewhere in all of this.

In this 10 min video I use Rumsfeld’s ‘Known Unknowns’ as a model (and Zizek’s addition) to propose an idea about the Real/Real, Fake/Real, Real/Fake and Fake/Fake.

I’m working off of Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco in looking at the hyperreal.

Let me know what you think!

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.

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