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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

Why Us vs Them

I am preparing to lead a 3-month book discussion of The Church of Us vs. Them by David Fitch for the adult Sunday school at my church.

My plan is to pair the chapter in the book with a different book, school of thought, or historical movement. Some of these include The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen, The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas, and the Anabaptist tradition.

Here are the 7 conversations that I hope will come up in the next 3 months:

  1. The church is supposed to be an alternative way of life – a prophetic and subversive witness to the world – that critiques the ways of the world and provides an alternative way of being in the world. She works best as a minority position within the larger culture and is not designed to be in charge or in control of culture.
  2. Neither the Republican or Democratic party can fix the problem of society. The Democrat and Republican parties are two sides of the same flawed coin. They are not the solution to the problem – they are manifestations of the problem.
  3. The church is not a middle way between these two camps (compromise) but it supposed to be a third way (alternative) to their ways. What we call ‘the church’ is so saturated with both Empire and consumerism that it is completely impotent to confront the ‘powers-that-be’ – which crucified the Prince of Peace (as a scapegoat) – and these powers continue to make life worse for most of humanity.
  4. The American ‘church’ is in bed with the systems of this world that reinforce racism, sexism, poverty, and militarism – 3 of those 4 things Martin Luther King Jr. called the ‘triplets of evil’.
  5. There is a way of living, which Jesus modeled for us and taught about, that leads out of the muck-and-mire we find ourselves in and opens up the hopes and potential of a different way of being in the world. That is the good news of the gospel (evangel).
  6. The church has the potential (capacity) to be the most beautiful and profound vehicle (venue) for unleashing human flourishing and peace. She does this by resisting evil, acting in love, and advocating for those who are vulnerable or on the margins.
  7. The kingdom (or kin-dom) of God is actually within reach but the church has compromised and been corrupted by being in alliance with Empire and the systems of this world. What we call ‘church’ is a shadow of what is supposed to be. Us vs. Them thinking is a symptom of that disease.

Here is a quick video (5 min) to introduce the topics:

Let me know your thoughts, questions, and concerns.

Embrace the Mystery: Church

What if the church, like Jesus, is fully human and divine?

What if the Body of Christ is more than just a metaphor or language game?

What if it is different way to understand and participate in the eternal, transcendent, cosmic narrative?

This video is a constructive proposal for using the surplus of meaning to expand our understanding.

I welcome your comments, questions, and concerns

Deconstruction and the Dark Night

Is there a connection between deconstruction and the dark night of the soul?

Many who participates in deconstruction experience the dark night. Not everyone, however, who experiences the dark night of the soul has been doing deconstruction.

There is enough overlap that it is worth exploring.

Many people who begin to deconstruct their faith experience various levels of disorientation, discouragement, depression, and even despair. It is difficult to dismantle the thing that used to give you shelter and even structure your experience and very existence. You begin to question everything that you have been taught, the people who taught it to you, and even yourself for being misled, fooled, or indoctrinated.

This can trigger feelings of abandonment, isolation, embarrassment, shame, and god-forsakeness at times.

This is where I find the work of Peter Rollins very helpful. He says things like

“I’m not trying to make you depressed, I trying to help you see that you are already depressed.”

One of my favorite things that he introduced me to (working off a thinker named Lacan) is called the Experience of Absence and the Absence of Experience. Let’s say that you and I are sitting at two table in the coffee shop. We are in the same place doing the same thing at the same time – with one big difference: you are expecting a friend who has not shown and is not answering your texts or calls.

You are experiencing your friend’s absence, whereas I am having an absence of that experience.

This is helped me so much over years since Peter’s book “How (Not) To Speak of God” came out. It has become a key for me that has unlocked a door into a much bigger auditorium of ideas.

I have learned to embrace the experience of absence. I actually prefer it of the absence of experience. I know that something is wrong or missing – but I would rather sit in that awareness than not know and sit in my happy naiveté.  I would rather be awake the beautiful disaster than not-awake and happy.

This is not a criticism of anyone else and I know many who would disagree with me.

One of the treasures that gives me comfort in the Experience of Absence is that we have resources for this crisis inside our tradition. One of my favorites buried treasures in Christian history is called ‘via negativa’ or the apophatic tradition.

It basically says that god – by the very nature of being god – is so expansive, beyond human comprehension or our ability to explain or describe the divine essence in anything that resembles its reality – that it is more accurate to speak of god in the inverse or negative.

I love this idea.

If there is something as grand as god then every time we try to assert something about god we both say it and inherently un-say it at the same time. [1]

Via Negativa shows that it is actually easier and more accurate to speak of god in the inverse: that god is not like anything or anyone you can compare to (analogy). Even when you try so say something in the positive, whatever you say is actually far more true in the inverse.

Whatever we know about god or believe about god, there is infinitely more that is unknown and unsaid (unexplored).

Any god-talk is actually more untrue about the actual divine than it is true.

Why do I bring this up? In the same way that I have learned to embrace the Experience of Absence, I have come to love the infinitely beyond-me. Deconstruction is concerned with the limitations of words and that has been immensely rewarding as it connects with Via Negativa and another deep idea:

Paul Ricoeur has a concept called Second Naiveté when you pass through the desert of criticism (deconstruction?) and come into faith again with your eyes open. It is not first faith and it is criticism. It is Faith Again but awakened to the mystery (moment).

I could talk and write for days about Ricoeur. His concept of ‘a surplus of meaning’ has transformed my life, faith, and ministry.

None of this the same as the 16th century Catholic concept of ‘the dark night of the soul’ which leads to mystical union with god. There are, however, enough similarities and overlaps that they all belong in the same conversation.

The Experience of Absence, Via Negativa, 2nd Naiveté, and the Dark Night have all helped me on the deconstructive journey.  I would love to hear about helpful resources that you have found.

Let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

[1] Two great examples are found in the analogy of ‘rock’ and ‘father’.

Scripture often refers to god as ‘a rock’ to signify strength, resilience, and trustworthiness. But of course god is not actually a rock and a rock is not god. It is a metaphor or analogy at best.

Jesus sometimes referred to god as ‘father’. This was of course relational language saying that he related to God as one relates to a (perfect image of) father. Not that god was big man in the sky who got Mary pregnant.

God is as different from our earthly father as god is anything like those beautifully flawed human men.

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.

Fully Human

What would it look like for you to be fully human?

Is Jesus a good model for that?

If Jesus was less than human because he was actually God in disguise (bad theology) then what do we lose with him as an example (or exemplar)?

I like to ask people a series of questions:

  1. How did Jesus heal?
  2. Was Jesus good at math?
  3. Did Jesus even have diarrhea?
  4. Did Jesus know people’s futures?

The problem with answering “he was God” too quickly is that we make Jesus something less than human or un-human – the opposite of what we are trying to do.

We are missing something vital about the incarnation because of easy answers. This is not trivial because Jesus models for a life that is open to God’s presence in our lives.

The invitation of Christ is to be open to the divine in a way that brings about our full humanity.

Being fully human is a complex web of overlapping and intertwined elements:

  • Family
  • Personality
  • Culture
  • Nationality
  • Religion
  • Sexuality
  • Language

Here is a 10 min video with some of my thoughts about being fully human. I would love your feedback.

Deconstructing Demons

I am often asked about ‘casting out demons’ in the past and how I reconcile that now. This is one of my favorite things to talk about, but it does require a little set-up so I will be a concise as possible and then get to it.

In ‘What had changed since I was your Pastor” I explained ‘why the natural is super’:

I am convinced that the church has made a major mistake in adopting the language of the super-natural. Since the epic flub with Galileo and Copernicus the church has allowed science to have the natural (things that make sense) and has been relegated to watching over things that increasingly don’t make sense and retreating into words like ‘mystery’ and ‘faith’ as cover for that which is just not reasonable.

I do not believe in a realm (the natural) that is without God. As a Christian, I believe that God’s work is the most natural thing in the world. I am unwilling to concede the natural-spiritual split and then leave less and less room for God as science is able to explain more and more. The church is foolish to accept the dualism (natural-supernatural) and then superintend only the spiritual part.

I would prefer to reclaim the language of the ‘miraculous’ (surprising to us or unexpected) and ‘signs’ from the Gospel of John (that point to a greater reality).

SO inside that expectation, what do you do with demons and the devil?

I no longer believe that demons are ancient fallen creatures that work for some cosmic bad army in unseen realms and attached themselves to people’s souls… or something.

I believe that demons are the ‘shadows’ that result from injury, brokeness, and scar tissue in a fractured psyche (or spirit or soul). Those ‘dark’ elements or places can manifest in the exact ways that we used to describe ‘spiritual oppression’.

The Devil is a poetic-literary device for when corporate evil is so big and bad that we outsource it (personify it) to an anthropomorphic bad guy envisioned as some overlord type.

[now, I have done this enough to know that two pushbacks are coming, so let me just say: A) Don’t quote Job. The ‘hasatan’ or the satan is not the New Testament ‘Devil’. Plus you have to read Job as the ancient play that it was (it is more like a manuscript than a newspaper report). B) The temptation of Jesus plays an important role in the gospels. stick with me, it will make a lot more sense if you don’t read the devil as ‘an ancient fallen being now terrorizing the earth’. The temptation of Christ was about identity. Not if he was Messiah, but what kind he would be. ]

When we kick demons out of people (through deliverance, exorcism, or guided prayer) we use something called “Open Doors & Broken Windows”.  We invite God’s Spirit to walk them through their ‘house’ – every area of their life – and look for places that the ‘enemy’ could have gained access. Doors are opened from the inside (you have the lock & key to your own heart). Windows are broken from the outside. That is our imagery.

  • Open Doors are decisions that you make (sin, weakness, participation, etc.) that leave you vulnerable and susceptible.
  • Broken Windows are injuries from others (abuse, neglect, violence, etc.).

Sometimes we do this topically (verbally go from room to room) sometimes we do it chronologically (starting from when you were young). Once we have find something, we take back the authority that has been given away (renounce sin) or we invite the Spirit into that place of injury to repair what has been broken and fractured.

Within Deliverance circles that are two primary schools: Authority (or power) and Truth. I am a Truth guy. I simply speak truth into that place of hurt or brokeness. The words of Christ are very powerful for healing and release. Within the Authority school there are two groups: a group who talks to (interviews) the demons; one that doesn’t but simply ‘takes authority’ over them. The theory is that you have to figure out how they got in in order to take away that root of their power. I never liked that, demons lie – they work for ‘the Liar and Father of Lies’.  I even thought that back then …

 How do I process this now? I still do deliverances but much prefer ‘guided prayer times’ without the deliverance element. The only time I will do it is if the person is convinced that there is a demon present. If this person grew up in an environment where this was taught, or has bought into a place where this is the religious teaching – I never introduce the idea, but if that is what they are being tormented by, then I help them out and meet them where they are at.

I believe that demons are the ‘shadows’ that result from injury, brokeness, and scar tissue in a fractured psyche (or spirit or soul). Those ‘dark’ elements or places can manifest in the exact ways that we used to describe ‘spiritual oppression’.

This can affect every thing from internal dialogue, to relationship, to social behavior. Gone far enough, it can even look like possession. Two important things:

  1. As Christians, we believe in the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in the world.
  2. The deliverance style prayer works just as well on shadows in fractured souls.

When someone walks into my office and they are convinced that they are being a tormented by a demon, I’m not sure that is the best time to explain to them how the ancients viewed the 3-tiered universe and the metaphysics behind it that allowed for demons. It is a time to care for that person and just translate for them.*  What they have been taught to call a demon is a personification with anthropomorphic characteristics. When we have injuries, there can emerge shadows from the fractures and scar tissue. Pastors do all sorts of counseling and this can be a way of caring for a hurting person who is really struggling inside.
I can still do 80% of what I used to do and operate in integrity. I can:

  • invite the Holy Spirit’s presence
  • walk with the person through their life
  • speak the words of Christ into that place of hurt
  • help them renounce the origin, impact and collateral damage
  • take authority over that situation and for themselves
  • confess trust in God and the power to live differently in the future
  • celebrate the freedom that is in Christ and in Christ’s work

I would love to hear your thoughts, concerns, comments and questions. This has been  long journey for me and though I no longer believe in ‘the boogie man’, I understand that this language of demons is powerful in some traditions so I work with people where they are at – I don’t need to first convince them of my perspective.

* I have at times said to the person “What if I told you that there is no such thing as a demon and that what you are experiencing is something else?” Just to test the waters. About 50% of the time the person is open and was simply told by someone else (usually the person who referred them to me) that it was a demon – which terrified them. Some times they insist, so I just go with it.

God Loves Who?

Our Left – Right politic divide creates problems for understanding and living in God’s love.

God loves us AND them.

I have been thinking about Identity Politics in the Gospel of Luke.

Identity Politics are great for politics – everyone should bring their whole humanity to the table and should vote according to their social location.

While Identity Politics are great for politics, it is not great for community.

It exposes that the Left is just the inverse of the Right – and neither is the gospel.

The gospel of God’s love transcends and even subverts our current political divide.

Check out the video and let me know your thoughts.

Another Trinity

Christians believe in a 3in1 God. The Trinity has become too root-bound and concrete.

It needs to be updated.
Here is another way to understand the Trinity:

Christ is the power of the past (forgiveness)
Spirit is the power of the present (faith and ministry)
God is the power of the future (possibility)

Watch the video and let me know your thoughts. Also check out Perichoresis

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