Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


September 2010

>words of God in the Bible


    I stumbled into an interesting conversation a couple of weeks ago and I have been mulling it over in my head. I have mentioned it to a few colleagues of mine and it turns out that I am not the only one who is perplexed by it. 
    The issue in question is the reading of the Bible where one word is automatically substituted for another. 
[Examining the issue invariably brings up other issues so I will try to stay focused and maybe for this first round of conversation will only examine some sample Bible verses.

Matthew 7
    I am continually shocked by the number of people who quote Matthew 7:13-14 to me BUT change the words!! (this is to cram it into a paradigm where it does not naturally belong)
13″Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
    I find myself asking people all the time “why do you swap ‘destruction’ for Hell and ‘life’ for Heaven ? What is that thing you do where you always jump to the end and then read it backward? Is this some kind of destination fascination and is that why we try to fast forward the journey?
    Why when the text says “destruction” do we automatically switch it to ‘hell’  and when the text says “life” we automatically switch it to ‘heaven’ ? 
    My point is that I do not think that Jesus was talking about something after you die.  If you read it in context, I think that he is talking about how you live before you die. **
John 3:3
    This is probably one of the most famous passages in the Christian New Testament. There are two things that are intriguing to me about how we read it.  The first is that we take it out of the story that we find it in. We remove it from the narrative of a conversation where Jesus is using ‘riddles’ to lure his conversation partner in so that they will ‘bite’. The second thing is that once we have the ONE sentence out of it’s context we convert it to be a universal principle. 
    That is quite the process of mental gymnastics and we seem to do it almost on auto-pilot. 
    Jesus says to this religious professional “no one can see kingdom of God,unless he is born again.”  (or born from above)
    Somehow that has become ‘No one can go to heaven after they die unless they prayer the sinner’s prayer once in their life – to confess and repent of all their sins and ask Jesus to be their personal Lord and Savior.’ 
    Really?  Do you think that is what Jesus is talking about?  A) when the text says “Kingdom of God”  why do we swap it for ‘Heaven after you die’ ? B) when the text says “born again”  why do we trade it for ‘pray a prayer to be saved’ ?
John 14:6
    as in the John 3 passage, John 14 happens in a conversation where Jesus’ dialogue partners are having trouble understanding what he is saying.  
    Jesus is talking about how his father’s house has many rooms and how is going away to prepare a place for them.  Thomas says ‘we don’t know where you are going and thus we don’t know the way’. 
6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
    Now, I hear this verse quoted probable 5 times a week. It is usually in the context of ‘why no one is going to heaven unless they believe in Jesus’. 
So my question is this: are we sure that is what Jesus is talking about?  
    Why when the text says “Father” do we read ‘heaven’?  What if Jesus isn’t talking about where you go after you die but is instead talking about the kind of relationship that you have with God before you die?   What if he is saying (and if you read John 14-15-16 where he talks about the coming of Holy Spirit as an indwelling of the Spirit of Christ you will see this) that this relationship that he has with the Father through the Spirit is one that is accessible only by coming through him? 
    What if Jesus is not thinking at all about why Hindus won’t be in heaven, and is only addressing how the disciples might come to know that Father like Jesus does (which , if you read the book of Acts you will see the work of Holy Spirit to do). 
2 Timothy 3
We might as well just address the nature of the text as long as we are looking at the text.
15and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
    This verse is thrown around quite liberally by conservatives who use it to define words like ‘inerrant’ and ‘infallible’ when it comes to their view of the Bible. 
    I just want to point out two things: 1) the two “I” words are not in 2 Timothy 3 – we read them in   2) The scripture that they would have know from infancy was the Hebrew or Jewish Scripture (what we call the Old Testament). 
    In fact, 2 Timothy 3 is quite clear that scripture is useful and here are the things that it is useful for… is that not good enough for us? 
    “But it is God breathed!!”  some might object.  But as my good friend Dan points out to me – so was Adam… but as we all know Adam was not infallible.  (we read that story at the beginning of the Hebrew Scripture).
    I am afraid that we are not reading the text and letting it speak. We are reading into the text what is not there and putting words in it’s mouth.  
    I have said before that no one reads the Bible literally  [link] and I think that is more true than ever.  No actually thinks that we need to be born again.  We all know that needs interpreting. 
    People who think that they read the Bible literally are fooling themselves and have been sold a brand of Christianity that is somewhere between a system and a construct. What I am afraid of is that once you have been groomed for long enough to automatically substitute one word for another, you lose the ability to see that it is a problem. 
**  a new friend sent me this note “regarding your Matthew 7:13-14, if one travels the land (of Israel), one discovers that the “roads” and “gates” of the Hebrew culture are small and narrow, and the “roads” and “gates” of a Hellenized culture are wide, easy to travel, broad, and traversed by thousands, if not millions of people.”    Jesus wan’t talking about life after you die.  He was talking about how you live before you die. 


>Follow Up to Relationship

>    I was talking to a new friend who works with minority inmates transitioning into society in the final year of their sentence.  My friend runs a farm so that A) there is a revenue stream and B) the inmates develop practical skills for employment after they are released.

    We were talking about the struggles to raise money and the irony that the bigger the church is, the less likely they are to give financially to a ministry that is not housed with them (I have heard this from a number of people).
    It was an educational conversation on many levels.

    There was one story that really got my attention. It was about a preacher on the radio (this preacher would be well known to almost everyone reading this) who was talking about some of the conflicts in the Book of Acts.

    The preacher was saying that even in the early church (and all throughout church history) there has been all sorts of conflict about opinions over behavior in living out the faith. Food was an example – opinions about who could eat when and what someone else ate that you wouldn’t be o.k. eating. Same with drink. Some are o.k. with drinking some things that others think they shouldn’t be drinking.

    Side note: This is always an interesting conversation with someone from a different background, from a different culture or of a different race.

    Then the story turned (as my friend reported it to me). The preacher then said “its like people who don’t have a house being critical of christian leaders who have two or three houses. That is none of their business. They shouldn’t have an opinion on that.”

    My friend was somewhere between flustered and perplexed. We got talking about economic theory, the nature of conservatism, and current excesses in capitalism.

    I said “It’s even worse than that … what the preacher did!”

Stop: take a minute and think about how you feel about christian leaders having 2 or 3 homes and if you object, why you object.

My Take:  I use to think about this in a “status” way or even “substance” way by trying get down to the possible motive behind buying 3 houses.

    Now, I try to look at it through a Relationship lens. In that light, the preacher switched the conversation. He changed the categories.   When you are talking about eating with someone – you are talking about being in relationship. SO if I eat something that offends your conscience, then it effects our connection – our fellowship.

    The difference is that if you have a big house (or multiple houses) and you go there – it can takes us out of relationship. It does not have us in fellowship. You going to your house is the opposite of us coming to the table together. They are not the same thing.

    My point is that eating together brings us into relationship. You have 3 homes that you can go to and me not having one takes us out of relationship.

    If you try to address this through Status language or attempt to analyze this through Structural constructs (like Economics) then you may miss why two christians eating together and religious leaders owning 2 or 3 houses are not the same thing.

I think that it is important to think about this for its relational component.

add a comment here and let me know what you think.  or you can jump over the website where the conversation is underway 

Roger Olson

1. I love Roger Olson

2. His book  “the Story of Christian Theology” is so helpful.  (and in a narrative style ta boot)

3. His article on being “Post Conservative Evangelical” is  essential reading.

4. His friendship with Stanley Grenz (author of Theology for the Community of God) is inspiring.

5. His review of of 2 books on Evangelicalism – including one that is critical of Grenz is… well – you should read it.



I posted this quote on Facebook this week “ The Faith began as a relationship. In Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it became an organization. In Europe, it became a culture. When it came to America, it became a business.” 

my friend Russ Pierson (who has started a world traveling Dmin of Global Leadership at George Fox) and I had an interesting conversation about Ecology. He had asked the twitterverse why the giant split between Theology and Ecology.  I replied that  i thought it was a natural consequence of the Greek Dualism inherited by western European thinkers and over the centuries morphed into the present worldview. 

my friend Nathan Detweiler (who just started a Mdiv at Alliance Theological in Nyack – where my dad teaches) and I were talking about the Didache – or Teaching of the 12 –   and we were both gobsmacked at how much Christianity changed after the year 300. (Tony Jones wrote an accessible guide to the Didache if anyone is interested [link])
my friend Joe Paprone (who just so happened to recently begin a world traveling  Masters in Global Mission with Fuller)  and I were catching up after his return from Big Tent Christianity and the  topic of the Gospel’s relational nature came up.
when I talk or email with friends and family from Albany to Alberta, from Kalispell, MT to Claremont, CA … this theme of relationship in the gospel comes up over and over again. 

    I have heard Dr. Larry Shelton (my first seminary professor) say that it is “relationship all the way down” . This has impacted me greatly.  Shelton’s book Cross & Covenant: Interpreting the Atonement for the 21st Century Mission [link] is a tour de force on the historical development of thought and direction for the future. 
   I have a number of quotes that I thought about using here 
– but let me get right down to it: 
Stated in the Positive:  Here is why I think that Relationship component of the Gospel is so important. I am convinced that relationship is essential (it is central) to Gospel. I am suspicious that the gospel IS relationship. 
Stated in the Negative: after 300 C.E. the focus of the Gospel seems to have moved from relationship and shifted to A) substance and B) status.  This was the Greek & Roman  shift (influence) on Christian thought. 
    Let me just say that it is not my intention to be critical of the Greco-Roman period  but simply to point out that 1) it is very different than what came before it and specifically the  Hebrew influenced writings of Scripture. 2) That if one, in the Post-modern conversation , wanted to return to a more relational reading of the scripture that person would not be unfaithful to Christianity. 
    Without getting bogged down in heavy arguments and endless details (that will come in subsequent weeks) let me just point out four examples: the Trinity, Jesus, communion and salvation. 
Trinity: after 300 there is great concern to get straight the Order & Structure of the Trinity. Who comes first and who is the origin of who.  This is Status.  But this does not seem to be the concern of the writers of Scripture who, in fact, didn’t even use the world Trinity. In fact, their concern seems to be the relationship between the divine actors and the form is narrative – not creed or formula. I think that this is important. The Bishops and Councils of the threes, fours and five hundreds seem to want much cleaner lines and much clearer flowcharts than the writers of scripture provided in the narrative. (If you want to see how important this turned out to be – just look up the Filioque [link] in a Church history book and look at the brew-ha that followed.) 
Jesus: after 300 there is a great concern over the Ousia – the substance of Jesus.  Was he of the same substance “homo-ousia” as the Father?  This is where our classical “Fully God – Fully Human” formulation comes from.  That’s fine.  I just want to point that the Gospel writers seem much more concerned with Jesus’ relationship to God than the nature of his substance. 
Salvation: the whole Calvinist – Arminian debate , besides being exhausting and endless, is a product of a set of questions that the Bible does not seem to be concerned with and thus does not even attempt to answer.  In what way is God sovereign? and how does that mix with Human free will? can someone lose their salvation (status)? and what is the nature of someone who is saved in this life but continues to sin (substance)?  The reason those are debated round and around is that the writers of the Bible are not concerned with them.  They seem to be concerned with a believer’s relationship to God and relationship to others. 
Communion: Notice the modern fascination with what is communion (substance) and who is allowed to take it (status) and who is allowed to serve it (status & substance). The Bible never says.  In fact,  Jesus actually has the meal with someone that he knows will turn on him.  But Jesus invites him to the table and breaks bread with him – in relationship – seemingly not concerned with his status or his substance…. 
    My only point in all of this is that even if someone did not want to go all the way intoRelational – Process thought [link] like my school does, they are not going against traditional Christianity to step away from focusing on Status and Substance and instead focusing on Relationship.  They are just getting back to their roots. 
Like I said I am not advocating a new type of Christianity, as much as  I am acknowledging that  Christianity is always being made new.  Well, in this case – everything old is new again. 

to listen to the podcast [link ]

2 quick thoughts on getting a new phone

My 2 year contract with the my Cell phone provider ran out this month and so I ungraded.

I am 24 hours in. I REALLY like my new phone and the things that it does.

Two little observations:

I got a phone that would not communicate with my old phone in order to bring over my address book.  I am going to have to figure out how to sync the phone with my computer’s address book this weekend.
Until then I have a problem. When someone sends me a text message, their name does not come up alongside their note.  It is just numbers that I do not recognize as I am use to seeing names and not numbers.
SO here is my observation: the content of a message makes little sense apart from the knowledge of who sent it for context.

Thought: You can read something, but without knowing who said it or where they are – it feels like you are missing more than half of the message. Continue reading “2 quick thoughts on getting a new phone”

Emergence: Richard Rohr, Phyllis Tickle, and Peter Walker

Fr. Rohr has been talking this week about Emergence and Emergence Christianity

He says one day: ... I predict, with some historical certainty, this judgmental  thinking will continue to happen in every group, in every denomination if we  see everything with a dualistic mind.   No new emerging church will emerge very far. The judgmental mind is not  looking for truth; it is looking for control and righteousness.  For some reason  when we split and refuse to receive the moment as it is, we end creating and  even reveling in those splits as our very identities.  These are the culture wars and the identity politics we suffer  from today.  They will not get us very  far spiritually, because they are largely ego-based

And the next: Whatever “Emerging Christianity” is going to be, it will have to  be much more practice-based than doctrine-based…

Pete Walker was talking about it here:

SO I just wanted to point out  that Emergence is not just a shadow side to a dualism pairing – it is a different way of thinking about the world. It is saying that the world works a little different than we were told that it does.

Some people find “Process” thought a helpful way out of the old cosmology and meta-physics arguments that go round and round without leading anywhere.
It resonates with both ‘relational’ truths and ‘evolutionary’ thought.

For some, that comes together in Emergence thought. Here is the thing: we have to remember that it does not originate in nor is it most suited to Theological frameworks. That is where folks like you and me have to do some translating.

Phyllis Tickle talks about it here and it’s implication for the future of denominations.

She says Emergence Christianity is going to organize a little like an anthill.

Steven Johnson wrote a marvelous book called “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software,” which everybody should read who’s talking about this.

“Emergence” is an unfortunate term. It came out of emergence theory in the biology lab. For centuries we had thought that a beehive and an anthill were the same thing. Both had a queen, and it worked top down. In the middle of the 19th century, scientists discovered, “Wrong; au contraire.”

Plus you just have to watch the video : she is soooo articulate and makes an amazing point about history and the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches.

Notes from the Future

I have recently moved to Southern California (from the Pacific Northwest and the NorthEastern United States before that) and I have been thinking  about a theme that I wrote about in my master thesis.  First a story .

My nephew and I went to church our first week here. We were two of the five white people at the service. It was primarily a Japanese and Korean congregation with some Hispanic and a few Blacks. I had a wonderful talk with my nephew on the way home about A) the future of America and B) the irony of him being from Montana where the white/non-white split may actually be at  exact inverse proportions to our church service.

I also started a new program in Practical Theology (sound like an oxymoron to most) at a school that is preparing for the future by taking a bold look at religious diversity, inter-faith engagements and the future of pluralism.

All of this got me thinking about these things that will play major roles in our lifetime:
– the Shift toward the global south
-the changing demographics of North America
-and the Post-Modern shift in thinking.

I will tackle the first two here Continue reading “Notes from the Future”

Women on two sides of the world

Time magazine has had two really interesting articles recently. The provide a fascinating contrast and raise some significant question about gender & power.

How Pakistan’s Floods Have Made Women Too Visible [LINK]
The public mixing of the genders is leading to enormous tension and fear that violence may break out as men try to defend conservative ideas of honor

The State of the American Woman [LINK]
A quiet revolution has changed the status of American women; so what’s new now? Plus: a TIME opinion poll on gender

My thought revolves around the idea that  generically many of us would agree that humility and modesty are good things (?) – but are these the ramifications of men being in charge of women’s modesty…   I got some interesting responses (on Facebook) to both that idea and the articles themselves.

– No. These are ramifications of men “protecting” their property and keeping it from making them look”bad”.
– Men shouldn’t take charge of womens’ modesty. Women should take charge of their own modesty; unfortunately, many just don’t care.
– Modesty, at it’s heart, should have to do with each sex respecting the other. It is only good and helpful when it is a woman’s choice and men are not enforcing it. It is not a man’s job to enforce female behaviors.

about the article:

– So, we’ve traded oppression for increased stress and responsibility. It is a great advancement from property to personhood, but the relationships still need tons of work. Regarding the unhappiness of American women, options are good (in terms of what we “produce” with our lives), but we should maybe pick a few things from the smorgasboard instead of striving constantly for the “I can do it all” (Wonderwoman) award…a tough discipline when you have high expectations of yourself…

– hmmm…so many thoughts on this one. I think the takeaway point is it’s NOT about who has power…it’s about constantly giving away what power people DO have to those who DO NOT have around us, regardless of sex,gender,race, or creed.

My question is ‘what about when power is not freely given away?’

Emerging Complexity

This was something that I wrote for the  Everyday Theology podcast. I thought that it fit here.

Things are necessarily complicated. That is why simple answers often don’t satisfy. This is especially true when it comes to human concerns: sociology, relationships, family systems, psychology etc.

I listened to a presentation the other day that was anti-hunting. I tried to listen with an open mind but I kept coming back to the thought “but you’re going to have to do something”. As sprawl continues to become a reality in most locations, human activity is ever encroaching on the deer’s habitat and we removed their natural predators. Damage to gardens and lawns make the deer a ‘suburban nuisance’. Overpopulation leads to chronic wasting disease. Increased populations become a real hazard for driving. I heard about one state where the insurance company sponsors bowhunting classes. Simple answers like “people shouldn’t shoot Bambi’s mom” just don’t work. Things are complicated and the answers often have to be nuanced and multi-layered.

I like that old quote attributed to H. L. Mencken
“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

This is why I am a big fan of Emergence thinking. Continue reading “Emerging Complexity”

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