Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


July 2011

The Nine Nations of Evangelicalism

One of my all time favorite books is The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau (published in 1981). [summary article here]
His theory was that by any measure of culture, there were at least nine of them in North America. As someone in the newspaper industry in the 70s and 80s, he was commenting on how things worked and what priority is evident where.

The three most important ideas for our conversation are these.

– The Nine Nations are broken down as  New England (including the Maritime provinces), Quebec, the Foundry (the rust belt), Dixie (the Southwest), the Island (centered in Miami), The Breadbasket, The Empty Quarter (around the Rockies), Mex-America (in the southwest) and Ecotopia (on the Pacific coast).

– The borders dividing the United States, Canada, and Mexico nearly disappear when one re-examines according to  values, money, lifestyle and other factors. A person in Calgary, Alberta has far more in common with someone in Denver, Colorado than she does someone in Ottawa, Ontario.

– There is no such thing as the Midwest. It doesn’t exist. Chicago is the western boundary of the Rust Belt (the Foundry) and west of it is the Breadbasket. Chicago is a border-town and not a Capitol. The concept of the midwest has no actual base in reality. The cornfields of Ohio and the wheat-fields of Kansas are part of two different systems.

Earlier  this week I blogged about the definition of Evangelical. I think that we are in danger of the label ‘evangelical’ being as undefinable as the ‘midwest’ is geographically. We need to re-conceptualize how the landscape really looks and develop a better map that  reflects how things actually function.

In this diverse group called ‘Evangelical’ we have a large and varied collection of groups that may qualify: Conservative, Fundamentalist, Holiness offshoots , Charismatic, Pentecostal, Anabaptist traditions , Congregationalist, Free Church folks, progressive protestants who attend Mainline churches , and potentially some Neo-Reformed perspectives, etc.

I suggested starting with Bebbington’s definition (4 emphasis).
My Hope: is to updated these 4 a bit with a more progressive emphasis – or more a generous perspective.

New Life – expectation of transformed self and community
Bible – I follow N.T. Wright’s ‘ongoing play’ narrative analogy here [How can the Bible be Authoritative]
Activism – faith in Christ should be emboddied and proclaimed to impact /transform culture
Cross Centered – the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian message.

My Fear: is that they will be replaced by four other issues that will become the new litmus test for this unspoken imagined orthodoxy.

  • Biblical Literalism / Inerrancy
  •  Substitutionary Atonement Theory
  • Anti-abortion stance
  • Anti-homosexuality

If the latter set of four prevail then I am afraid that evangelicalism will become as unclear and unhelpful as the Midwest is in geography. It would become a generic area absent of any real coherence that fails to provide any continuity and thus lacks any real constituents. It would become a citizenship not worth having and which provides no tangible benefit for its citizens.

I look to Mark Noll and Stanley Grenz as examples of the historical and theological richness of the Evangelical tradition. If it becomes merely political, then perhaps the title deserves to fade into irrelevance and to be abandoned. I pray that is not the case.


Who is evangelical anymore?

I saw two interesting bits of controversy this past week. I wasn’t necessarily surprised by either of them but I was disturbed by the way they overlapped. The first item was a post as part of a series at Pangea (on Patheos). This one was reeling over the evangelical credibility of C.S. Lewis. Apparently his views on the subject of hell were a little too open-ended and remind some self-proclaimed watchdogs of the views in a recent controversy surrounding you know who and his book.

Over the past decades there has been an increasingly contentious debate about the invisible boundary of evangelicalism. Apparently some have become so concerned that even historical figures who were previously safe (even adored) are in danger if their views are found to be too loose for the contemporary conservative backlash.
I was only mildly concerned by this whole line of reasoning. Then, I found out that this past Sunday, the NY Times called Michelle Bachman the evangelical candidate in the Republican primary pool.

So my question is:

  • what are the criteria that we are using for this public label of evangelical whereby the quintessential embodiment from the past century (C.S. Lewis) is out and tea-party candidate Michelle Bachmann is in?
  • who is in change of making these determinations?
  • what are the demarcations that signify whether someone is “in” or “out”?

This is something that I care deeply about as a Methodist minister (UMC) who is the son of a Methodist minister (Free Methodist) we are both proudly Wesleyan in theology. I think that whatever definition we use it should at least be inclusive of our most historical marquee figures and flagship franchises.
I like to use the definition from British Historian David Bebbington as a starting point. We should at least establish a historical framework. [here is an interview with evangelical scholar Mark Noll where he talks about it]
The four keys are:

conversionism: new birth and a new life with God
biblicism: reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority
activism: concern for sharing the faith
crucentrism: focus on Christ’s redeeming work on the cross

Admittedly, those four emphasis take on a different tone and tenor in each generation. They take on different manifestations in each generation. The presence of these four however is a stabilizing theme that runs through the many historical maturations through the centuries and around the globe. These four themes also hold together whether ones utilizes a bounded-set mentality for marking boundaries or a center-set framework to encourage a shared focus.

I celebrate these four themes and find them even amongst my more progressive friends. They could say these four things with confidence:

  • Relationship with God changes you personally internal and your relationships (external) .
  • The Bible is central as the Christian Scripture and sets both the agenda and the example.
  • One’s faith should both be shared (relationally) and will consequently impact the world around you.
  • God’s work in Christ is what illuminates and inspires the life of the Christian – Christ revealed God is a unique and significant way. Jesus’ way is to be our way.

This kind of faith is something that I am inspired by and find deep fulfillment by participating in. I am nervous that a reactionary period of retrenchment by the religious right , moral majority, or other politicized conservative groups would see evangelicals like myself and C.S. Lewis pushed out and figures like Michelle Bachmann made central.

on 18 years of marriage

18 years ago I got married to my wonderful wife. In the past 15 years of ministry I have been able to preform 37 weddings. Some are still married, some are not.

I have had the pleasure of talking with and learning from friends who are life long singles, divorced, remarried, couples who live together and couples that have been married far longer than we have.  I have heard some great stuff along the way and really enjoy thinking about relationships and our deep interconnectedness as humans.

This is my favorite piece of advice. I typed this up and gave it to my friend on the eve of his wedding. I thought it would be fun to post it here.

Treat your marriage like it was a third person in your house. There is you, your wife and your marriage – it is an entity all it’s own. You need to invest time in it, invest energy in it and invest money in it. You could be doing well and your wife could be doing well but your marriage… not so much.  In your budget make sure that there is a line for your stuff, her stuff and your marriage’s stuff – don’t deny that all three of you need and deserve a line item.  In your scheduling make sure that you get some time, she gets some time and it gets some time.

At your wedding the preacher will say “the two are one”. That is true in one sense. The other side of that truth is that you have created a new reality that must be cared for as a ‘third’.

Everyone I know who does something like this has a marriage you can live in, everyone who does not do this sees the effects of not doing it. When it comes to marriage, there a lot of variables, but here are two things that I am pretty confident of:

  1. Marriage is not a 50/50 proposition. It is a 100/100 endeavor. It takes everything you can give it to really make it work.
  2. Marriage is not two, it is three. Whether you call it a third strand that binds you together or a covenant or something else, it is more than just the two of you.

I want to thank all our friends and family who make our life so rich and wonderful. Thank you for all your love.  -Bo

a BIG difference between Christianity and Islam

I continue to be very excited about the Claremont Lincoln University Project to bring together Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars and practitioners. It is essential for the future that each tradition initiate its young leaders and thinkers in at atmosphere of mutual exchange and understanding.

The reason this is so important is that these three religions are not the same. They are not simply three expressions of a common understanding. They are vastly and distinctly different from each other. Of course there is commonality and overlap – for instance all three are a covenantal people and point to a covenant they have with God. I am interested to hear how each of the three groups reflects on and lives into their particular understanding.

Many Christians seem to think that the big difference between Christianity and both Islam and Judaism is what they believe about Christ. I do not think that views on Jesus is the biggest difference between the three. In fact, I am suspicious that any Christian willingness to revisit a wooden-literal reading of passages like John 14:6 or reexamine the language and meta-physics of the creedal formulations would easily result in an understanding that did not violate the Quranic understanding that God has no children. Vocabularies of ‘how God was present in Christ’ are already being worked out by followers of the prophet Isa (Jesus) in Muslim countries. [Link: an article on c-6 contextualization]

In my mind, there is a much bigger difference between the three religions than an understanding of Jesus’ identity. It has to do with the earth.

Christianity is primarily time based. While the Christian gospel is one of incarnation, ironically, Christianity has become something that is not place-based and especially not land-based. This is easily illustrated by looking at some Muslim practices and noticing their absence or contrast in Christianity.

  • Prayer Direction: When Muslim pray, they face Mecca. This is a directional earth-relative orientation. Christianity lacks this orientation.
  • Pilgrimage: Once in their lives Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. This is an intentional journey to a specific location on the surface of the earth that holds special meaning. Christianity has no such thing.
  • Sunset: Certain holy days are marked as beginning at “sundown” or when a specific phase of the moon first appears as observed in a set location. This shows an awareness of the seasons, the sun, and the moon. Christian holy days and holidays are based on a calendar and clock.
  • Language: If you want to read the Quran you need to learn Arabic. The Christian gospel is not only translatable into any language – Christians believe that it should be translated into every language. The Gospel is equally valid in any and every language.

In his book Whose Religion is Christianity?: the Gospel beyond the West, Lamin Sanneh puts it this way:

Being that the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are translated versions of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scriptures well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark … Christianity  seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder (p. 97-98) Continue reading “a BIG difference between Christianity and Islam”

Religion: revision renovation and revival

Religions need revision. This is even true of made up ones! Scientology has been in the news over the past months for all the wrong reasons: splinter groups, rival factions, money issues, coercive strategies for intimidating dissenters, and even heated theological debates. [check out last week’s Time article for instance]

And this is religion where we have writings of the founder.  In fact, one of the original tenets of the religion (started just 50 years ago) was that nothing was allowed to be changed in the future. This stands is stark contrast to Christianity where we don’t have any writings of the founder (thank God) and have a model that is incarnational – which means that the religion is inherently contextual and translatable. [read Lamin Sanneh’s books like Who’s Religion is Christianity? and Translating the Message if you want to see a contemporary contrast with Islam – like ours, a religion based on revelation.]

All religion needs revision – or re-visiting, re-imagining, and reviving. Some people object to this much needed procedure. The arguments tend to fall in two broad divisions.

1) Those who object to deconstruction because it feels like destruction. This is understandable because when you hold dear something sacred, it is precious and worth protecting.

I would simply argue that like any house or house of worship, if it is going to continue to be useful, it will need to go under renovation – a re-examining with a critical lens (deconstruction) is actually a loving act of clearing room for the renovations  that need to happen.

If we didn’t love it and intend to live in it, we would walk away, burn it down, or blow it up.

2) The second objection seems to be more theoretical, less sentimental but equally as defensive. It comes from those who object by saying “that is not what those who came before would have recognized as the faith” or “those who ________  (wrote the creeds, were reformers, etc.) thought that they were doing something that you now say they did not accomplish (making meta-physical statements, producing a once for all systematic theology, etc.)

In this case, I would simply argue, with Bernard of Chartres, that we are dwarves who stand on the shoulders of giants. We have a perspective that they did not have. Ours then in a 2nd order reflection on their 1st order activity. They were in the arena, we are in the balcony. This sets up two tensions: A) it is not possible to do what they did nor is it possible to disregard it  B) you know a tree by it’s fruit and we now see that they may not have done what they thought they were doing at the time.

This is the critical element. We are part of a living tradition that lives out faith in community – communities that are radically located in particular times and places. Our tradition proclaims an incarnational gospel and orients around a living word of God. That is, both conceptually and practically, an ongoing model of revision, renovation and revival. In these ways our faith stands in distinct contrast to other religions – especially made up ones.

Emergence or Divergence?

I had a great trip with the Youth Service Project and am ready to get back to blogging!

One thing that often popped into my head while I drove was an article by David Fitch. He is an Anabaptist and had just come back from an event with Phyllis Tickle. The part of his post that kept coming to mind was this:

Phyllis sees a Christianity that comes together (eventually) through conversations. I see a Christianity that is splintering. As a result Christians look antagonistic to the world. Consequently, I don’t see a Great Emergence in our future. I see something that looks more like a Grand Disappearance exacerbated by this unappealing internal Divergence.

As an Anabaptist, David has an automatic assumption – a built in critique. Anabaptism is , by its very nature, a critique of the State Churches and the orphan (bastard) offspring that mutated in America after the Reformation in Europe. Phyllis is a Episcopal (Anglican-Church of England). You can see where the might disagree on some pretty foundational stuff.

There were several points of connection for me:

Fitch goes on to talk about his comfort with being a minority – it is the Anabaptist way after all. On this point, I don’t think that Phyllis would disagree with him too much. I had said in my earlier post that I think there will be 50 percent fewer Christians in America in 50 years than there is now. On that point, I don’t think that David would disagree with me too much.

The only place then that there seems to be genuine disagreement is found in what we think the smaller remnant will look like. I am hoping for an irenic emergence with a few ornery fundamentalist still using their megaphones (but commanding less attention). My hope is that once we settle into the reality of being a minority religion that we will adjust our expectations which will in turn transform our expressions.

What are your expectations? What do you think it will look like? Is that a good or a bad thing?

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