navigating between the everyday and theology

The Blog of Bo Sanders


October 2011

Reading Revelation Better (part 1)

A month ago I threw out some ideas about Reading the Bible Better. I loved the comments and questions that it generated. It led to a short discussion about the book of Revelation – which is one of my favorite topics. I had to take some time off for the Soularize conference and some other projects but now I am back. I thought is would be good to pick up were we left off.

I first heard about Ronald Farmer in an interview with Homebrewed Christianity. His take on different ways of reading the Bible (hermeneutics) was helpful and inspiring. He has a commentary on the book of Revelation in the Chalice series.

He breaks down the different ways of looking at the book of Revelation into 4 schools: Historicist, Futurist, Symbolic and Preterist.

The Historicist school thinks that Revelation is a forecast of Western history “from the 1st century until the consummation of time.”

The Futurist school is similar to the Historicist but thinks that most of the book (chapters 4-20) is yet to happen and will start after the ‘rapture’. Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, as well as the Scofield and Ryrie study Bibles are in this camp.

The Symbolic school thinks that the main point is God’s ultimate triumph over evil in symbolic or poetic imagery. So the ‘Beast’ would be “neither the 1st century Roman empire nor a future end-time antichrist.” It represents tyranny wherever it is found. Continue reading “Reading Revelation Better (part 1)”

4 best blogs of the last 2 weeks

I was at Soularize for a week and have been playing catch up this week. Here are the 4 best blog posts I read while I was away:

What interesting things have you been reading lately?

The cancer of criticism

In various forms, I have heard the following concern expressed: does being a part of a system take away the possibility of bringing a substantial critique?

  • Can one gain the needed perspective to level a valid critique on the program as a whole if one is a participant?
  •  Is it possible to escape ones location and particular constructs to the degree that a valid attempt might be made at a critique of the enterprise one is socialized in?

I believe that it is.

I draw my inspiration for analogy from the cancer cell. A cancer is comprised of the same biological material as the body that gives rise to it. They share the same biological makeup and DNA. The difference is that the cancer cell is participating in a different narrative than the other cells that make up its host body. This narrative in turn directs the cancerous cells to behave differently from the organism that houses it and behave in such a way that undermines that body to the point of threatening its very existence.

Aware critiques  are in this same way cancerous to their host organism. Though it is comprised of the same genetic material and from the same biological makeup, it operates in such a way to undermine the dominant project and subvert the enterprise altogether. Aware critiques are housed within systemic frameworks and are inherently (genetically) of the same substance.

I argue that location determines the resulting direction of critique. Aware critiques may originate from the center and provided a valid critique.

Admittedly, it is not sufficient on its own but it remains credible none the less. I actually think that it may carry more weight in most scenarios than a critique that comes from the outside and non-invested,  as they may be dismissed as mere criticism or complaint.

Is God a Rock?

part 2

In the last post I asked if the Bible was ‘man’ made. Now, I want to ask if God is a Rock.

If you say ‘No’, then someone will point to one of the many passages like Psalm 18:2

The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

If you say “Yes – God is a rock”… then you have some explaining to do. Are you being poetic? Symbolic? Is it analogy? Allegory? or is it exacting and univocal?

This is why it is so important to understand what Nancey Murphy is saying in Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism. It is essential to know the difference between Representative Language and Expressive Language.

Is God literally a rock? of course not. The author was saying that God is strong and trustworthy like a rock – the immovable foundation upon which we build. This is not representative language which works in a 1:1 ratio. It is expressive language. It was expressing something that the author believed and wanted to communicate.

There is nothing more important to get right if you want to read the Bible.

The reason is so powerfully illustrated when it comes to reading the Book of Revelation – perhaps that is why it garners so much attention and causes so much confusion.

Are there literally 7 lamp-stands over a city or a monster that comes out of the sea?  Most people will acknowledge that this is symbolic language.

Are the streets of heaven literally paved with gold? I think that is coded language for ‘it will be amazing’. Will Christ reign for 1,000 years? What if that is coded language for  a long time? Would it interest you to know that both of those illustration would have made 1st century readers think about Caesar imagery?

The so called ‘literal’* reading of the Bible ignores two important things: Continue reading “Is God a Rock?”

Is the Bible man made? No.

part 1

Before we talk more about the book of Revelation, I wanted to ask a preliminary question: Is the Bible man made?

Now, the simple answer is no. It is not. As people of faith we believe that the Bible is inspired by God and was written by its authors under the guidance (lead) of God’s Spirit.

Instantly, you see that there are many questions generated just in that previous statement. If we believe something, meaning that we take it as a matter of faith, are we conceding that it is not provable? I am OK with this idea. Others will not be and will want to fight for some understanding of infallible or inerrant. I get that, but I would just reiterate that it is a matter of faith that we believe what we believe.

If we go ahead with the idea that the Bible is inspired, there are 3 things that we can say and there are 2 questions that arise.

  • Inspiration means that the Spirit of God interacted with/led humans to write in their own language, using their own words, in a synergistic-participatory activity.
  • God worked with and through the authors. Their personalities, histories, and experiences impacted their writing. That context impacted the content of the books.
  • These authors wrote in genres that they were familiar with. The from of these works and the context that they were written in are important to understand when reading them. The books of the Bible were not written in a vacuum.

Let’s go back to the original question “is the Bible man made?” Here are the 2 questions that arise:

  1. Yes. The Bible is ‘man’ made in the sense that it is mostly written by men. Church history and theology are the same. Take the Creeds of the early centuries and ask who was present when these were drawn up.
  2. The Bible was not downloaded. It is important to understand that the process by which we got the books of the Bible is very different than the way that the author of the Quran or other sacred texts received those. That authors in the Bible were not in a trance. They did not wake up with a completed text next to them. The books of the Bible were made with full conscious participation. Continue reading “Is the Bible man made? No.”

talking about the Bible [links]

I have really enjoyed the recent conversations about Reading the Bible better and the book of Revelation. I will pick up on those themes tomorrow and Thursday.

Until then, I wanted to point to one of my favorite blogs with professor of Bible J. Daniel Kirk. He has been reviewing a new book about the Impossible Bible and he said something really true about those of us raised or converted into a tradition that reads the Bible in too-tight a way (mostly ignorant of it’s cultural context among other things).

Students who believe in this kind of Bible but then leave the world that makes it plausible by going to, say, a public university or a differently oriented seminary or, worst of all a PhD program and there encounter the real Bible for the first time–well, they lose their faith. Or, they have to go through so much intellectual reconfiguring of their faith that its persistence stands in question.

We see this over and over again in Pastoral circles. It is only going to get worse with people like Bart Erhman (who this happened to) promoting all the ugly stuff that young believers are usually protected/sheltered from .

You can also get the Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith here.

The difference between Mercy and Justice

for Columbus Day
Last week this quote was tweeted by Greg_Boyd:
“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the…distance of miles, there is complicity.” R.W.Emerson
I also found this quote from Desmond Tutu:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
I had a friend explain it to me this way – If you lived in a village by a river and saw a wounded person floating down the river, you would jump in go get them. You would bring them to shore to do what it took to restore them to health.That is Mercy.
If more and more bodies kept floating down stream and so the people in your village set up a hospital to tend to all the injured people who kept floating down stream – that is Mercy Work. 

While you were tending to all these injured people, one of you asks “what is injuring all these people and how are they ending up in the river?” – now you have entered the area of Justice.
If someone decides to disengage from the situation at hand and puts together a team to go hike upstream and find out the source of all this damage – that is Justice Work. 

[for more on this – here is a link to last week’s article]

Clowns to the left of me Jokers to the right

The old Stealers Wheels song says “clowns to the left of me – jokers to the right” , when I do watch the news I find myself humming “wingnuts to the left of me – nut jobs to the right” here I am stuck in the middle with you. Of course, it’s not that simple – nothing is. 

Over a decade ago I read an amazing book called The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen that forever changed the way I was able to see and participate in the toxic, adversarial, binary system that had evolved. It haunts me as I watch the political environment and media circus unfold in front of me.

The other day I stumbled across another good reminder from the past. Alasdair MacIntyre was credited with saying

all contemporary debates are really between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals.

I found this in a Dictionary of Theology, where the author added “Thus there is little room for the criticism of the system itself.” In a post the other day I said that “in the end the structure is nearly unchanged. The system is never in danger. The machine doesn’t even slow down. The Powers are never in jeopardy. It eats new ideas with barely a burp – let alone beginning to buckle.”

Stated simply: there is a real danger is assuming our inherited  structures. When we presume the giveness of our constructed systems we are inflicted with a blindness that is more than debilitating to dialogue – it is corrosive to the very intent and virtue of our stated ideals. When the system is assumed:

  1. we begin to major on the minors.
  2. we create blind-spots that leave us vulnerable to critique.

The result then is that we either take on a defensive posture, turn aggressive, or become paralyzed and withdrawal all together. It is the social equivalent of  the “Fight-Flight-or Fright” reflex .

When we don’t examine our inherited assumption or unwilling to engage our constructed social conditioned-ness, we open the door to something quite hazardous to the Gospel message. Beyond compromise and conflict as either/or options is a real cancerous effect on community.

Our political views and denominational persuasions are not the all or nothing ‘far right vs. far left’ spectrum with a huge gap in the middle that has been presented to us. They are kinds within the same system. They are not different in kind – they are only different in degree. And when we realize this, we are afforded the possibility to step back from the arena and gain some perspective on the structure as a whole. That is is the only way that system itself will ever be critiqued – the only ways that the Powers the Be will ever get challenged. Continue reading “Clowns to the left of me Jokers to the right”

The Status Quo has got to Go!

written for Homebrewed

A few weeks ago Joerg Rieger (on Homebrewed Christianity) cautioned about a type of Christianity that was a cheerleader for the system, that reinforced the status quo, and participated in society in way that strengthened Empire.

I have said before I come from a background where this type of thinking is not just disorienting but alienating. The focus is on individuals – with little mention of anything systemic. The goal is the salvation of souls for the afterlife – with no address of collective issues.

It was reading Walter Wink  “the Powers the Be” that radically impacted the way I could see this. I have since encountered other writings and teachers who have opened the subject even further.

Now, it is odd to look at the central figure of our faith and ask how did Jesus ever get portrayed as a guy who basically told people to be nice and obey the rules? Cornell West would talk about him be sanitized, deodorized, and neutralized. Someone else might call this being a chaplain to the empire.

My buddy Tripp and I have a theme that shows up in our personal conversations on a fairly regular basis. It revolves around the idea that variable X or Y may be changed or tweaked, but the outcome of the equation is never in doubt. A specific issue may be protested, but the machine itself in never in danger. Certain areas can be challenged or  even overhauled, but the system itself is never in jeopardy.

This is not limited to Empire. It goes beyond hegemony. It is not limited to Capitalism.

The powers that be, or the system, or the machine (as you prefer) is an omnibus. It can absorb – incorporate – and co-op any variation, deviation, or even challenge … and in the end the structure is nearly unchanged. The system is never in danger. The machine doesn’t even slow down. The Powers are never in jeopardy. It eats new ideas with barely a burp – let alone beginning to buckle.

We could talk about an anarchist musical band that signs a record contract, or a retail store that sells Buddhist trinkets from ‘the far east’, or a seminar on Native American spirituality that meets in a university classroom… but I don’t want to get sidelined. 

Benjamin Barber in his book Jihad vs. McWorld talks about the market in such a way that sketched a picture (for me) of a machine that needs to be fueled by new authentic-indigenous expressions, otherwise it runs dry and burns out on it’s own the boredom of its generic repetitions and knock-offs.

“McWorld cannot then do without Jihad: it needs cultural parochialism to feed its endless appetites. Yet neither can Jihad do without that world: for where would culture be without a commercial producers who market it and the information and communication systems that make it known?” Continue reading “The Status Quo has got to Go!”

the Theological transition

originally posted at Homebrewed

In the book “Who Needs Theology?” Grenz and Olson provide a helpful little spectrum of 5 kinds of theology: Folk, Lay, Pastoral, Professional, and Academic.  I have pastored for over 15 years and have always considered myself a Pastoral Theologian.

Over the last 5 years I have been transitioning toward more of a Professional and Academic location. This is not as simple as it might appear. It is complicated by the presence of two variables:

  1. I continue to be a pastor while I am in the Doctoral program. The church and the academy do not always communicate that well, are not always focused on the same things, and have developed a level of distrust/suspicion at points.
  2. My field in the academy is Practical Theology. This discipline is primarily focused on the activity of the local congregation-community and so even my academic pursuit is church oriented.

The result of this is that I seem to have the same two conversations on a fairly predictable monthly loop. One conversation is with my former congregants who knew me as only a pastor. The second conversation is with my fellow students who are pursuing an interest in one of the “Big 4” Theological disciplines (Philosophic, Historic, Systematic, or Biblical).
The first conversation with former congregants who are suspicious or or unaware of theology usually finds me trying to explain that “theology is a 2nd order reflection – or a 2nd tier discipline – that as a practical theologian I recognize is not the main event (1st order) but an examination OF  that main event.”  I compare it to being in the balcony  watching those who are in the auditorium who are watching what is happening on stage.   I am concerned with the interaction between the stage and the auditorium. I am not focused on the stage primarily. I am analyzing and describing, from a 2nd tier position, the dynamic that is at work and its effect.
The second conversation is usually with people much further into theology than I am. I am continuously explaining that I am not looking for a system to buy into wholesale or a framework that accounts for everything in a totalizing way. I am simply looking for conversation partners.

  • I am intrigued by Liberation Theology by am not (as of yet) convinced of God’s preferential concern for the poor. I want to hear what Gutierrez and Boff have to say.
  • I am not a Whitehead-ian (yet) but love John Cobb and the host of other Process thinkers (Epperly, Suchoki, etc.)
  • I am not Catholic but get so much from Elizabeth Johnson, John Caputo, Karl Rahner and Joseph Bracken.
  • I think that George Linbeck and Hans Frei are really onto something about theology and scripture, but I am certainly no Wittgensteinian.
  • I am fascinated by Paul Knitter and John Hick but have no interest in trying to defend a Kantian dualism in order to explain how a Barth style-Protestant might access the noumenal real (an actual challenge I received when quoting Paul Knitter). Continue reading “the Theological transition”

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