navigating between the everyday and theology

The Blog of Bo Sanders


March 2012

The Predicament of Believing Philip Clayton

Spoiler Alert: I going to recommend that you read this book.

This is a difficult era for those who find themselves committed to the values of scientific rationality and yet moved by the claims of a religious tradition.

That is how the preface to Philip Clayton’s new book The Predicament of Belief  begins.

I am always a little jealous of people who have a scientific background or who have a comprehension of philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I read books like Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Green and dabble in Tillich or Moltmann. I love reading that stuff and get a lot out of it … but it is never comfortable or familiar. I was raised as a Billy Graham evangelical and have a Bachelor’s Degree in Biblical Studies. I have a Masters in Theology and in 20 years of ministry  I have preached over 1,000 sermons. I am a pastor. I adore the church. I think in community. It is both how I am built and how I have been groomed. This is part of why I wrote my thesis in Contextual Theology and am now pursuing a degree in Practical Theology.  I am obsessed with the church.

“… It is hard to decide what parts of one’s tradition it makes sense to reject or retain.”

Here is the thing:

  • I like when John Cobb calls into question the ousia of the Creeds and gets into the metaphysics of the hypostatic union.

But can I go with Philip’s brand of Adoptionism (in Christology)?

  • I like when Philip talks about the origins of the universe including  the possibility of a multi-verse with Red Giant suns exploding and propelling their heaviest components out into the far reaches of the galaxy.

But can I go with him when he talks about the 5 layers of the Resurrection?
[Keep in mind that I said in a post last week that I could never imagine saying 3 things:  A) Paul didn’t write that book B) Jesus probably didn’t say that sentence and C) the Bible is wrong about that ]
It is interesting to me that Philip comes from much the same background as I do. It was because of his work that Claremont School of Theology first came onto my radar. I love his vision as the new Dean for the school and have gone on to read several of his books. His conversation with Tony Jones at an Emergent Theological cohort gathering is something I still reference monthly. I get what Philip is saying and I am down with what Philip is up to. Clayton speaks to me. I quote him often in sermons and coffee-shop conversations.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have no affection for tradition-for-tradition’s-sake and I don’t even have one conservative bone in my body. I have no affinity for ceremony, ritual, sacrament, or obligation apart from their narrative value. But as I read Clayton’s newest book, I am confronted on nearly every page with the question “do you know what this would mean?”  This is edgy stuff. His work is innovative and daring and would be well over the line for those that I report to for ordination and accreditation.

 So I am left with two questions:

  • How does one preach this stuff?
  • What would it look like to let go and fall all the way down the rabbit hole of this kind of thinking?

I am saved from too much torment by two entirely different convictions.

  1. The world is changing.
  2. As people of truth, we need to deal in what is true.

The first reminds me that the world has always changed – which is good and healthy and necessary. Some say that the only difference is that we have moved,in human civilization,  from incremental change to a period of exponential change.

The second reminds me that we can say things like “You shall know that truth…” or “All truth is God’s truth” and then act like they had it right in the 3rd century. No, if we are to be people of truth, then we need to pursue truth – wherever it leads.

Pursuing truth may lead us to conclusions that are different than our traditions have expressed. It may lead to us revisiting some things that we have held dear.  But what is the alternative?  To hang on to outdated and outmoded sentimentalities that have little to do with reality and the world as-it-is? Or to continue to play word games in our ecclesiastical silos that have little bearing on the real way people live outside our theological conclaves?

No. We need this. We must to do this. We have to take seriously the landscape that is in front of us and navigate the actual terrain that we occupy. Otherwise we risk living in the conceptual map and never walking on the land as it really is.

That is the predicament of believing Philip Clayton.

the Death of the Liberals is killing us

In chapter 1 of his book Death of Liberal Class, Chris Hedges sketches both the height of the Liberal era in the 19th century and its cataclysmic implosion with the arrival of World War in the 20th. The disillusionment of human evil, aggression, and suffering deflated the optimism of innate human goodness and inevitable progress that Liberalism is founded upon.
To understand the profound impact of Liberalism’s demise, it helps to make sure one understands the difference between Classical Liberalism and it’s contemporary milquetoast descent that slinks around in straw-man form on our 24 hours news cycle.
Hedges explains (pp. 6-7) “Classical liberalism was formulated largely as a response to the dissolution of feudalism and church authoritarianism. … (It) has, the philosopher John Gray writes, four principle features, or perspectives, which give it a recognizable identity. It is :

  • individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against any collectivity;
  • egalitarian, in that it confers on all human beings the same basic moral status;
  • universalist, affirming the moral unity of the species;
  • and meliorist, in that it asserts the openended improvability, by use of critical reason, of human life

Both John Cobb (Mainline)  and Clayton Crockett (Radical Political Theology) use very similar formulations in their recent Homebrewed  podcasts. Cobb, by focusing on the demise of the Mainline and Crockett, by focusing on the Evangelical and Religious Right, articulate the monumental shift in the religious-political landscape in the past century.
The Mainline denominations are in a collapse narrative and it makes perfect sense why when one examines both the way liberal thought partnered with power in the 20th Century and the way that conducted itself (largely) within the shifting landscape of post-war realities at home and globalization abroad.

“In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality. It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue. It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite. But the assault by the corporate state on the democratic state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims…
The inability of the liberal class to acknowledge that corporations have wrested power from the hands of citizens, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have become irrelevant, and that the phrase consent of the governed is meaningless, has left it speaking and acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. It has lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist.”  (pp. 9-10)

We talked yesterday about the fictitious nature of the supposed Left-Right spectrum.  For those of us who participate in christ centered communities and organizations, what does this mean?  While incomplete, here is my little experiment to come up with a game-plan for a start.

  1. We stop using the label ‘Liberal’ generically for anything that is not Conservative… especially to be dismissive.  Liberal is a very specific ethical  framework and it takes quite a commitment to liberal. It is not a default position.
  2. We disavow the left-right , conservative-liberal split as farcical. It doesn’t exist. Obama is a Centrist Democrat. Romney is a Centrist Republican. Any idea that Obama is a radical is ridiculous.* We repent of lazy language & thought.
  3. We wake up as the church that the role the Liberals used to play in the system does not function. There is no moderating or buffering presence to bring a corrective to the system. Thus, participating in the system as-it-now-exists will not fix the system. The corporate hold over every aspect of our political system is pervasive.
  4. We step up as the church in the revelation that government is not going to fulfill the expectation to
  • bring good news to the poor (Economy)
  • restore sight to the blind (Medical)
  • release to the captive  (Legal)
  • lift up the broken hearted (Compassion)

The church can do these things! We have deferred to the political system for too long. We have outsourced our responsibility to society but now live with the remains of the bloated carcass Christendom. With the death of the liberal class resistance to corporate rule and unchecked consumerism is impotent. The Citizen’s United ruling is just one step on long trail … but we know where it leads.
There are churches in every community and there may be no greater existing potential than us! **  I know it sounds dreamy, but in the rest of this series I want to flesh it out. By the end, it might not seem as far-fetched as it does right now.
– Bo Sanders
*Wall Street campaign funding, legalizing assassination, and Guantanamo Bay are your first 3 hints.
**  The danger of course is that we keep voting based on two issues while turning a blind eye to  corporate rule, environmental deregulation, and perpetual war.


This post is the beginning of a new series and was co-posted on Homebrewed Christianity.

Economy and Ecology: the future of the past (part 3 of 3)

I left off in part 2 by imagining what might be on the other side of the ‘bridge’ after we get past the two trolls of colonial christianity and environmental dualism. My hope is that there is a different way to be in the world.

I admit that we can’t go back. We can’t undo Colonization. We aren’t going back to family farms. We can’t refreeze the polar ice caps or re-create the Glaciers in Glacier National Park.  As they say ‘we shall not pass this way again’.

My hope is not to reclaim some previous ideal of human community. My desire is to explore a realistic assessment of what is possible (and preferable) given the past developments and as-is structures of existence.

Here are three groups/conversations that give me a little hope:

The Environmental-Philosophical crowd. People like Bill McKibben have been sounding the alarm for quite a while and have since moved to talking about a radically different planet termed “Eaarth” in which we will need to go small and local.

On a larger scale, our whole civilization stands on the edge of collapse because the data inputted into our risk management models come from the last couple of hundred years, a very atypical time. A giddy time, high on oil… Our time, on every front, has been marked by the dizzying Alice-on-her-first-pill explosion in the size of the human enterprise. For almost all of human history, our society was small and nature was large; in a few brief decades that key ratio has reversed. – p. 105

Native Communities: Three years ago I got to take part in two conferences that altered the way I see the world and think about the future. The first was the Theology of the Land conference at George Fox Seminary. The second was a NAIITS gathering at the George Fox undergrad campus. Randy Woodley continues to be a voice of reason and reconciliation in an increasingly complex environment. I am anxiously anticipating the release of his newest book this year that deals with the concept of Shalom and Creation.

Process and Eco-Feminist Theology:
Last month I helped organize an event that brought together the Emergent church and Process theology.  One of the key folks in that conversation is John Cobb, author of Spiritual Bankruptcy. Cobb’s and others in the conversation are deeply involved in both ecology and economy from a theological perspective. I was greatly encouraged to hear about projects from around the country of communities taking seriously the reality we find ourselves in. From small neo-monastic communities to universities to political & civil engagements, there is a growing awareness that something has got to change.

  • The way that we have lived
  • the rate at which we have used resources
  • the expectations for perpetual growth
  • and economic prosperity

have exhausted creation and bankrupted modern human civilization.

This is not a ‘the sky is falling’ mentality. This is a ‘new reality’ perspective that the damage is done and we can not go back or turn back the clock. This just is the way it is now. But if global capitalism, and its mutant offspring – consumerism, continue to go unchecked … let me say it a different way: the church has a message and a historic practice that can engage voices of health and community. Unfortunately, the church herself has been seduced and gone into the business of supply and demand. Those days need to come to an end. It betrays her calling and compromises her message.

The first step is to repent of the Cartesian dualism and the second is to resign from the colonial impulse. After that we can embrace the truth that we are both a product of and a participant in nature and that mutually edifying, inter-connected, trans-national, multi-racial community is our hope for the future.

The expectation of one big global community is ruining us. The future is small, diverse, multiple, and interdependent.

originally posted at Ethnic Space

Bending the Spectrum

I have never been a big fan of ‘spectrum’ thinking. The language of far left and far right  just rings hollow for me. It is insufficient for the most part and in the end, inaccurate.

I read the book The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen more than a decade ago and said out loud “Oh! So THAT is why I bristle at the either/or, Republican/Democrat, Right/Left dichotomy! – now it makes sense.”

I reject the spectrum at every turn … but recently I have begun to make an exception in regards to the spectrum. The spectrum is only applicable for someone who thinks that there is a spectrum. I will only try to get them to see that not everyone exists on a spectrum nor are they accounted for by a right-left binary. I no longer try to dislodge them of the notion as a whole – I only try to introduce that a spectrum is incomplete and insufficient.

Lately I have been overwhelmed – probably because it is an election year – by binary language and dualistic thinking. In these conversations I have discovered that it can be quite effective to introduce a simple word play. Spectrums are not straight lines – like light, they bend.

You may think that this sounds overly simplistic but just think about the rise of the Tea-Party and the emergence of the Occupy movement coming in roughly the same window of time. Now those two groups would say that they stand for completely different things. To an outside observer, however, for all the minor distinctions they share a ‘Major’ concern: the system is broken and we can’t trust our leaders to fix it.

This week, I am starting a series working though the Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges. He begins the book with a 25 year old former Marine walking along a highway in Upstate NY that I driven. He is disillusioned with the economic and political systems and is getting ready to do something about it. At one point the young vet says:

“I could see there was no difference between the two main political parties. There is a false left/right paradigm which diverts the working class from the real reasons for their hardships.”

I am looking forward to the series in the exact inverse proportion to how much I am dreading this election cycle.* I have lots of Tea Party types in my life and many Occupy sympathizers as friends. I hear them both saying that the system is not working and that those in charge are not capable of fixing it, that we the people need to be more hands on.

Chris Hedges analyzes the crisis and articulates the root causes better than anyone I have found. The slant of the series will revolve around one simple question “IF Hedges is right about the world – how then should we do theology?

The Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, the global economic crisis and the ongoing wars are telling us something … and it is not about the End of Days. Doing theology in this environment will inherently have some continuity with historical approaches but it will require some tools that may not be familiar to us as well as some necessary innovations.

 The left and right think that they are far apart, but in a bent system they are closer than they would believe. At some point on an arc the far right and the far left almost touch.

I end the way Hedges begins, with a quote from George Orwell:

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.  “Freedom of the Press”

* Tavis Smiley has been saying for quite a while that this will be the ugliest and most racist election in modern times.

I also posted this at Homebrewed

Two Trolls and a Bridge (part 2 of 3)

In part one I mentioned that there are two trolls that guard the bridge to a new way. I named them as Colonial Christianity and Environmental Dualism. Of the many issues facing us, let me tell why I recognized those two.

In 1421 Chinese ships landed on the Pacific coast of what we know as North America. Last year in Postcolonial class, my prof asked us a series of questions that began with “Why didn’t they stay and colonize? What was different from what especially the Spanish would do a century later?

I spent the semester, as we read Said, de las Casas, and all those who follow them looking for a common theme that could provide a interpretive key. I kept noticing that there was secondary mechanism behind the machine of Colonial power.

Throughout history there have been Empires and that, by definition, comes with  a conquest narrative. Even in our own Bible we see that group like Assyria, the Babylonians Greeks, and Romans swept through Israel. Israel itself had the Canaanite conquest narrative. Not to mention that China was an empire that conquered and subjugated the areas and nations around them. There is nothing new about either empire or conquest.

But this is not that. There is something else going on in the Colonial era that led the British, French, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish to expand and extend that impulse to an exponential degree. It is so inflamed and exaggerated that some explanation must be provided as to difference that we see in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.

Technology is insufficient as an explanation. Guns and horses certainly explain some of atrocities we see with the Conquistadores but that is merely wood for the framework. There was a fuel that made it so flammable and destructive. What fueled the Colonial drive was a specific brand of Christianity.

I think that needs to be pointed out. It must be acknowledged for two reasons:

  1. It is still with us
  2. its unquestioned giveness allows it to remain in power but in a far more sinister way – in secret assumption.

Colonial Christianity remains – not just as a residue – but as an unquestioned operating system and that is both an ongoing danger to our planet’s existence (war, environment, economy, etc) but also to the very integrity of the Gospel message that it purports to contain.

Nipples and Bellybuttons

One of the most powerful things that the Western mind inherited comes from the thought of Renee Descartes – it is a Cartesian dualism between the mind and the physical body. On the surface it does not look so danderous – but it morphs and attches itself to other really valuable things. One mutant offspring begins to distinguish between humans and everything else. This fits great into Colonial Christianity. The result is that we think we are exceptional.

Humans are mammals – notice the presence of nipples and bellybuttons – while many Christians  recognize the similarities they refused to acknowledge that humans are mammals (and then are confused by our sexual desires and habits).

This exceptional dualism shows up in all sorts of places! In the study of religion, even if we acknowledge that other religions grew UP from communities and are expressions of their various locations … Christianity is held to be an exception to that. It came DOWN from Heaven and would be the same truth regardless of its historical embeddedness in the Ancient Near East.

Exceptionalism is an ongoing mentality today. It affects so many areas.  [by the way, Randy Woodley wrote a great piece on political exceptionalism here]

In my opinion – beside the possible exception of modern war – there is no area where exceptional thinking is more deadly than the environment. From dust we came – as humans we are made up and sustained by what comes from the soil, the water, and the air.

We must repent of of this exceptional dualism and confess that while we are unique on the earth – we are not exceptions to it and in fact we are integral parts of it and completely dependent upon it.

When you put these two monsters of Colonial Christianity and Environmental Dualism together, you may be able to see why I think that they are the Trolls blocking the bridge to a new way.

Tomorrow I will attempt to articulate what waits on the other side of the bridge. The simple fact is that we can’t go back. We can’t undo Colonization. We aren’t going back to family farms. We can’t refreeze the polar ice caps or re-create the Glaciers in Glacier National Park.  As they say ‘we shall not pass this way again’.  But I think that there is a different way of being in the world that holds hope for us.


originally posted at the Ethnic Space blog

Straight Lines and Pipelines (part 1 of 3)

originally posted at Ethnic Space

Recently, I got a new calendar for 2012. I’m not a big fan of calendars in general so I refuse to spend much money on them – which is why I waited until February and got one from the ‘extreme discount’ bin at a news stand.

Once I got it home, I was flipping through the pages and I noticed something that really odd. It was a time-zone map for daylight-savings. The thing that struck me so odd is that not all of the lines were straight. For instance, in easter Oregon the line for PST does not follow the eastern boarder of the state. It jogs west for a section.

I thought to myself  “wow – I wonder how that was decided? Did that come from the people? How would someone have the sovereignty to do that? What did that process even look like?”

The reason this seemed to odd to me was three fold:

  •  I lived in perhaps the flattest place on earth: Saskatchewan. And while it is flat I still find myself smirking when I look at a map and see the straight lines of provinces and states … because not even Saskatchewan is that flat! The straight lines on our maps should be a warning to us. They should be a screaming siren and a flashing light that something arbitrary and unnatural has been imposed upon the landscape.
  • My favorite historian to listen to as I drive is John Merriman at Yale. He has a presentation about straight lines and how  after wars  they are drawn up literally with a ruler. It is one of those things that can jolt you out of an imperial slumber. When you grow up in a colonial mentality, so often you take the as-is structure of your reality as a given and never question how straight lines are laid over mountainous regions or winding terrains. You never question the arbitrary nature of border placements and boundaries that literally could not have been devised on site. They would have had to be conceived remotely – literally with a ruler on a flat piece of paper.
  • I was reading Canadian news on my Yahoo! reader and there was a headline about the Oil Pipeline needing Tribal approval. As a dual citizen I am constantly explaining to my American friends that it works a little different in Canada. First Nations are recognized in way that is foreign to most Americans (I am using these words intentionally). You can read about Tribal reaction to the pipeline’s defeat here. The thing that haunts me is the confusion in my friend’s eyes when tribal sovereignty interferes with something like the pipeline. “They can do that?” I know is what they are trying to ask as they stumble through their awkward attempt at understanding political power and land rites.

Several years ago I heard Randy Woodley present a paper about working with the land – not imposing things on the land or doing something to the land. He used the example of highway that was to be constructed through a reservation in a Western state. The easiest way was to make the road a straight line which would require blasting through hills and filling in ravines. Native leadership protested and a decision was made to adjust the design of the road so that it flowed with the bends of the landscape instead.

I think about that story all the time. I hate that a new highway had to cut through what had been unbroken space. We don’t live in a perfect world – it is all compromises and lesser of two evils. I am not a romantic or idealist … but I think that we live in grave danger. It is one thing that we ‘need’ to build a road or need to extract more oil. That is not my primary concern. What really concerns me is that we don’t even see the straight lines. It never even dawns on us that they don’t exist. They occur nowhere in nature. They are imposed upon the land and laid over the land. They don’t come from the terrain and are not in partnership with the place. They are completely foreign and often arbitrary.

And yet we never see them. The western mind sees what-is and assumes its giveness as a self validating presence. This is the first of three posts this week where I want to examine the underlying ignorance, and engage some new possibilities in the hopes of embodying a new way of being in these days.
The two trolls that guard the bridge to a new way are named Colonial Christianity and Environmental Dualism. When we assume the as-is structure of modern existence we choose to stay asleep and allow the machine to roll-on  – to roll-over, and crush  everything in its path. When we fail to recognize how things emerge from the earth, we falsely import and impose our straight (and thus false) lines on the earth. We must change our relationship to the earth and begin to work with the earth.

I will be back tomorrow to talk about what happened in 1421 and revisit why nipples and bellybuttons matter.  I look forward to your comments and questions.

Why I love Narrative Theology

Inspired by a post that J.R. Daniel Kirk did over at Storied Theology on Narrative. I went to my nightstand for my trusty Global Dictionary of Theology – from which I do most of my morning reading. I looked up Narrative Theology and thought it would be cool to see this same content as a blog entry instead of an encyclopedia format. What follows is the edited content completely derived from Thomas Harvey’s article (p. 598-601). All the words are Harvey’s – I just typed and formatted.

Narrative theology examines the fecund relationship between story, Biblical interpretation and the ongoing life of the church. It examines the relationship between narrative as a literary form and theological reflection.

It is in the reading, telling and interpretation of narratives that humans derive their communal and personal identity as well as provide a basis for meaningful activity of the world.

Accordingly, biblical scholars and theologians have considered how narrative functions

  • biblically
  • doctrinally
  • historically
  • liturgically
  • morally
  • missiologically
  • and what implications this might have in terms of a Christian understanding of the nature of God.

Narrative draws deeply from philosophical insight into the relation between narrative and rationality. Knowledge is thus not derived from random collection of “facts” but only in light of the inherited narrative frameworks passed down through meaningful stories.

In Christianity, the primary narrative framework is supplied by Scripture. For Karl Barth the critical matter was not whether the narratives could be proved historically inerrant or scientifically verified, but rather how the stories functions themselves to span the gap between the believer and Scripture’s ultimate Author who lives and moves through these narratives.

Because the truth of Scripture is ordered to its narrative, Hans Frei argued that modern emphasis on pure reason or universal religious experience has led to a damaging eclipse of the biblical narrative and thus the theology that rests upon.

The significance of the biblical story to self, church and society lies in the heart of H. Richard Niebuhr’s  The Meaning of Revelation. Whereas Barth sought to vindicate Scripture as the story of God rather than the spiritual yearning of humankind writ large, Niebuhr focused on the impact of biblical narrative on the basic convictions of Christians.The grammar and the logic of narrative has been an important aspect of George Lindbeck’s analysis of the nature of doctrine. Rather than approaching doctrine as a set of propositional truths that refer directly to objective transcendent realities, Lindbeck views doctrine primarily as the cultural and linguistic grammar and logic distinguishing Christian communities from each other as well as adherence to other religions. For Lindbeck the problem with viewing doctrine as cognitive propositions is that arguments degenerate into irreducible disagreements about referents not amenable to adjudication. In contrast, when viewed as cultural and linguistic rules of faith, doctrinal difference refers to the ways diverse communities configure the narrative of salvation differently.According to Paul Ricoeur, “symbol precedes thought”.

When viewed in this way, theology is not merely reflective and retrospective, but creative and engaging.

It takes the stories, symbols, analogies and metaphors of Word and sacrament as means to grapple with and better understand the nature of existence and knowledge.

The critics of narrative theology point out that it is systematically unsystematic, making it difficult for its proponents to point to any sustained or coherent theological method or progress. It represents a variety methodological and theological concerns,  appraisals and projects that seek to recover the relevance of the narrative accounts of Scripture as well as narrative accounts of the church both individually and communally.

A Change in Seasons – Spring 2012

Over the past couple of months this blog has been primarily focused on two reoccurring themes: how we read the Bible and making sense of the miraculous. I didn’t plan it that way, per se, but it just kept coming up – and since I love those two topics, I went with it.

Now I want to change gears and do something a little more intentional. First, let me set it up.

There are several things happening in our culture that are coming together in an alarming way. The arenas of overlap include:

  • Science
  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Sexuality

The recent political backlash against women’s health, insurance coverage, and reproductive rights is fueled by a religious backlash. This is why it is no coincidence that controversy has flared up in politics around Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum – and in religion with Marc Driscoll and John Piper.  Both sets of controversy are coming from the same place … they just play out in different arenas.

This past week I read two news stories that illustrate the same:

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) argued that his belief that global warming is a hoax is biblically inspired. You can read the article here.

Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that “as long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous. – Sen. James Inhofe

The second story had to do with a school assembly in Iowa that turned ugly. It was supposed to be an anti-bullying presentation by a rock band that became anti-gay and anti-abortion.  You can read the story here.

I saw the headline and thought to myself “I will guarantee you that the band was ‘christian’.”  Turns out I was right!  But let me ask you: how did I know?   Because in the current arena there are 2 telltale signs:

  1. Christians have become 2 issue voters. Those two issues are homosexuality and abortion. Over the last 30 years of the Religious Right the American Church has been reduced to a caricature.
  2. The only way that a group who was brought in to talk about anti-bullying would end up ranting against gays and abortion was if they believed that they were working for a BIGGER truth and could therefor dishonor the initial intent of their invitation. What other group  would take the anti-bully opportunity and change direction like that?

We are in an election year so this in only going to get more pronounced.

There are two other factors in my change of season
As you may know, I consider myself a Contextual Theologian (vs. philosophical, systematic, historical, etc). Well, the reality that has been dawning on me is that our context is one dominated by capitalism, global consumerism, post-Cold War imperialism and technology. If I ignore those realities as a theologian then I am doing a dis-service to the Church and to my generation.

It is irresponsible to do theology in the 21st century and not address economics, consumerism (our true global religion), politics, and ecology. 

For this project I have chosen a conversation partner. I work best in dialogue and Chris Hedges is someone I find myself wrestling with throughout the day. The book that I will initially interact with is the national bestseller  “The Death of the Liberal Class” because it covers so many topics that I would love address.

My question will be simply this: IF Chris Hedges is right about the world – how then should we do theology?

I hope that you will join me on this journey and jump into the conversation! I am neither Conservative or Liberal and have been deeply impacted by the book by Deborah Tannen “The Argument Culture: stopping America’s war of words” so I hope that you will feel safe to comment on what will be put forward even though the subject matter can be volatile.

a 3rd way to read the Bible?

In an ongoing search for a hermeneutical practice that is both healthy and accountable (meaning lifegiving without being merely devotional and scholarly without being dry) I have written quite a bit about the journey. I had a multi-part post a while back  Part 1    Part 3 as well Moving Mountains Signs that make you Wonde

This is last week’s addition (posted at HBC) and it was so well received (by some) that I wanted to A) post it here to continue that conversation and B) will be working on another series for late March.  This clearly is something that matters to people.

I love reading the Bible. I grew up reading it, I am passionate about studying it, and delight to preach from it whenever I get the chance.
I also recognize that it is getting harder to do in our contemporary context. I am a loud critic of simple dualism (constantly contending with my Evangelical associates)  – but even I must concede when there are two main schools of thought that have set themselves up in opposition to each other.  I buck the ‘spectrum’ thinking like Liberal v. Conservative (as if those were the only two options) in almost every circumstance. However, when it comes to reading the Bible, it is tough to avoid the set of major trenches that have been dug on either side of this narrow road.
The first group reads the Bible in what is called a ‘straight forward’ way and while they spend a lot of time with the text, there is little acknowledgement of what is going on behind the text. This group reads the Bible primarily devotionally, preaches exegetically and views it as not just instructive but binding for all times and places.
In my interactions with this group, there is little awareness of hermeneutics (in may cases they may have never heard the word before) and even less willingness to engage in scholarship that does anything behind the text.
The second group engages in Historical-Critical methods. They are willing to look at things like redaction (later editing). They don’t harmonize the Gospels into one Gospel. They are willing to acknowledge that Matthew and Luke’s conception, birth and subsequent details do not line up. They understand that while the story of Daniel happens in the 5th century BC – it was not written in the 5th century BC. They joke about Moses writing the 1st five books of Bible (how did he write about his own death?).
 Lately I have been engaging books like :

  • How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel
  • To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application by Stephen R. Haynes
  • Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages by Jaroslav Pelikan
  • She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson
  • Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology by Rosemary Radford Ruether

Over the last 4 years, it has become painfully clear to me that we have a problem when it comes to reading the Bible. Simply stated, those who spend the most time with the Bible know less about it but make greater claims for it than those who do more scholarship on it but may have little faith in it.
I was listening to a seminar on the Historical-Jesus and talking to several friends of mine who do Historical-Criticism, here are 3 sentences that no evangelical I know even have ears to hear:

  1. Paul didn’t even write that letter
  2. Jesus probably didn’t say that sentence
  3. The Bible is wrong about this

I get in trouble for saying much much milder things about the literary device of the virgin birth, the prophetic concern of Revelation which is limited to the first 2 centuries CE, and  Jesus being ironic about ‘bringing a sword’. Can you imagine what would happen if I thought that Paul didn’t write the letters that are attributed to him, that Jesus did not utter the red-letter words we have recorded in the gospels or that the Bible was wrong about something?  I can’t.
So how does a moderate engage Biblical scholarship without stumbling over Historical-Critical pitfalls and Historical Jesus land-mines?  The thing that I hear over and over is

“Just stick with N.T. Wright. He has navigated the gulf for you”

Now, I love N.T. Wright as much as the next emergent evangelical (especially his Everybody series) … but I am as unwilling, on one hand, to forego the best and most comprehensive stuff (like Dom Crossan’s work on Empire) as I am, on the other hand, to subscribe to the inane prerequisites of the Jesus Seminar.

What I would really like to see is a move within the emerging generation that is tenacious about engaging contemporary scholarship while fully embracing the kind of devotional passion that the innerant camp demonstrates  – all the while avoiding the fearful and intimidating chokehold that camp utilizes to squelch innovation & thought.
I want the next generation to both find life and direction in the scriptures and also to not have to read the tough parts with their fingers crossed behind their back.
a hopeful moderate – Rev. Bo C. Sanders

For those who do not want to scour the comments to find the links to other resources:
Daniel Kirk’s book  “Jesus have I loved but Paul?”
Ben Witherington’s  book list 

Loving Jesus – While Hating Religion

originally posted at HBC

Jeff Bethke has created quite a stir with his YouTube video that begins “Jesus came to abolish religion.”  Many video responses have followed (including a Muslim response) and  some bloggers have meticulously  attacked the logic behind his poem point-by-point.  Two  weeks ago  he was in Time magazine.

This whole controversy gets to me at two deep levels:

  •  I used to say those things. Just 4 short years ago I was an evangelical church-planter who regularly contrasted Jesus’ message to ‘religion’.


  •  I am shocked at how dismissive so many  folks are being to Bethke’s poem (especially educated and/or mainline).

I have heard many people just brush aside his use of ‘religion’ as ignorant, immature, stupid, uneducated, silly, shallow, un-historic, and false. The thing that I want to yell is

“YOU FOOLS – like it or not, that is how people use the word religion in our culture.”

If you asked A) people under 40 and B) evangelicals to define religion you would get a picture that is almost identical to Bethke’s .

I now hang out with mainline folks and people who read books on theology. They are  quick to say

  • that shows a poor understanding of religion
  • that is a silly/stupid/shallow definition of religion
  • that shows little historical perspective on the role that religion has played

Like it or not – this is the definition that many young people are using for religion. When they say (increasingly) that they are spiritual-but-not-religious , this is what they mean: empty ritual, mindless repitition, and meaningless ceremony.

I am pursuing a PhD in the field of Practical Theology for the very reason that I want to engage how people live out their faith – practice it – in particular communities. The two things that I am willing to concede up front are that

  • Many North American Christians and most Evangelicals utilize simple dualism (Physical v. Spiritual, Natural v. Supernatural, Temporal v. Eternal, Secular v. Sacred, Old v. New Testament, Law v. Grace). This is how they think.
  • Religion is conceptualized as the man-made structures that attempt to facilitate, replicate, and falsely imitate the real thing that God does/wants-to-do in the world.

It is popular to say in these circles “Religion is man’s attempt to connect with God. Jesus is God’s attempt to connect with man.” *

I know that there are many good attempts to connect with religious tradition. I have heard many addresses regarding the root of the word religion and how the ‘lig’ is the same as ligament or ‘binding’ and how it is an attempt to bind us together – not to have us bound up in rules!
My question is this: Are you willing to engage this dualistic and uniformed populist definition of religion that is in place OR would your rather hold to your enlightened and informed historical perspective and allow a conversation to happen without you because you are above it? **

I know that it can be frustrating to circle back and entertain naive perspectives. But if the alternative is to let the conversation happen without a historically informed perspective, then I think we have no choice but to concede the initial conditions of the dialogue in an attempt to express an informed/educated alternative.

*   there are alternatives like “Religion is our attempt to connect with God, Christianity is God’s connecting with us.”
**  I have intentionally provided two alternatives to honor the dualistic nature of this mentality.

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