Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

Prayer for the New Year

by Catherine Cameron

God who stretched the spangled heavens infinite in time and place,

Flung the suns in burning radiance through the silent fields of space;

We, your children in your likeness, share inventive powers with you;

Great Creator, still creating, show us what we yet may do.



quoted in chapter 4 of ‘God – the world’s future’ by Ted Peters

Your Kin-dom Come!

Kin-dom language has really captured my imagination. It is a much needed upgrade for the alternate translation of Greek word βασιλεία, (‘basileia’) instead of the antiquated (and problematic) ‘kingdom’.

I have toyed with the idea of leaving such rich and nuanced words/concepts untranslated into English like we do with agape in Greek or selah in the Hebrew psalms. For a while I thought that leaving it untranslated loaned it an air of mystery or exotic foreignness.

Later, I considered novel translations such as economy of God, reign and rule, commonwealth, government as a possible way forward. These concepts, however, convey many of the same associations with the intrinsic hierarchy, coercion, and domination that is incongruent with the love of God revealed in Christ. Jesus brought a counter-kingdom, an anti-kingdom, or even an un-kingdom that is weighed down with the baggage and violence that ‘kingdom’ has picked up through church history.

In the end, I have circled around again and again to the kin-dom of God. It signifies that we are all interrelated (kin) and that as family, we are relationally constituted. Our related-ness is our prominent characteristic. What defines us? Our connection to the divine/transcendent/reality in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

In this vein, I have found an advocate in the work of Ada Maria Isasi-­Diaz’s “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21st Century” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside. It resonates with me because both Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6 talk about the inner witness of God’s spirit in our spirit that we have been adopted and are children of God.

David Harstkoetter tells us:

She skillfully argued that the gracious, salvific work of God, through love of the neighbor, entails solidarity characterized by interconnectivity—namely commonality and mutuality. … Yet, rather than describe solidarity as God’s ‘kingdom,’ a term that Isasi­Díaz names as sexist and is in the contemporary context “hierarchical and elitist,” she instead uses the term “kin­dom” to emphasize that the eschatological community will be a family: “kin to each other.”[1]

In the past I have been concerned/critical of ‘the kingdom’ translation. There are so many objectionable aspects to it and I am especially concerned when Americans seem to romanticize the monarchy and the imperial ideal of domination. It seems so ironic! That is why I have dug into what role or function is being accomplished in this romanticized obsession.

Since I have started working on this a couple of years ago, there has been an uptick in King or Kingdom related books in my circles. Tim Keller, NT Wright, Scott McKnight and others have doubled down on this phenomenon.  The more I prayerfully study this concept, the more I understand its appeal to them and the louder that I must suggest that Christianity’s future is not found in Europe’s past.

Jesus didn’t speak English, so there is nothing sacred about the translation ‘kingdom’. In fact, the more one examines the merit of the kin-dom translation, the clearer it communicates the virtue and the loving relational characteristic that Jesus modeled and taught.

I realize that it sets off a potential chain reaction and leads to a set of subsequent concerns and changes – and we can tackle those one at a time as they become relevant – but if this move toward the kin-dom is the only upgrade that we adopt, it is a significant improvement on its own!

May your kin-dom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.


[1] p. 89 in Getting Back to Idolatry Critique: Kingdom, Kin­dom, and the Triune Economy.


Yes Please

A couple of weeks ago I read a fantastic article that has stuck with me. The article was entitled “Feminist theology’s contribution to pastoral theology” [link] and it was 10 pages  packed with goodness.

One section that I have returned to several times said, “Margaret Farley[1] effectively encapsulates the program of feminist theology under three themes:

  1. relational patterns among human persons,
  2. human embodiment, and
  3. human assessment of the meaning and value of the world of ‘nature’.”

Those three themes resonate with me deeply.

Relational patterns among humans is the entire reason I got into the field of practical theology. I wanted out of theology as abstract ideas and speculation. The practices of faith and the lived reality of religious communities fascinates me. I want to know what people do with their faith, how it forms and informs their activity in the world. I am convinced that meaning is socially constructed and that belief must be relationally enacted.

Human embodiment is the logical outcome of this line of reasoning. Christianity is a religion centered on the event of the incarnation. Said another way, Christianity is an incarnational religion. Faith, to really be faith, must be embodied and enacted. Our bodies matter to God. This is why I love Elaine Graham’s use of ‘perfomativity’ in her book Transforming Practice. 

Value of the world of ‘nature’ is going to be increasingly crucial in our lifetime. The environmental/ecological issues are only going to become more intense and more consequential. The thing that many christians seem to confuse is that the ‘new heaven and new earth’ promise of scripture is not a clean break with this current one but a redemption/restoration of it at some level (or in some way). God loves the world (John 3:16) and what that means needs some new attention.

These three themes got me thinking: much of the time I wish that feminist theology was just theology. Part of how masculine theology gets to avoid using a modifier and hold onto the mantle of regular or plain ole’ theology is by employing the modifier feminist to qualify certain work.[2]

I’ll pause there for today. I just wanted to:

A) share this quote and these three themes with you

B) encourage to look for the work of Kathryn Tanner , Serene Jones, Emilie Townes, bell hooks, Elizabeth Johnson, Marjorie Suchocki, Monica Coleman, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and my PhD advisor Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook in our theology in the new year series.

I’ll pick up tomorrow with ‘Your Kin-dom Come!’ and the work of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21st Century” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside. 


[1] Farley, Margaret A. “Feminist theology and bioethics” in Feminist theology: a reader / edited by Ann Loades. 1990, pp.238-254, at p.240

[2] ie. Mary Daly, Sallie McFague, Rosemay Radford Ruether who are explicitly addressing issue related to gender and patriarchy


Theology in the New Year

Starting in January, I will be teaching an Essentials of Theology class.  I wanted to invite you to follow along and even participate here as the weekly class themes will provide direction for blog posts.

We will be using 2 books and each week we will put them in conversation. The first book is Essentials of Christian Theology (Kindle $17) and the second is Introduction to Christian Theology: Contemporary North American Perspectives. There are a couple of PDFs later in the reading that I will provide links to when it is time.

This is going to be a fun format. Each section in the Essentials book provides two authors’ perspective. We will then place that material in conversation with a third (and different) perspective to both challenge and round out the dialogue.

The content will be electric so I wanted to invite you join in and give your theological reflection some zip in the new year! Consider picking up the books and following along as we explore some of the big themes of the faith. You will also be able to listen to MP3s of the lecture portion of class each Tuesday.  

January 9 – January 15

What Are We Doing Here? The Task of Theology

Reading: Essentials – How Do We Know What to Believe? p. 1-50

Lecture: Informed and Formed by the Faith

Conversation:  Intro – Badham chpt. 1


January 16 – January 22


Reading: Essentials – What Do We Mean by “God” p. 51-92

Lecture: 5 Gods That People Worship

Conversation:  Intro – Williamson chpt. 3


January 23 – January 29


Reading: Essentials – Is God in Charge? p. 93-132

Lecture: Located and Active Agents

Conversation:  Intro – Brock chpt. 13


January 30 – February 5


Reading: Essentials – How Does Jesus Make a Difference? p. 183-220

Lecture: Jesus in not Superman

Conversation:  Intro – Cone chpt. 14


February 6 – February 12


Reading: “Spirit” chpt. 6 in Constructive Theology pdf.

Lecture: The Power of Pentecost and Perichoresis

Conversation:  Intro – Keller chpt. 16


February 13 – February 19

The Evangelical Tradition

Reading: Intro – Pinnock chpt. 6


February 20 – February 26


Reading: Essentials – What’s Wrong With Us? p. 133-182

Lecture: Competing Desires

Conversation:  Intro – Townes chpt. 15


February 27 – March 5


Reading: Essentials – Why Bother With Church? p. 221- 256

Lecture: Ecclesiology and Environment

Conversation:  Intro – Oden chpt. 5


March 6 – March 12

Christian Life

Reading: Essentials – How Should We Live? p. 257-296

Lecture: Character and Habitus for the 21st Century

Conversation:  Intro – Hauerwas chpt. 8


March 13 – March 19

Context: Colonialism and Consumerism

Reading: Woodley “Missiology” pdf.

Lecture: Conscripted Into A Better Story

Conversation: Intro – Isasi-Diaz chpt. 17


March 20 – March 26

Other Religions

Reading: Essentials – What About Them? p. 297-326

Lecture: Are All Religions Paths Up the Same Mountain?

Conversation:  Intro – Hick chpt. 2


March 27 – April 2

The Good News

Reading: Elaine Graham – “Between a Rock & a Hard Place” pdf.

Lecture: The Evangel – Good News for the Poor?

Conversation:  Intro – Jeanrond chpt. 10


April 3 – April 9


Reading: Essentials – Where Are We Going? p. 327-365

Lecture: The End of The End

Conversation:  Intro – Taylor chpt. 18


April 10 – April 16

Putting It All Together

Reading: Intro – Devaney pdf.

Lecture: The World Wide Web of Christian Practice

Conversation: Weaving a Web of Meaning


April 17 – April 23

Constructing A Christian

Reading:  Intro – Buckley chpt. 7

Lecture: Dancing Our Prayers

Conversation: The Body and Embodied Practice


April 24 – April 30



Evangelical and Liberal

I have stumbled into the most fascinating conversation.

Background: I work at an evangelical institution. I recently worked at a liberal mainline church while attending a liberal mainline school. I was raised evangelical and am ordained as an evangelical. It was interesting being in a mainline context for 7 years and it is equally as interesting to return to an evangelical context now.

I was talking about this with a colleague two weeks ago because a group that I am a part of is planning to simply its name but it will no longer contain with word ‘evangelical’. This decision was made before the recent US election in which 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. The group is afraid that this decision will now appear to be a reactive move.

I find three unspoken things going on in this discussion. Unspoken things are concerning because the assumed is unexamined and is often a source of operative power at a secondary register which hides behind the primary concerns.

Here are my 3 concerns:

  • ‘Evangelical’ has become a floating or migrating signifier. It does not mean what it used to mean and most people who use the term cannot tell you what it means. (Personally, I use an expanded version of Bebbington’s fourfold definition.)
  • The dominant boogeyman for evangelicals is being ‘liberal’ – another term which most cannot define, which has caused it to become a code-word and a boundary-marker. Liberal, to evangelicals, seems to be a place-holder and a sort of dog-whistle for being open and accepting. Using the label this way has resulted in the word operating as a master signifier.
  • Evangelicalism in the Pacific NW (where I recently returned to) is a unique type of evangelicalism which is highly visible and influential but which functions on a narrative whereby they are a minority who get the short end of the stick socially, politically, and culturally.

I find this stuff fascinating. As someone who has lived all over N. America, who has evangelical cred (I went to the Billy Graham school of evangelism for crying out loud), who has worked and studied with liberal mainline folks, and who is a committed social constructivist … I feel like I am in the vortex of a cultural and historic moment. I have friends in both camps and am comfortable in both conversations, but this is an eye-opening moment for both.


I was doing some research last week on a different issue and stumbled into a conversation from 2008 that is growing increasingly relevant. It centers around the work of University of Washington professor James K. Wellman in “Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest”.

A review in the Seattle Times by Bob Simmons starts this way:

“The “evangelicals” of James K. Wellman Jr.’s new book know there’s only one way to God, and it’s their way. The “liberals” know there’s more than one way and are still questioning theirs. By numerical and other earthly measures, the evangelicals are winning big in the Pacific Northwest. The only question is your definition of winning.”

The research is amazing. It shows that evangelical churches are larger by a 10-1 margin and are growing at an incredible rate. However … they often feel marginalized politically, oppressed culturally, and even victimized by public policy.

This is exactly what I had been telling my colleague! I have never lived in a place that felt more christian-y with so many Christian radio stations, Christian book stores, and large churches surrounded by asphalt lakes/moats (which I call a island/castle mentality) … all the while feeling that they are losing the culture war!

It is sad because the evangelicals are doing a tremendous job in so many ways. They really should be enjoying this kind of success. As Wellman writes:

“Evangelicals have an ideology that is centered on growth, and is in relation to the self, to God, to the family, the church, and the mission of the religion. Evangelicals have accommodated styles of group work that appeal to northwesterners because they activate a sense of belonging and moral accountability.”

A different article points out that, “while liberals sermonize about the importance of building a religious community, the evangelicals are living out community”, supporting financially, relationally, and spiritually.

What I am finding in these conversations has been complex and multi-layered. It turns out that when liberals talk about evangelicals, they are often commenting on two aspects: worship style (happy clappy) and politics (by which they mean women in ministry and LGBT support). Evangelicals in a similar way, use the moniker ‘liberal’ as a kind of a double-code. The first layer is supporting/accepting the LGBT community – and here is where it gets tricky – which is actually a metonym for “biblical authority”. In this sense, neither group is exactly representing the focus of the other group accurately.

I have so many thoughts that I am sure that this will be an ongoing theme for me in 2017.

One final note – you may be aware that I have developed an interpretive scheme for a potential book on the church that looks at how N. American churches relate to the ‘system’ or the ways things are. Churches fall into 3 primary categories: Prophetic, Therapeutic, or Messianic.

  • Prophetic churches critique the ‘as is’ structures to confront the system. Prophetic churches look toward the marginalized and those being run over by the machine.
  • Therapeutic churches help folks exist within the system. ‘Chaplains to the Empire’ as we say. Therapeutic churches work within the ‘ways things are’ to help make you a better version of yourself.
  • Messianic churches focus on helping one survive until God delivers us from the system. This can be rapture, evacuation, eschatological, etc.  Messianic churches often have animosity toward culture’s slippery slope ‘slouch toward Gomorrah’ and view change as resistance. Anything else is just ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic’.

I reference that quickly (there is a whole book chapter that fleshes it out) in order to say that I found an amazing quote in another review.

For liberals and evangelicals, Jesus is the central focus, “but in the case of liberals, Jesus is the focus that offers compassion and hospitality to the world; in the case of evangelicals, Jesus is a source that saves them from the world by creating a new one to come” (p. 268).

I would love to hear your thoughts, concerns, or questions.

Thank God for Ricoeur

I am so grateful for the work of Paul Ricoeur. It helped sustain my faith during my PhD at Claremont and now it helps me translate what I learned at Claremont back into an evangelical context.

Ricoeur, for me, is like the 2×4 in the wall. His work frames so much of what I do but it wouldn’t be helpful for most people to see it. In fact, he is one of those big thinkers that I recommend reading about rather than actually reading directly. For instance, Stiver’s book is on google books.

Here are the 2 concepts that I use often:

  • Surplus of Meaning

In any symbol as rich and full as the ones found in the Christian faith, there is bound to be an overflow of meanings and interpretations. Think of communion or even the three little letters g-o-d. The symbolism of the communion table and the symbol g-o-d have not just one meaning but have a surplus of meaning!

We have inherited a terrible tradition in Western thought of reducing something down to its ‘essence’ or even its lowest common denominator. We boil things down to their most rudimentary form and simplify them. This leads us to argue about which denomination, what translation of the bible, or what baptism formulation is right.

This reductive move strips symbols of their richness and fullness. It makes things one-dimensional and linear. In trying to boil things down they end up being lifeless and bland.In fact, when this doesn’t work, we often get flustered and say “well then none of the interpretations can be right”. People use this ‘logic’ to complain about the number of views of God, churches, denominations, and translations of the bible. With so many views, how can any one of them be right?

Surplus of meaning recognizes the multiple, the plural, and the overflowing nature of possibilities.

Think of all of the different names for God in the Hebrew Bible. Think about all of the sermons you have heard on ‘the prodigal son’ parable. Think of all the worship songs that have written about the crucifixion. Symbols are rich and overflowing with meaning!

I use the surplus of meaning for everything from Christmas festivities to new church plants. I don’t want to reduce things down – I want to expand them and breath life into them. Christmas isn’t just one thing. In fact, I am under the conviction that we have under-done Christmas and have barely begun to explore and express how amazing the incarnation was and is.

Any symbol as rich as the cross, the communion table, and even the 3 letters g-o-d are going to be overflowing with meaning. It would be impossible to exhaust the possibilities or to reduce it to one thing.

  • Second Naivete

Ricoeur encourages us to pass through desert of criticism  to come back to  our faith (or reading the text) again … but differently. I like the saying:

‘Jesus wants us to have the faith of a child but not a childish faith’.

Ricoeur knows that we have to grow out of our childish naivete about God and the bible but that many of us never round the corner into a mature and developed faith.

Faith is a journey. The dangerous gutters to be avoided on either side of the path are cynicism on the one side and certainty on the other. It is difficult to pass through the desert of criticism. A lot of people lose their faith along the way and give up. We live in an age of cynicism and it can be tempting to give into calloused, jaded, and bitter doubts.

Second naivete is a grown up faith that comes back into community, the worship service, and to the Bible … this time with eyes wide open. It is a beautiful place of wonder (at the surplus of meaning) which allows us to embrace humility and mystery again.

This is my prayer for you today. That you would be encouraged in your spirit about the fullness and goodness of life and love and faith. This world can be a harsh place and we live in the age of the cynic. May see you see the overflowing possibilities in the world  and may your faith round the corner into a place of honest appreciation for all that it means to so many people. May God’s spirit encourage your spirit as you navigate the tricky road between certainty and doubt.

You will never have the faith that you used to, but let’s be honest – it wasn’t working that well for you anyway. Go ahead and let it go and may you come into a place of beauty and plenty, overflowing with meaning. 

Migration of the Sacred

Politics is on everyone’s mind these days. I wanted to give you something a little different if you are tired of the daily dose of election news (recommendation is at the end of the post).

In ‘political theology’ there is a famous book by Carl Schmitt (four chapters on soverignty) and a more recent book (four new chapters – 2012) by Paul Kahn that updates and challenges the original. I have been thinking about this new work a lot recently.

God used to be thought of as ‘sovereign’, now we call nations ‘sovereign’. When did that shift happen? When did the sacred migrate to the state? 

This shift or transfer developed in an age when revolution and political revolts were “destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” [1] The dissolving social order of caste and class allowed for membership and participation by the population in a new way. To die for a religion (God) or a King was to reinforce that social order which established the hierarchical strata. Locating sovereignty within the conception of Nation – however dispersed and elusive – was a profound change.

In 1922, Carl Schmitt said that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”[3]  The remnants of so many of our former religious and royal forms were adopted and transformed in this novel expression of belonging and duty. Not only is the word sovereign borrowed directly from religious vocabulary, but as Paul Kahn explains:

“Political theology today is best thought of as an effort to describe the social imaginary of the political… (arguing) that secularization, as the displacement of the sacred from the world of experience, never won, even though the church may have lost. The politics of the modern nation-state indeed rejected the church but simultaneously offered a new site of sacred experience.” [4]

The church, often unwittingly, plays a role in validating and reinforcing the migration away from its seat of influence.

  • Think about the way the American constitution is spoken of as a sacred text that was penned by inspired patriarchs and cannot be questioned.
  • Notice the controversy over the singing of the national anthem (a worship song to the nation) at sporting events.
  • Look at the uproar over burning a flag and realize how sacred that piece of fabric is because of what it symbolizes.

If Schmitt is right – even partially – then all of these similarities are neither trivial nor are they inconsequential.

If this whole concept interests you, please take a listen to an incredible podcast with Paul Kahn by CBC Ideas [link to podcast]. You can listen there or download the mp3.

You may also want to check out Kahn’s book (I have the kindle edition).

Let me know what you think. 


[1] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 8.

[3] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Kindle location 37.

[4] p. 360.

Excess Isn’t The Problem

Working on two different presentations this weekend, I ran into a familiar theme: the ‘problem’ of excess.

This afternoon I am teaching a class on ‘Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition’. The students are at the end of their semester and so I wanted to present something to them that will give them a chance to apply what they have learned this semester to a contemporary situation.

I was also working on a church service for two weeks from now where I will be filling in for the pastor who will be at regional gathering with most of the worship team. I am planning a creative Christmas interactive sort of experience.

In both of these projects I kept running up against the theme of excess. What would someone like John Wesley think of the world if we could reach back three centuries and bring him to today?  The Methodist (who he helped to found) were a people of moderation and temperance. They prioritized simplicity and focus. Many times this semester I have tried to imagine what they would think of the world and the Methodist churches that I have been visiting.

I imagine them being a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things and options. We live in an age consumption in which manufactures compete to get consumers the variety and amount of whatever they desire.

At the same time, I am preparing for Christmas and trying to address the pervasive chorus I hear about the extravagance of what Christmas has become. This weekend I watched some football on TV, I had to go the mall to get a package, and I went to church to observe the second week of Advent. I get it … the season is a lot. I hear what people are complaining about and I 100% acknowledge that it can frazzle the nerves and trigger some soul-searching about the modern world.

I am haunted by a lingering suspicion and I want to put it out there for your consideration:

What if excess isn’t the problem? What it excess is the venue and virtue is the issue?

I think about trying to watch football on TV with John Wesley and how I would explain the commercial for 800 channels of cable to him. Why do we need 800 channels? We don’t. So what is the problem? I get why people complain about excess. I do.

I am just wondering: what if excess is the given and that how we handle it is the variable.

So I went to the store for cheese and there are literally 200 varieties. I don’t have to eat them all. In the same way,  I don’t have to watch every show on every channel of TV, flirt with every attractive person in a restaurant, or desire every item that is advertised to me.

We make choices. Those choices are born out of a character. That character is formed and informed by a virtue that I embody and which is enacted by the choices I make and how I behave.

I just wonder if we wouldn’t be better off to spend our energy talking about character-in-community instead of complaining about the ridiculous and excessive manifestation of modern consumer society. It feels like a golfer complaining about the presence of grass or a fish complaining about the presence of water. Excess is the venue of western society. We are not going to go back to the 4 kinds of cheese (Swiss, American, Cheddar and Velveeta) or the 3 network channels of my childhood (ABC, NBC, CBS). Costco isn’t the problem (per se).

Excess isn’t good – but neither is it the problem. Complaining about it, while legitimate and justified, may be an exercise in futility. We are not going back to a simpler time anytime soon.  In fact, pointing out the problems of excess may be a good diagnosis but still leave us with the lack of a cure. Even if excess is a problem, the lack of it is not a solution. We are still left with the absence of something deeper.

Spending this past semester studying Methodism has been good for me to think through this stuff. Going back to a simpler time isn’t the solution … and I’m arguing that living in an age of excess isn’t the problem. The absence of excess doesn’t result in the presence of character.

My growing conviction is that excess isn’t the problem, it is merely the venue and virtue is the issue.


Gift Idea

Seasons greetings! I recommend a lot of books, but I wanted to tell you about the thing that draws the most comments in my office.

The Beehive Collective

This group makes provocative posters and art that are amazing conversation pieces and teaching tools. I have a small one on my door (fueling climate chaos) and one a huge one behind my door (the true cost of coal).

It is impossible to relate how detailed this artwork is or how engaging the pieces are. The bigger posters come with a learning guide and some can be folded to tell multiple layers of stories.

This is group is donation based and the work is stunning.




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