Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

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.




Encouraged Ecclesiology

One of the courses that I have been teaching this fall is on ecclesiology (the church). It has been wonderful to interact with students from a diverse array of backgrounds and denominations. I have loved facilitating the conversation and orchestrating their interactions over the readings.

It has also been interesting for me to do this during a period when I am not in pastoral ministry for the first time in 18 years! I have been visiting different churches as I am teaching this class and that has been an eye opening experience in some ways.

I was researching something else and I stumbled on an author, Len Sweet, who played an important part in getting me to Portland the first time. I had lost track of his work since I was focused on more academic stuff the past 7 years. It turns out that he is even more into Jesus than he used to be! He is really Jesus-centric.

If you want to read an interesting interview with him, check this out [link].

Anyway, I want to share one quick idea with you:

Sweet has this idea called ‘Theography’ – like Jesus is a story (biography) of God. This idea is interesting on its own. Jesus as theography is an intriguing concept.

What I am more interested in, however, is taking this concept and expanding it for the purpose of ecclesiology.

If Jesus is a theography – does that make the church a Christography?  

Are we telling the story of Christ by how we are in the world?

Church as Christography is a concept that I want to explore in the new year. What does it mean to participate in the narrative of God? How do our communities continue the unfolding story of God’s love in Christ? Is the Spirit of Christ the animating presence in our churches? Is the life of the Spirit how God is telling a story with us?

This concept just holds so much possibility. What are the implications for our framing metaphors of ‘the body of Christ’, the bride, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the people of God, etc. ? Does it help us get away from a substance-essence debate? Does it undo the limitations of foundational understandings in a fluid culture?

Let me know if you have any thoughts. Do you like the idea of the church are the ongoing story of Christ? 

Morphing Nature of Race and Gender

Understanding both race and gender can seem difficult at times. Concepts can be illusive and definitions can feel like they change mid-course.

What if it turns out that it doesn’t just seem that way – it actually is that way?

An article that has been very helpful to me is by Troy Duster called “The Morphing Properties of Whiteness” in the book The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness.

His approach moves us from an ‘essentialist’ understanding of race to an elemental one. That is my phrasing, not his – but it holds great possibility for discussions around race and, I would add, gender.

It is in vogue today to say that is race is not a biological reality (DNA, science, etc) but is instead a socially constructed category. That is fine and true BUT that does not help us deal with historical and ongoing effects of race and our previous racial understandings.

In adopting a “Morphing Properties” approach, it gives us a framing metaphor of steam/water/ice to help distinguish between abstract concepts (gas), fluid definitions (liquid) and concrete consequences (solid). It also acknowledges that things can change very quickly. His personal story on p. 123 is telling.

I have been using this article for over a year in whiteness workshops, church settings, and in the classroom. It seems to help people make sense of an overwhelming, complicated, and elusive topic. This gives them an entry point without their white fragility causing them to get their hackles up right away.

I have also started utilizing the elemental approach to gender with those who have inherited an essentialist binary of male/female. I am working here off of Elaine Graham’s Transforming Practice where she engages Judith Butler’s notion of perfomativity. (see below)

I’m arguing that masculinity is performed and that whiteness operates on a performative register.

My thesis: We enact and embody (concrete) our understandings and ideas (abstract) in a fluid environment of social relationships (liquid).

This is a conversation that I would very much like to have in 2017 so I wanted to recommend this article.

If you are looking for a good paperback, I would suggest How The Irish Became White.
If you want a good (and inexpensive) Kindle book, The History of White People is a doozy.

Continue reading “Morphing Nature of Race and Gender”

Coming Out of Hibernation

My 6-month hiatus is over. I last posted June 3rd as life took an interesting turn.

I left Los Angeles and pastoral ministry to pursue an incredible opportunity. My beloved seminary (George Fox Evangelical in Portland)  had an unexpected vacancy and was in need of a theology professor for the year. I volunteered and moved to Portland in August.

The move has been great. Being a professor is fantastic. I have been writing a book with my mentor Randy Woodley and working on my dissertation (more on all of this next week). It has been a wild and woolly faith-filled-risk!  My contract runs through July 2017 but I have no idea what next August holds for us. Prayers would be appreciated on that front …

Earlier this year I had decided to get off both FaceBook and Twitter to focus on some bigger projects. That turned out to be an excellent decision.  I will continue that practice until the dissertation is finished but I did want return to the blog. I have missed the interactions dearly.

This coming week I will post some quick thoughts to wade back into the conversation. Each post will also have a recommended resource that might serve as a great gift this holiday season.

Two links for today:

I recently wrote ‘Uncontrolling Church Leadership’ as a response to a new book called The Uncontrolling Love of God.   The book is definitely worth the read.

I attempt to argue that:

The reality of being human and ministering with humans to humans is that not everything is always a possibility! There are certain choices that are simply not on the menu of possibilities. We are dealing with a limited menu. This narrowing happens in two definite directions:

  1. Not every action is available to everyone in every circumstance. While we are actors with a certain degree of agency within our own circumstances, our past experiences limit the options that we see as ‘available’ on the menu of possibilities in any given scenario.
  2. Even those possibilities we are aware of become limited further when options that do not live up to the model of Christ are eliminated. We are not at liberty to use methods that counter the revealed nature and character of God in order to accomplish things in God’s name and to God’s glory.


I also wanted link you to something that I wrote for last year’s Advent that seems even more appropriate this December. It is called Advent Lament and you can find it here:

I look forward to your feedback, comments, and questions. I have the next week of posts planned but after that is open to suggestions. Let me know what you want to address. 

Preaching 2.0

We have moved from a Gutenberg world to a Google world (Sweet). Things are changing rapidly and that includes people’s expectations of what happens when we gather as the church.

Here are 3 levels of a transition to a more collaborative type of preaching where people contribute instead of being passive consumers of a scripted stage show (spectators of a spectacle).

  1. Any questions?
  2. Turn to 2 other people…
  3. Dialogue/Conversation

This mirrors the move from Church 1.0 to Church 2.0 but can still be done in a 1.0 context.


Jesus 2.0

5 min on Christology using 4 splits that frame the debate.

  • Divine/Human
  • Jesus/Christ
  • Unique/Particular
  • Type/Degree

This approach recognizes that Jesus was unique in human history in that:

  1. Jesus shows us something unique about God
  2. God was present with Jesus in a unique way that comprised Jesus’ identity and character.

It avoids the dangerous temptation to say that Jesus was not fully human, only appeared human, or was a different kind of human. It also allows us to embrace Jesus as a model for full-humanity (to the Nth degree) and openness to God’s calling in our own lives.

I would love to hear your questions, comments, and concerns.

Speaking of (and at) Church

Last Sunday was both Mother’s Day and Youth Sunday at my church. I gave a short homily (13 min) on the Beauty of the Divine and the living web that connects us all. You can listen to the audio here

This coming weekend I will be speaking at the Table outside Sacramento about updating and innovating both what we say and how we do ‘church’. Church 2.0 is not a gimmick or technique to get more people to come to church – it is a different way of being the church. [here is my first run at the concept]

I want to move from people being spectators at a scripted spectacle – a passive audience at a stage show with everyone facing the same direction – toward an active, integrated, participatory model where folks are contributors in a collaborative enterprise.

Here are the two promotional videos for that event:

Table Invite from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

2nd Thing from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

Lastly, we just finished up at series of conversations at The Loft LA about the beauty of what is in the Bible. Here is the podcast about parables – one of my favorite topics!

I would love your thoughts and feedback. I will let you know how this weekend at ‘the table’ goes.

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