Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

Christianism: Dangers of Frankenstein Christianity

When Sarah Palin said that water-boarding was how we baptized terrorist, it was a turning point for my understanding of faith and the role it plays in our culture. I don’t know if I was more offended because of my hatred of torture (or ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’) or my love of baptism and what it represents as a central expression of the faith. Baptism is how we who believe demonstrate that we accept the death-to-self and enter into the life-of-Christ.

I had been asking this question ever since Rumsfeld/Cheney put Bible verses on the covers of their Iraq war briefings to President Bush. That is how I learned about things like ‘master signifiers’, which are symbols such as ‘Christianity’ that have become detached from the meaning that they were originally anchored to. They are un-tethered from the history that originally gave them meaning.

Christianism is disconnected from the faith and tradition that gave it birth. When you see or hear something under the banner of ‘Christian’ that does not seem to reflect the example of Jesus or the teaching of Christ … you may have wandered into the wilderness of Christianism. It uses all the same words that you know … but in foreign and contradictory ways.

Christianism is several degrees removed from the teaching and example of Jesus. It begins in the formation/formalizing of those things (one degree) – then it takes on an authoritarian/hierarchical structure (two degrees) – then, and this is the big one, it is married to power (government/military) so now we are three degrees from the origin. This new orientation becomes solidified/codified as a thing that has its own identity: “Christian” becomes a category by which you can know who is in and who is out – the saved and the lost (fourth degree). This is where bad things done by ‘good people’ can be justified as being beneficial to ‘the cause’ or ‘our side’.

The final stage is when ‘Christian’ is an identity that helps to distinguish us (in-group) from others, NOT depending on ones obedience to the central tenants, following the teachings of the founders, or even knowledge of the distinctions that signify identity to the group. At this point the signifier ‘Christian’ is no longer anchored to anything that it was originally grounded in and no longer connected to the very thing that gave it life and health. ‘Christian’ becomes a floating signifier and is un-tethered from its proverbial mooring (fifth degree).

 We are watching a ‘historical drift’. This is how Sarah Palin can say that water-boarding is how we baptize terrorist. This one statement has it all! We are the in-group. We do this to people with unilateral/coercive power. It is then connected to sacred/holy acts. And finally, we assume that we are doing God’s work when we do things that are opposite/counter to the example of what we say is the incarnation/revelation of our very God.

When something is this far (5 degrees) away from its original intent, folks can start to ask, “how is this connected to that?” The generous/gracious response is ‘loosely’. The concerned response is ‘they are not connected’. The critical response is ‘it is counter to the origin’.

When you add an ‘ism’ to anything it is in danger of becoming a Frankenstein creature that takes on a monstrous life of its own. Examples of this in the U.S. context involve:

  • Democrat-ism: When it is no longer about the democracy but has become about beating the ‘other side’.
  • Republican-ism: When it is no longer about the republic but had been reduced to gun ownership and ‘states rights’.
  • Methodism: When members of Methodist churches can no longer tell you what the ‘methods’ are.
  • Evangelicalism: When those who identify as such cannot tell you what the evangelion is or cannot articulate the ‘good news’ of Jesus’ message.
  • Pentecostalism: When the gift of tongues is no longer about proclamation to those who speak in foreign languages but is about an ‘unknown’ prayer language that edifies the speaker.

These have all become master signifiers that identify an in/out boundary but which no longer re-present the original meaning they once stood for. Our world is full of markers/groups/identities/labels that are so far from what they originally meant that they are not longer tied (tethered) to the thing that used to anchor them.

My concern is that ‘Christian’ no longer signifies one who follows Christ and has instead become an ‘ism’ that designates an us/them distinction that has nothing to do with the teachings or model of Jesus. I get why people are being inventive and using ‘Christ-follower’ or attempting to follow ‘the way of Jesus’. Cynics will mock all they want, but if these innovative monikers are an attempt to protest or defy the ‘ism’ of the dominant expression … I say we ask more questions instead of making snarky and dismissive comments.

They might be onto something.


 Interesting uses of Christianism started appearing between 2003-2005



If Just One Book …

I read a lot books in the past year. If I was only allowed to keep one of those books going forward, there is no doubt which one it would be. Opening the Field of Practical Theology: an Introduction edited by Kathleen Cahalan and Gordon Mikoski is comprehensive and innovative. It address historic developments, contemporary concerns and even deals with the overwhelming whiteness of the field in a constructive way.

I use Bonnie Miller-MacLemore’s fourfold definition of Practical Theology to address the multifaceted nature of what has become the field:

  1. An activity of believers seeking to sustain a life of reflective faith in the everyday.
  2. A method or way of analyzing theology in practice used by religious leaders and by teachers and students across the theological curriculum,
  3. A curricular area in theological education focused on ministerial practice and sub-specialties.
  4. An academic discipline pursued by a smaller subset of scholars to support and sustain these first three enterprises.

In Opening the Field, Richard Osmer address this complex landscape by outlining/mapping four ‘streams’ that are found within the field – including representative figures illustrating the different approaches/concerns. The four streams are:

  1. the Hermeneutical trajectory
  2. the Transforming Praxis trajectory
  3. the Neo-Aristotelian trajectory
  4. the Confessional trajectory.

Osmer explains that these trajectories work like paradigms in Thomas Kuhn’s sense and that each works “with a very different orientation toward the empirical and human experience.” Continue reading “If Just One Book …”

Four Theological Finds

I am coming out of an intense season of study. In that time I have found four amazing authors that I wanted to tell you about since I plan on referencing thier work a lot in the coming year.

My five qualifying exams were in the following areas:

  • Practical Theology (major field)
  • Religious Education (minor field)
  • Global Methodism (theology)
  • Critical Race Theory: Whiteness (practicum)
  • Social Imaginaries (cognate field)

In all of that reading, there were four thinkers that deeply impacted the direction of my work: Elaine Graham, Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Susan Hekman, and Sheila Greeve Davaney.

Sheila Greeve Davaney takes a critical and constructive approach to Christian theology that incorporates the most contemporary thought from philosophy, cultural analysis, and related fields to express an insightful address of the challenges that the church faces. In works like Theology At The End Of Modernity, Changing Conversations, and Converging On Culture she critiques historical approaches that have resulted in uneven, flawed, and unjust models of theology and church.

She is the writer whose work I highlight the most and I have even purchased a website in the hopes of doing a ‘summer school’ reading group of her work (more on that in coming weeks).

 Elaine Graham is the practical theologian whose work I want to emulate. She is in England and this gives her writing a unique tone from within a post-Christian context. Her books, like Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty and Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age are profound and challenging.

A unique aspect is the use of Judith Butler’s notion of ‘perfomativity’. Think of actions and the roles that we play in society like learning a language. The social structures and conventions that we participate in are both reproduced by us (as we utilize them) and they pattern us internally. We are formed by them as we conform to those expectations. She explains:

Practice is therefore structured behavior which follows certain rules or patterns. However, social actors are not unthinkingly rehearsing social conventions but purposefully reproducing them. Thus social structures are ‘reproduced social practices’ that endure to orient ‘the conduct of knowledgeable human agents’. (quoting Giddens)[1]

Graham is very clear that there are powers at work and structures that are reinforced as practices are adopted and transmitted through social relations and activities. Religion, like literature, medicine, and other structured activities, is both embodied and transmitted as we are simultaneously agents and actors within these given forms. “Practice is constitutive of a way of life, both individual and collective, personal and structural.” [2] In this way we both conceive of ourselves as free acting agents and are perpetually aware of the limited options on our menu and sense the perimeters (boundaries) that are heavily policed. “Practice both reflects and reinforces social relations and ideologies.” [3] Ideas come from somewhere, beliefs are grounded in some inherited framework, and practices (even religious ones) have effects both within us as participants and simultaneously reinforce the given structure.

Bonnie Miller-McLemore has written the three things that I quote more than anything else in my discipline of Practical Theology. Her four-fold definition of PT gives shape to the new (and massive) Companion to Practical Theology. She also wrote an article addressing the 5 Misunderstandings about PT that drew responses from far and wide and took up almost an entire issue of the International Journal. Lastly, she is a vocal spokesperson for the move from studying ‘the living human document’ to a more holistic and flexible understanding of ‘the living human web’. I will blog on all three of these next week.

Let me just say that this conception of theological refection was a significant move forward in recognizing the invaluable contribution that examining real lived experience could contribute to theological understanding. Human life is an interlaced, multifaceted, and complex set of connections and influences that are systematically layered with meaning and purpose that formulate a tapestry of significance and experiential material. The web is also living and dynamic – ever evolving and increasingly interconnected. You can see why I am attracted to this idea!

Susan Hekman is not a theologian but she has made a bigger impact on my theology than anyone else in the past three years. For those of you who don’t know, there is a significant fascination in much of theology with reclaiming Aristotelian notions of character formation and civil virtue. This desire makes me supremely nervous and theologically uncomfortable. Folks in this camp look to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and its Christian descendants like Stanley Hauerwas. I have never liked it but had difficulty putting my finger on the exact reason why, and until I found Hekman and Graham I thought that I may just have to concede this battle for lack of clarity about the nature of my discomfort. Then I found Hekman’s feminist critique of the reclamation project and I was able to see the depth of the danger that this desire to go back represents for the church. I have only made a tiny bit of my writing about this public so far – but this will be a major theme for me going forward.

Thank you to everyone who has reached out this past year with affirmation and encouragement. I just wanted to whet your appetite a little bit and give you a heads up about what was coming in the next month.

[1] Graham, Transforming Practice, 98.

[2] Ibid., 110.

[3] Ibid., 103.

What if we miss what was ‘finished’?

Imagine that the God of the universe arranged to stage a magnificent pageant – a cosmic drama – that would right the wrongs of the world and change the course of history. The stage would be set with the most intense consequences and most elaborate circumstances.

Imagine that this drama would unfold in such a way that God’s covenant people would be delivered and their prayers would be answered. The only way that such a drama could be staged would be that God’s own self would have to be a player! The generation that experienced this engagement – and the generations that would follow – came to believe that the divine was at work in the central actor in such a unique way that this new character was worthy of worship as God.

The above scenario is exactly what the Easter is to the church. God staged drama so cataclysmic that nothing (we proclaim) would ever be the same. Humanity’s relationship to the divine and even they way we practice religion – not to mention who gets to practice the religion – was radically altered. In fact, a new religion was born with new scriptures and new methods and even new truths.

The central event, the climax, of this pageant was the violent death of the central character and his eventual vindication in life conquering death and the systems of domination in religion and politics.

In Christ, God exposed the violent and fraudulent scheme of scapegoating when ‘the one who knew no sin became sin for us’. Something happened in the heart and person of the Godhead when Christ died a martyr and scapegoat. The dark events on this little blue planet we call earth had cosmic ramifications. Creation and all that had gone wrong since Eden was being deemed with value again. Sin itself was being destroyed and the life of the ages was being made available for all creation – past and forever.

 When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, God lifted a mirror to show humanity its true face.

The violence of the cross and the political/religious trial that led up to it unmasked the authorities and institutions of power. Our violence and blaming of the other was exposed – as if God was saying “do you see what you do? You do this over and over again, lashing out at each other with blame and cruelty and bloodshed. You even do this to me! Then you claim to do it in my name and for my glory … Stop it.”

cross-150x150“No one needs to be treated like this anymore. No more scapegoats. No more violence in my name and for my sake. This has gone far enough and I am putting an end to this … It is finished.”

And with that he breathed his last and gave up his spirit – according to the scriptures.

Let that set in.

Now let’s ask a second question. What if God staged this grand pageant and even participated in this cosmic drama … and we missed it.

Is it possible that we as humanity and as Christians in particular could have seen all of this, organized a yearly remembrance of it, written songs about it, created ceremonies and rituals to enact every week and then proceed to reinforce and re-entrench that very thing that drama was meant to expose?

It that even possible?

Could it be that we were visited by the divine in a unique and particular way, that we received that King of Glory and then turned around to set up the very structures and systems of violence and domination that were exposed in Jesus’ way? It seems unimaginable.

We proclaim, worship and claim to serve a God who became humble as a servant and even unto death (Philippians 2) to unmask the powers that be and show a different way to be in the world. Jesus calls us to take up our cross daily and to follow this example.

Jesus died on the cross not just for our sin but because of it. We needed a savior to save us from ourselves and this vicious cycle of aggression and violence we perpetuate , sometimes in God’s name. We killed the Prince of Peace but God vindicated the victim and by God’s mighty love and sacrifice destroyed the need to ever do this to anyone else.

The scapegoat mechanism was unmasked as God held up a mirror to humanity and exposed the destructive and unending cycle of violence for political stability, national security or religious purity. The great drama has shown us the conclusion of this damnable way of thinking: we do this is God’s name and we even did to the Son of God.

This never has to happen again. The lesson of the Easter drama is that Life itself has ruined these cycles of death and destruction so that we can stop perpetuating this unsatisfying and unproductive way of treating each other.

It is finished.

I Passed My Qual Exams!

I am so grateful to be able to announce that I have passes my qualifying exams and am officially ABD as they say (all but dissertation). This has been an incredible journey and this last year has really challenged me in new ways. I have learned some valuable lessons along the way.

I also wanted to let you know that I will be returning to the blogosphere – but with a little twist. I’m going to be shifting my emphasis from ‘navigating between the everyday and theology’ to a ‘public theology’. David Tracy talked about theology having three publics: the church, the academy, and the culture. I am going to experiment with rotating between these 3 areas of focus and labeling each post accordingly.

I think that this rotation will add an interesting texture to the conversation here. I am excited to be back and look forward to returning to a dialogue that I have missed greatly.

-Bo Sanders

I totally get the Trump thing

I totally get the Trump thing.

Several years ago I read a book about people’s frustration with Washington and politics in general. The guy who wrote it is further out than Bernie Sanders. His name is Chris Hedges and the book is called ‘The Death of the Liberal Class’. It is an autopsy on our broken American system that explored the discouragement, anger and alienation that so many feel.

The past decade of congressional gridlock, filibusters over the debt ceiling, threats to shutdown the government and the citizen’s united ruling/’corporations are people’ debacle has been enough to discourage even someone like me who is only marginally political.

I have watch with great discomfort as the Tea Party has emerged chanting ‘we want our country back’ and I have been forced to learn what gerrymandering is. I get agitated when voting rights a repealed and am horrified when birther conspiracies and anti-Muslim sentiments are loudly broadcast.

I was one of those snobby-onlookers who chuckled at Trump’s opening escalator decent to his announcement with its Toby Keith style rhetoric and actors hired to fill out the ‘crowd’. It was not long before I came to realize that this was not your regular publicity stunt. There was something different about this one – even from the bombastic and inflammatory style of precursors like Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

Keep in mind that on a good day I have to be careful not to pull a muscle rolling my eyes at staged theatrics and choreographed spectacle. I don’t have cable. I refuse to watch ‘reality TV’. I buy my organic-free range groceries at Sprouts. I bike to work most days. I brag about how long it has been since I shopped at Wal-Mart or ate at McDonalds. I listen to Democracy Now as I brew my single-region fair-trade coffee in a french-press.

I’m that guy.

I am also a public theologian with a propensity toward cultural criticism however. Last week I posted a 10 min video where I proposed that we live up against the end. I don’t mean ‘the end of the world’ or the End Times in a Left-Behind rapturous sort of way. I mean the end of this current configuration.

We are up against the end of some significant categories:

  • Economy – global markets and unregulated capitalism.
  • Political – democracy in both domestic and foreign policy manifestations.
  • War – the ‘wars’ on terror, drugs and Christmas are but 3 examples of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.
  • Environment – Views of natural ‘resources’ of the earth impact both water and air.
  • Media – Movies, music, TV, art and internet can be weapons of mass-distraction at best and empty repetitions of imitation and stimulation (simulacra) at worst.

It is no surprise to me that we are in the moment of Trump. He is the perfect fusion of 3 significant areas: politics, economy, and entertainment. He is a billionaire media-personality who is largely funding his own campaign as an irreverent trash-talking outsider.

That equation makes perfect sense to me. It terrifies me but at least the trajectory lines up!

Take equal parts reality TV, Palin/Tea Party, Citizens United, anti-Obama backlash and the war on terror … stir it up and pour it over a healthy dose of frustration about ‘political correctness’ (aka being able to say what you want about people of other religions, races or sexualities) and serve it hot.

If you are interested in talking about a spent society and our cultural exhaustion, I would encourage you to watch the 10 min video and let me know what you think.

Seen through this lens, the Trump phenomenon makes total sense. He is not a ‘sign of the end’ but just one prominent symptom of a sickness hanging in the air.

the end



Echo of the End

We live up against The End. Not the end of the world or the End Times … just The End. The economy (capitalism), democracy, media and war are now empty echos of former expressions.
The church is always trying to reform, revive and redeem an echo of an ancient broadcast.
The current configuration is insufficient for the contemporary situation.

Here is 10 min video introduction – an Invitation to Innovation

Fake/Real part 1

In my studies I have found an amazing line of concern/critique of our media saturated consumer society. In the coming months I will be talking about some of the implications for the spiritual life of our faith communities.

In this video I introduce some of the ideas and frameworks that will punctuate this theme. I am also employing this theme for the conversations at the church I help facilitate (the Loft LA) in our Sunday gatherings this month.

Let me know what you think or any additional topics you would like to address.


Just in case you are interested, here is a short invitation to the series (on Vimeo)


Image Is Everything from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

3rd Way not Middle Way: bust the binary

Dualism offers us binary options that must be challenged. Evolution & Creation, Male & Female, Church & World, Jihad & McWorld, East & West, Think & Do etc.
This short video is in response to requests for alternatives to the either/or frame work that we have inherited.

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