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Jesus

The Gospel of Grace

What is the gospel?

That is what Katie asked the group last week.  We had finished reading Galatians 1 where Paul seems pretty sure about it. He is sure that there is a gospel, and that he has the right one.

Katie asked the group “so what is the gospel?” She then asked “and what is grace?”

We talked about it a bit and then (as I mentioned on the Week 1 Debrief podcast) I offered my working definition:

“The Gospel is the good news that God loves the whole world and did something for us in Christ that we can not do for ourselves.”

I have worked on this a lot over the past 15 years and have grown quite comfortable with it. It includes:

  • good news (literally the definition of the word gospel)
  • the whole world (John 3:16)
  • grace (a gift of what we can not earn)

I would love it even if it just existed in a vacuum and I never talked with anyone about it.

The reality, however, is that everywhere it comes up, people REALLY want to talk about it!

The response follows a typical bell-curve. Most people like it or at least get it. But there is a tail on either side of a small minority who object at some level (but for completely different reasons).

For those who have a very particular understanding of the gospel, my working definition is not specific enough. It doesn’t say anything about asking Jesus into your heart, praying a specific prayer, believing certain things, believing them certainly, or going to heaven after you die.

On the opposite side, for those who hold that Jesus is one way (a path) to God, my working definition is too narrow. It sounds as if Jesus was unique in human history and in religious thought.

This is why the ‘gospel’ conversation is one of my favorites.

What do you think? How would you answer the question? What is your working definition? 

 

[I originally wrote this for PBS but wanted to share it here as well]

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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.

10 minutes on Afterlife

Life after death, the afterlife or the hereafter provide a major focus for some people’ interest in religion.

Here are some of my thoughts about the historical development and ongoing progress on our the way imagine eternity and the poetics involved. Nov20sw1

At the end is a constructive, innovative proposal of how we can address this major topic.

10 Minutes on Religion

Religion is a tricky subject. Many assume that they know what it means while others have decided to reduce religion to fantasy in order to dismiss it.

The hope is to move from an either-or model of ‘true’ or ‘false’ to a “web of meaning”.

My theory is that at least 5 elements contribute the web of meaning. This moves us away from an either/or model of ‘antiquated myth’ or ‘divine revelation’.

5 elements are:

  • Experience
  • Formation
  • Event
  • Mystery
  • potentially something RealRoadPortraitSunsetD&B

This last one is always the most difficult. Those who are sure (fundamentalist, foundational) dislike the ‘potential’ qualifier. Those who dismiss religion are suspicious of the potential of something ‘real’.

Once we get rid of the false either/or choices we are free to think about what is going on in religion.

I look forward to your comments, questions and concerns.

10 Minutes on Jesus

Jesus was unique in human history. Here are 4 splits that help us frame that conversation:Jesus icon

  • Christ/Jesus
  • Divine/Human
  • Eternal/Time
  • Type/Degree

The video below is my 10 minute take on Christology.

I am in the final week of my study break – so let me know your thoughts, concerns or questions and we can tackle them next week!

10 Min on Jesus from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

Jesus was unique in human history. Here are 4 splits that help frame our understanding: Christ/ Jesus, Divine/ Human, Eternal/ Time, Type/ Degree

Liberal & Conservative Christians Must Be Born Again

I was in the pulpit this last Sunday at Westwood UMC and I chose to preach on John 3. It was the first time I have ever engaged that text outside of an evangelical environment.

You can take a listen here [link]. It works to stream it, download it, or get it on Itunes.

I began by addressing an awkward pairing:
– On the one hand, the phrase ‘born again’ has fallen into disrepute and disuse among many believers.
– On the other hand, Jesus is pretty clear that we ‘must be born again’.

Two other aspects that I attempt to overcome with this approach are:

A) We too often read both John 3:3 and 3:16 through a lens of individualism.
B) We have been taught to think of ‘eternal life’ as life after you die.

In order to correct these severely limited and limiting readings, I look at 5 key words/concepts.

  • Kingdom
  • Flesh
  • Eternal Life
  • Salvation
  • Repent

Continue reading “Liberal & Conservative Christians Must Be Born Again”

Christianity Isn’t Conservative: incarnation

The incarnation is my favorite part of Christianity. When we say ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ we say something unique and particular about who we believe God to be.

The divine became human – that which was beyond came near – the unknowable made itself known to us – the transcendent fused the imminent horizon – the eternal entered time … however one frames it, we make bold claims when we talk about what happened in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

From there it gets steep! Folks start talking about the cosmic Christ and the 2nd person of the Trinity and the eternal nature of the Godhead. Those are all great but they are also lofty and can be abstract. Incarnation is the opposite: it is down to earth and fleshly.

Incarnation may seem like an odd thing to talk about during Easter week, but one can never escape the fact that the reason we think something significant happened on the cross and in the empty tomb is because of what we think happened in the person and work of Jesus.cross-150x150

The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus are four of the acts in the great drama that Christians are called up into.

The life of Jesus – including works and teachings – is one that called the entire system of political and religious power into question. His parables undermined and interrogated the assumed order of things as well as the inherited understanding of how the world worked.

This inversion of assumed structures and subversion of “the powers that be” characterized not only his life and death … but the very notion of an incarnation.

Christianity is undeniably incarnational. The Romans tacked lots of people up on crosses – anyone they perceived as being subversive to the order and stability of the empire. Jesus was crucified for sedition, as were many others every week of every year. The reason that we think something significant happened on that cross is because we believe that God was present and revealed in some unique way in the person and work of Jesus.

John Cobb has said that Jesus embodied God’s presence in a unique way in history – a way that constituted Jesus’ very being and allowed him to say things like “I and the Father are one”.

If, therefore, this is what sets Jesus apart and makes that cross different from all of the other crosses – then we who follow the way of Jesus can not be satisfied to simply receive what was done on our behalf and then continue to participate in the system as it is and continue to reinforce the structures as we have inherited them.

We must ask the questions:

“Who is getting conned?” and “What is being served?”

There is a built–in romanticism to Christianity when it comes to the notion of the ‘early church’. There is a perpetual longing to return to some romantic ideal that we see re-presented in the Acts of the Apostles.

Returning to the past is trap for two reasons:

1) As books like  The Churches the Apostles Left Behind have shown, the early church was as plural and diverse as one could possibly imagine. There is no such thing as THE early church. That is a romantic construction that serves as a kind of Eden image we are to be haunted by and perpetually longing to return to.

2) Even if it did exist, it would be impossible for us to return to it. We simply cannot get back to that romantic ideal or edenic notion. Time travel is impossible and too much has happened for a return to be possible.

Which is fine! Because Christianity is incarnational and our calling is to embody the spirit of God in our time and in our place as those early believers did in their time and place.

The church’s calling is not simply to repeat what those in the early centuries did – but to speak to and live in our culture the reality that they attempted to do in theirs!

You can hear more about this on the FreeStyle Christianity interview 

Incarnation is why the impulse to preserve or conserve some former notion of culture is not Christian. Christians are not called to conserve some antique expression or ancient manifestation. Christians are to in-carnate (embody) the life of God by following the way of Jesus in their ‘here and now’.

In fact, I would take it one step further.

To follow the way of Jesus is to call into question and interrogate the very assumptions about the way things are and to subvert the inherited systems and structures that keep people from living the abundant life or the ‘life of the ages’ (eternal life).

One way that we would do this is to ask those two earlier questions:

Who is getting conned?
What is being served?

Given the chance, I would respond that those who have been sold a romanticized notion of the past – a past that we can never return to even if it was as good as remembered – are being conned.

It is somewhere between fantasy and fiction to long for a return to a time that is embedded in structures of patriarchy, sexism and injustice. Jesus would construct stories (parables) that captivated people and caused them to question the assumed order of things and to undermine their  inherited notions of the way that world works.

The bigger question might be “what is being served?”

Christians are not supposed to get hung up on issues of flesh and blood but instead to combat the principalities and powers that reside in high places. It is a tragedy that so much of contemporary Christianity is consumed with culture wars obsessed with issues of flesh and blood … all the while neglecting the larger structures of power and control.

We think that we have really done something when we buy a Jesus-themed T-shirt at Walmart – or put a NoTW sticker on our SUV. We have purchased (within capitalism) and display (within consumerism) our branding that sets us apart (identity) and all the while ignore that we are participating in a larger system that doesn’t care if the $10 dollar shirt we bought has Jesus, Che, Bob Marley, Mother Theresa or Satan on it. The important thing is that we bought the shirt and reinforced the system as it is without asking who made that shirt or how in the world it only costs $10.

We say lofty things about Jesus. Jesus’ teachings were done in a way that undermined the established order and called into question the way things were.

The calling of the Christian is not to con/serve some former notion of a romanticized past – but to incarnate the life of God by the spirit of Christ in her time and in her place.

_____________

Yesterday I talked about the problem of the past and tomorrow will be part 3 of this series.

The Problem With The Future Is Its Past: Theology

Part 1 of a 3 part series I’m doing this week on Homebrewed

The Future Of Christian Theology was purchased with great anticipation. I had read David Ford before and appreciated his innovative and insightful perspective.

Gordon Kaufman’s Theology For A Nuclear Age has probably been the most influential book I have read outside my reading for school. Most of my reading for school is in Practical Theology, Post-Colonial Studies and Critical Race Theory. I am a big fan of going forward so The Future of Christian Theology was an exciting proposition.

Ford does an amazing job. In raising up the 20th century as the most prolific and creative era of Christian Theology he is masterful at articulating the diversity and accounting for the plurality in communities represented. I love his emphasis on Pentecostal, Liberation, Feminist, and Post-Modern approaches. He does a wonderful job addressing global-regional diversity as well as the full denominational spectrum.

Yet when it comes time to highlight the legends of the 20th century, in order to avoid perpetually reinventing the wheel, he picks the following six legendary theologians to lift up:

  • Karl Barth
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Paul Tillich
  • Karl Rahner
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar
  • Henri de Lubac

Lists can be fun – they can also be telling.

Around here we might want to supplement the list with John Cobb, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann or the Niebuhr brothers. Students at my former seminary might want to add Stanley Grenz. All of these have written prolifically and systematically.

Those who wanted to branch out from Systematic Theology might add voices like James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez. Somewhere else you might get Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Even in my master thesis on ‘contextual theology’ I utilized Robert Schreiter and Stephen Bevans.[1]

The trend is clear and problematic. That men do theology is not the problem – if only men are seen as doing theology, it is a problem. This stems from the habit of calling some theologies ‘particular’ or classifying them as “theology +” (race, gender, sexuality, etc.). We have inherited a long history that loves to compartmentalize, categorize and then control who is qualified (and who is not). MP9004065481-196x300

This situation results in classifying Feminist theologians in exactly that way: with a modifier. The result is that you have plain theology and particular theology, generic theology and specific theology, regular theology and something-other-than- regular theology.

The works of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Bonnie Miller-McLemore get qualified within a sub-discipline.

The future of theology has got to be better than its past in this way.

I have 3 suggestions for moving past theology’s past.

 1 – Get rid of the category – and very notion of – ‘particular theology’. It is all particular theology. There is no universal or timeless theology. All theology is contextual theology. It all comes from a time and place and utilizes the constructs of its era. The fact that we have not recognized this truth in the past is part of the problem.

2 – Or add modifiers to every theology. Pannenberg wasn’t just doing theology – he was doing German, 20th century, white male theology. You can see, however, that this might become a cumbersome and laborious way to proceed … which brings me to my third point.

3- Christian theology is not Identity Politics – it comes from and represents a community. Every time we adopt and adapt another way of doing things we compromise the central Christian reality that there is no ‘us/them’ – there is no ‘they’, it is all ‘we’. Christian theology is born out of and can only be done in community. Inherited notions of the ‘individual’ or the ‘autonomous self’ are both false and hurtful and need to be left behind as we move forward.

Yes, every author and thinker must be socially located, but while any specific author can be classified by their race/gender/class or geography … the future of theology is not about the social location of any particular voice but the community that formed them and in-forms their contribution to the greater whole.

When listening to podcast with Grace Ji-Sun Kim (coming out Thursday), it is not enough to say that she is doing Korean-American, Feminist, Liberationist Theology … she is doing Theology. She is a part of the Christian community and her work is the future of theology – as is mine – because she and I are part of the same global Christian community. Her work and my work are related in Christ.

I might employ methods from my field of Practical Theology but that doesn’t mean that Grace’s work is not practical.

This is how language both helps and hinders us. Her work and mine might come from different perspectives and be in-formed by different experiences – and it is all theology.

The future of theology is not to be found in individual voices but in collaborations and connections that form community.

The way that we have talked about theology and particular theologies in the past is going to be a problem in the future.

If Randy Woodley wants to locate himself and his work as Native American Contextual Theology because it brings some corrective to the past oversight and omission – that is wonderful. It becomes an important and illuminating distinction. It is not, however, merely a particular theology : it is theology.

Bring out the modifiers! Biblical, Historic, Systematic, Philosophical, and Practical are the Big 5 historically. Fine! Just as long as we are clear that no one is doing ‘plain old regular theology’.

In fact, Randy’s work is the future of theology. We are all socially located and contextually particular, which is why there is no ‘plain’ theology and ‘particular’ theology.

It is all particular theology in the same way that it is all theology.

The mistake of the past was thinking that there was ‘regular’ and ‘specific’. In reality, it is all specific. Which means that we are all ‘us’ and we are all contributing to the future of theology – together.

The trick is not to say ‘we have one of these theologies and one of these types of theologians represented’ – the change is to say that ‘in all of these we have theology’. Without ‘these’ we have something less than theology.

_______________

[1] One sees the problem even in the critics of theology when theologian Paul Ricouer talks about the ‘masters of suspicion’ in Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – a list that I would expand to include Feuerbach, Wittgenstein and Foucault.

Born Of A Virgin? It happened a lot back then

I posted this 2 years ago and thought it might be fun to revisit. 

As Christians we confess that Jesus was born to a virgin.  Some people doubt the accuracy of that – but they may not realize that it was not that uncommon back then.

Here are just 10 people born of a virgin in the ancient world: 

  • Buddha
  • Krishna – born without a sexual union, by “mental transmission” from the mind of Vasudeva into the womb of Devaki, his mother.
  • Odysseus
  • Romulus
  • Dionysus*
  • Heracles – Son of a god (Zeus)
  • Glycon – son of the God Apollo
  • Zoroaster/Zarathustra
  • Attis of Phrygia
  • Horus

One theory is that when somebody who led a deeply impactful life died, those who wrote about them later would attempt to say something special about them. One of the ways that they could do that was to say something extraordinary about their birth. It was a way of that there was something significant, even about they way that they were conceived.

Sometimes it was that they were born to people that were really old (past the age of child-bearing age).

Think of Issac born to Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament or John the Baptist born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the New (Advent).

Now, If somebody wanted to take the origin of their hero up a notch, they could say that there was no human dad … it was a god!  (like Zeus)

This is why some think that Jesus’ autobiographers took it up even one more notch! Not only did a God not have sex with women … there was NO sex at all!

 Now some say “yeah, lots of people were said to be born of a virgin … but Jesus actually was.”

This is where the problem starts. As best as I can discern, there basically three ways to approach the problem: physics, meta-physics or linguistics. 

Physics:

Some people take an approach that is so certain that even science itself would be proved wrong. This usually comes up around issue like the Shroud of Turin (the cloth Jesus was buried in). I once heard a very confident person say that if we did DNA test on the blood on the shroud it would show that Jesus was fully human with 46 pairs of chromosomes – only instead of 23 from the female mother and 23 from the male father – Jesus would have 46 human ones from Mary.

I find this problematic for the same reason that I do not believe in the super-natural. It concedes the rules of the games to science (reductive naturalism) then tries to fill in the gaps with God.  That is a losing game-plan if ever I heard one.

Meta-Physics: 

Other people try to get around the whole reductive scientific debate by saying “Look, if God could make the world in 6 days out of nothing, then what is to make a virgin pregnant?  God does whatever God wants to do and who are we to question that?”

I am not a big fan of this approach either. It seems to say that revelation doesn’t have to report to reason and that God can not be evaluated on any reasonable standard conceived of by humans.

It seems just a short leap to say that God can elect who God wants for salvation God can pick favorites if that is what ‘He‘ wants to do.

It seems to retreat into the silo of ecclesiastic isolation and unaccountability. I think we have to look a little deeper ask some bigger questions.

 Linguistics:

This is an interesting approach that some in the post-liberal camp or comparable schools of thoughts might take.

The basic line is that it’s not the physics or meta-physics of the virgin birth that matters, its the way that it impacts us as people and forms us as a community. The importance of the language found in the gospels has to do with how it functions for us as a community and tradition.

Some folks don’t like this linguistic approach because it seems like theologically ‘thin soup’ to them. They look at the formulations that are quantified in the early creeds and they make definite and literal assumptions about what is behind them.

I am however nervous that all of this controversy is simply because we don’t know how to read a gospel. It’s like when we get sucked into debates about talking snakes in the garden of Eden or trying to prove scientifically how a man like Jonah could stay alive in the belly of a whale for 3 days and not be eaten by the stomach acid (or something).

It would be the equivalent of people 1,000 years from now arguing that we actually thought there was a place called Mudville and that a man named Casey was literally up to to bat.  It is because we don’t know how to read the genre of literature.

Jesus was born of a virgin – we confess that by faith, it is affirmed in our ancient creeds and it functions in our community to form us as people.    

* I even found one internet source that claims Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25 and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger. He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles. He “rode in a triumphal procession on an ass.” He was a sacred king killed and eaten in an eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification. Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25. He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine. He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.” He was considered the “Only Begotten Son,” Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” Anointed One,” and the “Alpha and Omega.” He was identified with the Ram or Lamb. His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.

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