Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



Video: Fragmented & Fractured

Here is a follow up video for the blog post (2 weeks ago)

You can read the full blog at [this link] and either comment here or there. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Next up: There is no neutral anymore


Christianism is Frankenstein Christianity

With the news of Paul Ryan’s ouster of the House Chaplin [link], I have found myself referencing Christianism: Dangers of Frankenstein Christianity from 2 years ago. 

I have lots of new readers and a whole new congregation since then so I decided to re-post it. It goes well with Being A Different Way In The World – you can listen to it here [link]

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. [more here]
  • 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

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]

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.

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