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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Intensifying Cycles

Being a professor is amazing. I am grateful for the opportunity and I am enjoying it so much. Do I miss being in pastoral ministry? Yes. Would I be a pastor again? Absolutely. Am I called to help the next generation of women & men find their way into ministry in the church? Yes!

Since my last post I have had 2 sets of intense conversations about the degree & type distinction – the first centers around the internet and the second relates to 9/11.

We live in a politically turbulent time and many people harken back to the 60’s/1968. This is a 100% valid claim. Many people alluded to the similarities and made a case that our current environment/situation is even worse than it was back then. Those who like to quote that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ shrug these similarities off by talking about how things are cyclical and how people like to hit the panic button but in the end we figure it out and things just keep on going.

That might all be true. The differences that I want to account for, however, are three-fold:

  1. the internet
  2. 24 hour news cycle
  3. increased cynicism, distrust, and discouragement

The growing disillusionment with the system, the fatigue from the constant barrage or coverage, and the crisis overload of manufactured spectacle causes me to ask …

Is it possible that our political, economic, racial, domestic, foreign, and environmental concerns are not just different in degree from 1968 but are in fact a new type or different kind of crisis?

I at least want to be open to the possibility that we have crossed into a different sort of quagmire and that we don’t want to simple shrug that off with a ‘this happens every generation or so‘ kind of mentality. Which brings me to the second point.

9/11 was a watershed. It just so happens that the readings for all 3 of my classes this week are from the 1990’s. I can not overstate how old they all sounded. It was like they were from a different era. I started pastoring in the 90’s and every time I talk about the changes that I have seen in just those 20 years, people laugh in recognition of how quickly things have moved.

Invariably the nothing new under the sun crowd says that God is still on the throne and that things have been changing since Bible times.

I just want to be open to the possibility that we have crossed into a different era. Between the internet, airline travel, farming practices (industrial agro), constant media, the global war on terror (not a country) and 1,000 other factors … the change is coming not incrementally any more – but exponentially.

Something is definitely different. That can not be questioned. The question is, “is it different in degree only, or is it different in kind?”

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Real Fake HyperReal Cynicism

It can be difficult navigating our hyperreal, liquid, fluid digital culture with any amount of discernment and sincerity. Disney Land is plastic and fabricated while branding itself the ‘happiest place on earth’.

Vampires, Zombies, Super Heroes and demonic exorcisms populate our movie theaters. Comedians are great at doing caricatures of TV preachers and faith healers. Surely there is something real somewhere in all of this.

In this 10 min video I use Rumsfeld’s ‘Known Unknowns’ as a model (and Zizek’s addition) to propose an idea about the Real/Real, Fake/Real, Real/Fake and Fake/Fake.

I’m working off of Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco in looking at the hyperreal.

Let me know what you think!

‘Atheist Churches’ are more traditional than Emergents

I am loving the conversations that have come out of the publicity tour of Sunday Assemblies. The feedback and pushback that is being generated by these ‘atheist churches’ is proving very informative. I am actually learning a lot about how people think of church, atheism, tradition, and community.

If nothing else comes out of their moment in the spotlight, it has been very enlightening. I do, however, think that some more will come out of this.

The most illuminating resource that I have found so far was an interview with co-founder of Sunday Assembly, Pippa Evans on the Nomad Podcast ep. 55. Nomad is based in Britain – as are the comedic co-founders of Sunday Assembly – and Nomad comes out of the ‘fresh expressions’ branch of the emergent movement.

The interview with Pippa (Sanderson Jones, the other co-founder, comes in at the end) is 100% worth your time. The two things that stood out the most to me were:

  1.  Pippa talks about and has adopted the ‘form’ of church.
  2. The Nomad hosts hated it – but for the opposite reason you would think.

1. The Form: Pippa was very clear in several spots about her background in church. The telling part for me, toward the end, was when she mentioned being in Soul Survivor. If you don’t know what that is, you may have missed the reference. Soul Survivor is a very charismatic movement that has developed worship leaders and a style that has been imported around the world – including by US American evangelicals & charismatics.

Pippa explains the formula – it is all about flow:

  • Start with two high energy songs – one of them needs to be familiar and singable
  • A short presentation of poetry or reading (this is like the opening prayer or scripture equivalent)
  • A slower song
  • The offering
  • The sermon (presenting an idea)
  • Response / Confession of thanks (stuff your are grateful for)
  • A big song so that it ends with a bang

Pretty standard stuff! What it reminded me of was the hilarious parody video from a couple of years ago (which started out an in-house joke for a worship conference) about the formula for contemporary evangelical/charismatic worship services.

2. Traditional. The fascinating point that made by the Nomad hosts was that walking into and sitting through a Sunday Assembly was painful because it was reclaiming and repurposing all of the things they disliked about going to traditional church! The whole reason they are into ‘fresh expressions’ is because they found so little in the forms of the church.

They were horrified to walk in and find:

  • people sitting in strait rows
  • everyone facing forward
  • huge screens at the front with song lyrics
  • one person doing all the talking
  • passive participation by the audience
  • it was Sunday morning

My favorite part was when they asked Pippa about the possibility of conversation at future Assemblies.  She was not hopeful or  excited about the idea. She said that some people have asked for a Q&A segment at the Assemblies and that is not likely either. Her point is that things like conversation and Q&A’s happen in other places. That is not what the Sunday Assembly is for.

It was at this point that the Nomad hosts made the observation that – at least in this sense – the ‘atheist churches’ are more traditional than their emergent (fresh expressions) gatherings which have de-centered meetings and deconstructed elements. That was an epiphany for me.

I am so glad that Sunday Assembly is doing this – and even more pleased that they are so approachable about what they are doing and why they are doing it. I have already had more than a dozen conversations about ‘why we do what we do‘ with people. IMG_2181

I can tell you this though – now that I have met in the round and been in conversational church … I don’t know if I could go back to  everybody facing the same direction and not have interactive sermons Sunday after Sunday. I’m pretty sure that the future of the church is de-centered and conversational/participatory.

Let me know what you think – as you can tell, I love hearing others thoughts and being in conversation.   -Bo 

Athiest Churches: a fad or the future?

My news-feed has seen a steady stream of articles about the new trend of ‘atheist churches’ racing by this past week. Much of it seems to revolve around a successful publicity tour by British comedy duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, who are currently:

 on a tongue-in-cheek “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour around the U.S. and Australia to drum up donations and help launch new Sunday Assemblies.

It is an impressive campaign. From LA to NY to Nashville and back to San Diego they are taking their roadshow in a revival style to rally the non-religious.  It’s a fascinating attempt. Even if it turns out to be (historically speaking) not much more than a publicity stunt, it is an indicator of something larger.

Many are fond of quoting the statistics:

“The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study last year that found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.”

Others attempt to qualify and quantify those findings with categorical inconsistencies and clear definition problems*. Still, there is clearly some merit to considering the cultural shift.

 The question has to be asked: Are these atheist churches a blip or a significant trend? 

I think the answer is multifaceted. It is clearly more than a blip and is probably more like an outlier for what will eventually manifest. There is a clear challenge to this type of organization – their attempt to raise $800,000 has only resulted in $50,000 so far. One-night events are fun and exciting… sustaining that kind of energy is a different animal.

Which begs the question, “why would anyone give to, participate, or get excited about something based on what isn’t?”

It is a fun, if novel, moment, but sustaining that and providing direction to an organization-assembly requires more than that. MP9004065481-196x300

Here is the thing though … this is more than just a novelty. The foundations (I use that word intentionally) that we used to be able to count on are eroding. There is no doubt that the old buildings (and the institutions that occupy them) are in danger.

This matters to me. I wrote an essay more than 15 years ago (on a note-pad thank you very much) about the form of the church. As a young pastor I saw the oddity of what we did and how easily most of what we do could be imitated or replaced.

Let me say that again:

 most of what we do as the church could easily be imitated or replaced.

Unfortunately that is the problem with having a successful form. Of course there are always a dedicated minority who is really invested in worship music, liturgy and proclamation. A cynic might say that most people, however, will sing just about any lyrics** that are thrown up on the screen  and from the sermon they really just want some help being better people.

I have held for a long time that technically you could cobble together nearly every element that you get from church by intentionally seeking out a collection of experiences:

  • concert (group singing)
  • dinner/drink with friends (communion)
  • self-help seminar (information/inspiration)
  • AA meeting (accountability/confession)
  • work & give to a charity (contribution/conscience)

Which leaves only two things left to be said!

1. The beauty of the church is that you find all of those things in one place. That is the nearly miraculous thing about that list. It takes so much work to imitate and replicate what is all available in the community of saints.

2. The importance of the word ‘nearly’ . Even with the 5 elements that I suggested, for the believer there is still something missing: the transcendent.

In conclusion, while I see the merit and appeal of ‘atheist assemblies’ as a public announcement and maybe even protest, I am not sure that they are sustainable. What I am more concern with is that Christian churches of every stripe use the opportunity to evaluate what it is that we bring to the lives of people that they can not get anywhere else. I would argue that this is a gospel issue.

* The article is clear that “Pew researchers stressed, however, that the category also encompassed majorities of people who said they believed in God but had no ties with organized religion and people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” 

** just look at the huge success of the CCM worship song “Like A Lion” last year

Report Card For New Pope

This weekend I found two stories related to the first 100 days of Pope Francis’ tenure.

The first was a glowing review by an unlikely source. Esquire magazine had a blog that detailed some of the major  highlights.

It has now been a little over a hundred days since Francis took over the Vatican. He famously declared on his first day “The Carnival is over,” by which he meant that he wanted the Church to abandon its luxurious ways. But for Pope-watchers the carnival has just begun. There is serious upheaval in the Vatican, with outsiders brought into major positions of power, and Francis speaking openly of “a current of corruption” in the Curia, but, as an atheist, I don’t really care about any of that. I’m sure it takes guts and brains to try and reform the Church, but whether the Vatican is a strong or a weak institution is of the smallest possible concern to me. What is much more important is how he has used many small gestures to demonstrate the possibilities of compassion.

Read more: Pope Francis Awesome – Pope Francis Is Kind of Great – Esquire
Follow us: @Esquiremag on Twitter | Esquire on Facebook
Visit us at Esquire.com

The second story comes by way of the CBC news show the Current. You can listen to the fascinating segment about the attempt – and difficulties – related to changing the Vatican’s ‘bank’ system and some of the corruption that has recently been uncovered.esq-pope-xlg-14464425

These scandals are notable because the Institute for the Works of Religion (the so-called Vatican Bank) handles billions of dollars in trusts and holdings for the Catholic church. Pope Francis is attempting to change the culture of the hierarchy but scandals like this expose that corruption goes all the way to the highest offices.

Late last week, Italian police arrested Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a high-ranking cleric in the department that manages the Church’s assets. Monsignor Scarano was already under investigation for allegedly laundering money, using the Institute for the Works of Religion — the so-called Vatican Bank.

Now, he is accused — along with two others — of trying to smuggle $20-million-euros out of Switzerland and into Italy, tax-free and undetected by Italian authorities. The arrests came just two days after Pope Francis launched a campaign to clean-up the Vatican Bank, which for decades has been accused of money laundering, corruption and links with the mafia.

While the famous foot-washing of Easter week was a wonderful symbolic act, and while he may be a fun and friendly character … it is matters like this bank scandal (and the billions behind it) that will determine not just the public perception of Pope Francis but ultimately the sustainability of the global Catholic structure.

As you may know, I went out on a limb the day he was elected by saying that this would be a game changer – so I like to keep an eye on his dealings. 

Moving Toward Multiplicity

Listening to Howard Zinn (author of the classic A People’s History of the United States) at a town hall meeting style presentation recorded in 2007 (you can get it on Itunes from WGBH Politics) I was struck by the need to recognize the sheer complexity of issues and multiplicity of perspectives. complexity

To state it as simply as possible: Not everything is the same. When we attempt to represent EVERYthing as if it were represented by ONE thing, we often neglect the complexity and multiplicity involved in the matter.

I will use two examples that Howard Zinn illustrated well at the community forum, then address the issues that it seemed relevant to connect to.

Zinn takes on the idea of “Family values”. Some conservative political interest say that they represent ‘family values’. But he asks “Which family?” I think it is a valid question. There are families with single moms and multiple kids, divorced dads raising a family, there are foster families, adoptive families, multi-generational families living in the same house. There are lesbian couples with no kids and gay couples with kids. My wife are were D.I.N.K.s (double income – no kids) hen she lost her job while were trying to adopt (which fell through recently) and every permeation you can imagine.

Which family is represented by Focus on the Family’s values? It is erroneous to act as if there is one kind of family and that you represent their values.

That is, unless you are saying that you value only one type of family.

That would be fair enough but you would have to stop using the phrase ‘family values’. Some families value making money or achieving success. Some value conformity. Some value religious adherence above all else. Some value military service while others value independent thinking or even civil disobedience.

Zinn says the same thing about the ‘National interest’. I am a big fan of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology and both he and Zinn talk about President’s ability to declare war or even launch the nuclear codes should the President deem it ‘in the national interest’.

But which of the many National interests? The Nation is not interested in only one thing. There are hundreds or thousands of interests. Unfortunately the reductive mono-speak is code. These buzz-words become code-words for an assume-unstated single issue that clouds the true complexity behind the language.

Zinn touched another example which has been showing up in a lot of my reading lately. The phrase ‘We the people’ is a magnificent ideal. I admire the phase and the idea behind it so much. But I think that it is worth noting that when it was written – we the people were not in the room. At the time of it’s writing, not every ‘we’ was represented.

There were no native americans in the room, no women, no blacks, no commoners. Just land-owning white males. But they had an idea – and it is that idea that we love!

I actually think that this is the exact type of trajectory mentality that we see in a progressive reading of the New Testament. When Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He is doing this exact thing. He wrote in prophetic expectation using the 3 categories employed in his day were being broken with resurrection power. Barriers between nationality (or race), legal status and gender were being dissolved. My assertion is that it was not for the purpose of homogenization but for multiplicity! The former containers can not contain what it being poured out and welling up in Christ’s new life.

This is why I don’t sweat the fact that Paul appears to by anti-gay (though I argue that he was not anti-gay in the same way that those who quote him today are). You have to read Paul on a trajectory. Within the fruit of the Spirit of God is seed of liberation and transformation. So like ‘We the people’ – it looks forward to a greater reality than was present at it’s writing. Contained within the words is an ideal not yet realized. That is part of why I don’t want to conserve the reality of the time of it’s writing, but spring board off of it to be propelled to a greater one.

We can get caught up in reductive views that ignore the inherent complexity that we are dealing with. For instance, “Is the world essentially good or bad?” or “Are humans inherently evil or innately good?” That kind of simplicity is blind to the multiplicity of factors that we are dealing with in any conversation and allowing the conversation to be framed that way almost ensured that no progress will be made.

Good people still do bad things or even do good things with poor motivation. People who do bad things often love their own families.

We do ourselves a great disservice when we allow our media to talk about ‘the evangelical vote’ or even ‘the black perspective’ as if those parameters only mean one thing or as if everyone within designations voted the same way or believe all the same things, hold all the same values and act in unison. It is fictitious, deceptive and paralyzing.

You can’t even say ‘gun owners’ and mean one thing! Our language (and the dualism behind it) is crippling our culture.

There has been a great “De-centering” that has happened to humanity in the past 500 years. If you just look at the effect starting with Copernicus and continue to Darwin, the earth is not the center of the universe and neither are humans.

It would do us well to move from a reductive mentality (center/ order) to a dynamic interplay of emergent elements. When we recognize the complexity and multiplicity involved in the reality behind our ‘code words’, we will begin to access the real issues that face us.

5 Biggest Pastoral Changes in the Past 5 Decades

I’m preparing to facilitate a conversation with some colleagues in the new year about ministry and honoring tradition. I want to begin – and thus frame – the conversation with the changing culture that we are products of, interact with and attempt to minister to.

It is a different way to approach the topic of tradition, admittedly, but my thought is that we start where we are and then trace threads into the past to uncover their significance. I almost always find it unhelpful to start in the past – say at the Protest Reformation – and then slowly work our way up. It is simply too limiting (in scope) and cumbersome (in process) for the contemporary expectations of ministry.

I have been reading a little Gordon Kaufman. He has me thinking about the ‘nuclear age’ and how deeply that shift, from the end of WWII, has impacted us sociologically, psychologically, and spiritually. I take this as my launching off point.

 So here are my Big 5 – in no particular order. I wanted to throw them out here and see what others who are older, or wiser, or more insightful might add to the list or modify.

 Pervasive Pop Psychology  – My dad tells a story about interviewing retired pastors 30 years ago. He asked them when things seemed to change. All of them, without exception, pointed to the window from 1968-1970. They talked about Woodstock, Vietnam, and Nixon among other things.

Many of them also talked about people’s awareness and pop psychology. I will always remember the story of a son who came home from college to visit his folks on the farm. He tried to talk to his dad about his feelings, motivations, childhood memories, his subconscious, etc.  His dad responded, ‘Son, what the hell are going on about?’ He just had no frame of reference for it. Similar stories were repeated, in differing configurations, over and over by  the ministers.

Pop psychology has permeated every facet of society. From Oprah on daytime TV to Self-Help books – it impacts what people expect from a pastor and what they want from things like premarital counseling.
In my first 10 years of ministry, I often said that I would have more prepared for the actual way I spent my week if I had gotten a degree in psychology  rather than in Bible.

Biblical Scholarship – speaking of the Bible, I am shocked as to how much different those conversations go than they did 20 years ago when I was trained in Apologetics/Evangelism.  Between the Jesus Seminar, the Da Vinci Code and Bart Ehrman popularizing the stuff many pastors knew from seminary but were not allowed to say in the pulpit, it is a very different playing field.

It is an odd split: people often know little of the Bible – because they know so much stuff about the Bible. We can’t assume even a Sunday School understanding or a surface devotional reading. But at the same time, the culture wide awareness of critical Biblical scholarship is shocking. That was not true 50 years ago.

The Internet – The Internet changes everything. From the way people spend time to the way that they shop for a church. Facebook has changed how people connect to each other. Google has changed the way people access information. It is impossible to overstate how big of an impact the Internet has had on Western society. If you are still doing church the way you did 50 years ago – and think that it will have the same effect – you are fooling yourself. You may have the same seed, but the soil itself has changed. It will not grow the same crop or produce the same fruit.

Two little examples: When kids who grew up in your church come home from college and sit in on Sunday school (for example). They will assume that they get to share their opinion. They don’t sit quietly and honor the elders by talking last. They will raise their hands and talk first. Is it that they are over empowered? No. It is that they assume that they get to help shape the discussion and their opinion is valid. They don’t sit quietly and try to get up to speed or catch up on what they have missed.

  • This is the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.  A church website is 1.0 – the staff puts out the information that it wants people to see. You read it like a newspaper. It is not interactive. Facebook is 2.0 – it creates the environment but does not generate the content. Young people live in 2.0

Doug Paggitt talks of ‘the pastor as Google’. I love this. People don’t go to Google for Google. It is not a destination. It helps people get to their destination. If it does this well, people trust Google and go it often. Pastor used to be like encyclopedias. They were a resource, a destination for information. Now, the pastor’s office is not a destination, the art of pastoring is help people find theirs. If we do that well, they trust us and come back the next time they need direction.

Pastor as encyclopedia is a repository of information. Pastor as Google is a resource that knows how to find the information.

24 Hour News & Christian Media –  Cable news and Christian radio probably have a bigger impact on the people who fill the pews that any pastor can be expected to have in a 30 minute sermon once a week.  There is no other way to say it, the narrative that is being put out on media outlets like Fox News (Clash of Civilizations) or Christian Radio (the 6 Line Narrative) is so pervasive and so monolithic that it can feel as if your parishioners are being pastored far more by their TV and car radio that you will ever be able to.

This is also part of why our country and culture have become so:

  1. polarized
  2. adversarial

I am horrified by this trend more than all the others combined. I think that it hurts the heart of God and I know that it hurts our Christian witness.

Fractured Globalism  and PostModernity – People have great troubles conceptualizing and articulating how fractured, dislocated, overwhelmed and powerless they feel in the global marketplace. Things are not simple now. Things have never been more complex and overwhelming. Look at the food on your table? Do you know where it comes from? Think about your Thanksgiving dinner last week and imagine how many miles and from how many countries those ingredients were trucked to end up on your table. You might be shocked.

Think about your car. Was it all made and assembled at the same plant? Or even in the same country. The automotive industry was fairly straight forward 50 years ago. Now it is an example of inter-national, multi-corporation conglomerates. We have been de-centered, and people feel it. The way we conceptualize ourselves, our connection to family, the way we picture the world working, the universe and thus God. The best book I have read on the subject is “Identity, Culture, and the Postmodern World” by Madan Sarup.

The PostModern Turn – speaking of PostModern, this may be the biggest of the 5 changes. It is funny to me that some christians still want to debate if the category is real just because it can not be succinctly or universally defined (how very modern!)  Look, call it what you want: late-modernity, hyper-modernity, high-modernity, or some other thing – what can not be denied is that something big and deep has shifted. Blame it on the philosophers (Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, etc) if you want. Make up a new name for it if you must. But please stop pretending that what we are looking at is nothing radical or unexpected. Even the ostrich thinks that it is time to pull your head out of the sand!

One interesting reaction, and this applies to denominations, is the counter-modern responses that want to go back to an imagined past and reclaim a romantic pre-shift relationship between the Christian religion and

  • society
  • the economy
  • science
  • other religions

You can see this in counter-modern responses like Radical Orthodoxy (retreating to the hills of Thomism), Post-Liberal thought, Hyper-Calvinism and the Tea-Party in politics. Even if you pastor with an established denomination (and many don’t) you have to contend with these fractious groups that will impact your congregation.

Those are my 5 Big changes for Pastors over the past 50 years. I would love your thoughts!  What would you take out and what would you add?

Clowns at every Circus

I wrote this as part of another project, but I wanted to post it here in prep for something that I will soon be up to .

I exist in a mixed environment – spiritually speaking. It is progressive (not a capital P) and also includes many people who have  ‘emerged’ (not capital E) from a predominately evangelical-protestant-with charismatic leanings type heritage. I also have many friends and conversation partners who would still identify as conservative, reformed, or some other type of evangelical.

In my circles I have always assumed and heard that when public characters like  Jerry Falwell sounded off on Hurricane Katrina being a punishment from God for the people of New Orleans – that most people rolled their eyes and knew that his was such a marginal expression that he should not be taken seriously.

or when Franklin Graham said that Islam (as if it were one thing) is a terrible religion filled with hate – that people knew he was not a spokesman for  Christians (as if we are just one thing).

or when Mark Driscoll  says that he could never worship a Jesus that he could beat up – that it carried about as much weight as a WWF wrestler mouthing off in order to get pumped up before a match, pulsing with vibrato and testosterone.

But apparently that is not the case. Continue reading “Clowns at every Circus”

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