Clinical Trials

Clinical Trials:
Theology as Translation and Innovation

“Clinical translation is the process used to turn scientific knowledge into real world medical treatments. Researchers take what they have learned about how a tissue usually works and what goes wrong in a particular disease or injury and use this information to develop new ways to diagnose, stop or fix what goes wrong. Before being marketed or adopted as standard of care, most treatments are tested through clinical trials. Sometimes, in attempting new surgical techniques or where the disease or condition is rare and does not have a large enough group of people to form a clinical trial, certain treatments might be tried on one or two people, a form of testing sometimes referred to as innovative medicine.”

What if I substituted the word religious or theological throughout this paragraph? What is theology? One of theology’s objectives is turning theological dogma and doctrine into real world applications, beliefs, and practices so that believers can translate the abstract into the concrete, or better yet join the theoretical and practical into an integrated worldview. What if theologians spent as much time not only thinking about the tradition per se but using the traditions to “develops new ways” to diagnose, stop, or fix what has gone wrong with the tradition or to enhance and expand what works in the tradition? What if the standard of care for theologians was testing ideas and practices through clinical trials? As noted in the paragraph, religious people face so many strange and daunting situations (like the scientist or healthcare researcher who faces rare conditions or diseases), that they often don’t know what to believe or what to do. Theology should help people to try things out, testing them in practice (even in those really rare situations) to see how innovative beliefs/practices and tradition coincide to meet the standards of caring for God’s people. Innovative theological work requires trial and error, asking questions, and developing new ideas within communities.

For example, a new article in the LA Times and Wall Street Journal released the findings of a scientific journal that claims approximately 65% of cancers that humans have are simply the result of “bad luck,” not from the way humans live or from the environment. If I have a friend who is diagnosed with one of these cancers, and know that it is simply her “bad luck” or that it is “chance” or the way the stem cells divide, what does that have to do with her or my theological beliefs about how God acts in the world? About what kind of pastoral care I might give to her or the family? How does this information affect the way I preach and worship? The “standard of care” for Christian theologians should not simply be to offer the usual platitudes like “God has a plan for you” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Here the Christian tradition can fail the believer by implying that God’s plan for an individual is to inflict a lethal illness as part of same grander scheme. Or worse yet, that the pain and suffering of illness (from cancer to depression) is a gift of God and should we fail to “hold up” under the pressure of the suffering than we have not only failed ourselves, but also failed God. The standard of care should require Christian theologians to understand the illness, to translate the tradition, and maybe even offer some innovative beliefs and practices that help the person to live with the faith, not in spite of it.

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Virgin Births

Virgin Births and why they matter: because our bodyselves matter


So, I ask again, why does the Virgin Birth matter to Christians? For some Christians, it falls in the same “literal” category as the “creation” accounts—these Biblical narratives are factual accounts and that is what constitutes the “truth” of the faith. While I tend not to fall into this category of “literalism” I surely understand part of the concern. If the Christian faith has no grounding in the way things really are, if Christianity is simply a “myth” in a simplistic way, then it will not matter to the flesh and blood of creation. I believe that Christianity is “literally” grounded in the Incarnation—God dwells in the creation, sets up camp in this world.


So, the incarnation is a beginning point for me in understanding events like the Virgin Birth, the resurrection, and transfiguration of Jesus the Christ. And if I believe that God created this world then incarnation and creation are in a sense, one and the same. Or to put this in the words of the early church fathers and mothers: grace is not something “extra” added onto nature, but grace inheres in and perfects nature. Nature is good, created by God, and the place in which God dwells.


So often when something extraordinary happens, Christians label it as a “miracle,” that is, something done outside of the natural world by a supernatural force (God). This supernatural God interferes/intervenes periodically with special providence. For some Christians, this works. It does not for me because I would rather believe that there is so much more to nature and God’s relationship to nature that we can know or understand. I find some of the Eastern Orthodox theology helpful at this point: that divine grace is not something “added” to the creation, but is indeed in the act of creation itself. (Maximos the Confessor) God is present “in”, “with”, and “under.” This sacramental language is also present in much of the Western tradition. This is a version of what we might call panentheism.


When I think about the Virgin Birth, I think about God’s grace co-inhering in the natural order. God’s incarnation doesn’t come apart from it, but deeply within it—in Mary’s womb, even if it is in ways, which we do not understand. Modern science can help us interpret much of the natural world, revealing how complex and mysterious God’s creation really is. The process of birth, of parthenogenesis, of reproduction is amazing in and of itself. But there is always “the more,” the mystery that transcends or deepens our awareness of God’s creation. God takes the world so seriously that God enters into divine partnership with Mary, a poor Jewish woman, to become incarnate. Mary does give her consent. I believe the Virgin Birth is not about “purity” or “sexual abstinence.” These notions of “purity” can be dangerous in a world that already discounts women and the poor. What God does is much more than that. And what Mary does is certainly more than being a passive, pure “vessel.” To quote Philip Hefner: “We are what nature can become.” And this is because God becomes within us, in our bodyselves, fully and naturally in Christ. The virgin conception of Mary is not some supernatural, external magic trick by an intervening God but instead a manifestation of the gracious, creative God who so loves the world that God chooses to become deeply embodied within it.

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Memory and God

DSC00945Do This in Remembrance of Me

From: The Way We Were
Memories, light the corners of my mind
Misty watercolor memories of the way we were.
Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind
smiles we gave to one another
for the way we were.
Can it be that it was all so simple then
or has time erased every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
tell me would we? Could we?
Memories, may be beautiful and yet
what’s too painful to remember
we simply choose to forget

Read more: Barbara Streisand – The Way We Were Lyrics | MetroLyrics

What happens when we can’t remember? When we find that we are not our memories gathered over a lifetime? We each have our own gallery of “misty watercolor memories” that line the hallways of our minds. Like the lyric of the song, some things we remember because they are beautiful and poignant, while others we would rather forget because they haunt our present with images of the past. Sometimes we can choose to forget while other times the power of self-editing our memories is beyond our control. And for others who have some kind of disease that causes memory loss, their memories gathered over a lifetime come and go in fragments, vanish when least expected, and often disappear when most desired.

I am baffled about what our memory really is and why we often call illnesses like dementia an illness of the mind. Where is our mind? Is it encased in our brains? Or does it extend into the environment around us? Or is it buried deep within us and memories come to consciousness through our bodies that are part of our minds? Maybe our memories are our body-selves, both embedded within, under, and around us. For those who can’t recall a memory, or forget who they are in the present moment, maybe they still have not “lost their minds” for their bodies will surely recall in some capacity who they are and the connections that they know through the touch of a hand, a song that they memorized, the smells of foods that they love, or the image of a loved one that hangs on their wall. Or maybe our minds are extended through the relationships that we have—with others who remember for us, through the objects that we use to write and orient ourselves. I think our mind extends and embodies ourselves in ways that are much more than our brains, than our selves alone. Our minds are body-selves in relationship with other body-selves, and ultimately re-membered by the God who suffers and remembers all our losses.

Do this in remembrance of me has taken on new meaning for me. The sacramental touch, fragrance, taste, sight, and sound of God literally re-members the way that our body-selves have been dis-membered, whether that is through illness, time, disengagement, or disconnection. To be remembered by God is to know that whether or not we can remember is not the point—for even if we can’t tell our own story, or we forget what it is, God knows our story and our story is part of God’s. We are called to tell the stories of others whose memory has failed them. We become each other’s memories when we do for each other what God does in memory of all God’s creatures.

The rituals and remembrances, practices and places of our Christian faith become remembered in our body-selves through the way we embody them. God’s incarnation literally re-minds us whose we are even when we forget.

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God talk

Reforming God-talk


One way to reform theology is to simply bring together those who are usually kept apart. Why not create inter-generational theological discussions that matter? One of my students, Elisa Berndt, is a spiritual intern at Touchmark At All Saints—a Senior Retirement Residence—in Sioux Falls, SD. What she is discovering is that some college students and senior citizens hold something in common that is very important: a deep longing and desire to find ways to make God-talk relevant to their lives.


Once a week Elisa Berndt meets with several women (who are in their 80s and 90s) to discuss the theology of Rob Bell’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. College students are not the only ones in our “youth-driven” culture who often assume that “senior citizens” have their minds made up already and that new ideas are not welcome, particularly ones about their religious convictions. Many of us assume that the concerns of one generation have nothing in common with the other. Contrary to these stereotypes, Elisa has spoken with me about the profound and very meaningful theological conversations she is having with these women from week to week. Their long lives have been marked by deep joy and profound tragedies. They want to think and talk about how the paradoxes of their lives meet up with the concepts and beliefs of their Christian faith. Many of the women are tired of the same sort of question-answer Bible studies that their denominations send their way. Their questions can’t be met with answers, but often require more questions and lengthy discussion. Elisa and I are hoping that at some point this semester my 24 students in the “God” class can invite these women over to Augustana College to all talk about God. We hope that this is one way new discussions will emerge about God, life, and how we are all connected as theologians.

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Playing God

Playing God

When we use the phrase, “playing God,” it’s often in the context of issues related to science and technology. Example: If humans are seemingly overextending the boundaries of their power and knowledge when they mess with the human genome, then they are “playing God.” In the news once again, a family is demanding that a hospital keep their loved one on “life sustaining machines” even though the individual has been pronounced brain dead (which is the legal definition of death).[1] In such situations, we accuse each other of playing God, as if the only function of God is to “pull the plug.” Playing God—who is this God that we say is at play? A God who steps in now and then to pull plugs? Is this God really nothing more than an all-controlling deity whose sole function is to begin and end life? If so, then I believe as a Christian we have limited God to the fears we have about our own power and control over our mortality. We are fundamentally fearful that we really are mortal and so we try in any way possible to overcome the limitation of our mortality. Death, not life drives our language of “playing God.” Such language finds its roots in the caricature of the classical theistic God—the Omni God—and in our pathological fear of finitude.

But such a God is hardly the one we read about in Philippians whose power is found in weakness, who comes to us in the form of a slave. God comes in the opposite of what we expect. So if we are playing God, might it not be more appropriate to say that such divine interaction is about suffering with the creation that groans in travail? That as Christians, if we are to play God, we must become like Christ so that we can bear our neighbor’s burdens, become witnesses to the suffering of those who are in pain and anguish? To play God is to bear witness to the fragility of our life. The kenotic action of God’s play is a drama lived out in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this play, new life and resurrection comes only when we fully know and acknowledge the death of our old life. To play God is to realistically face death in order to fully experience resurrection. This kind of theological play might transform the decisions we make from fearful ones to faithful ones.

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new releases children’s books

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Jack in the Box by Gary Pederson

So excited to support my husband’s book:

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An Excremental Theology for Reformation

Excremental Ecclesiology
Blest is the man whose bowels move,
And melt with pity to the poor;
Whose soul, by sympathizing love,
Feels what his fellow saints endure.
His heart contrives for their relief
More good than his own hands can do;
He, in the time of gen’ral grief,
Shall find the Lord has bowels too.
His soul shall live secure on earth,
With secret blessings on his head,
When drought, and pestilence, and dearth
Around him multiply their dead.
Or if he languish on his couch,
God will pronounce his sins forgiv’n;
Will save him with a healing touch,
Or take his willing soul to heaven., Isaac Watts

A few years ago at Augustana College, our illustrious campus pastor Paul Rohde preached a series of sermons with the title “flush” in them. The sermons were accompanied by the sounds of toilets flushing at appropriate or inappropriate moments, depending on who was running sound. Of course, Lutherans are known for having bodily references in their theology. I’m sure that some Lutheran theologians could hardly contain their joy when it was announced that “Luther’s lavatory thrills experts. Martin Luther’s supposedly great insight into justification by grace through faith occurred while he was on the toilet.” Dr. Treu, an expert who helped to discover this great archeological find comments: “there can be little doubt the toilet was used by Luther, the radical theologian who argued for a more earthy Christianity, which regarded the entire human body – and not just the soul – as God’s creation.” The flush is simply a modern day addition to excremental theology. Luther, trained in the theology and exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, argued with his opponents who claimed that God was too “clean” or “pure” to really engage in human flesh. For Luther, God was most fully God when God was most fully human.
A few years ago I heard a Modern Hebrew Bible scholar give a lecture on body images in the Psalms. As one example, he used this wonderful hymn text by Isaac Watts. I’ve had my student congregation sing this hymn. Individuals chuckle and look around to see if anyone feels as awkward about the text as they do. I remind them that that the Victorians changed the language of Watts’ text and made it “cleaner.” Docetism was declared a heresy by the early church, but it’s still alive and well in congregations. I wonder how people would react if we changed the words in the Nicene Creed from: when God came “down” and was incarnate and was made human to “when God, who has always been in our world, becomes one of our flesh—we who are techno-sapiens, hybrids of machine and flesh.” Would we, like those in the Victorian era, find offense with such language? I wonder why we never sing hymns, recite creeds, or listen to sermons that honestly reflect the realities of body-selves in the twenty first century? I’m not sure we are ready for God to be that human.
The Body of God is not just a metaphor. God’s presence in the world is in our bodies. In the Lutheran tradition, we express this through the little Latin axiom: “finitum capax infiniti.” The finite, earthly stuff of creation bears or cradles the infinite. We confess this in the creedal reference to Chalcedon that Jesus is “like unto us in our humanity, like unto God in his divinity.” Humanity and divinity are not polar opposites—rather they cradle each other. And our bodies, like the Body of Christ, are not a static metaphor, but a living, moving, changing community of human persons. Our bodies are God’s way of being God in the world. Precisely in our full humanity—in our sufferings, failures, and doubts, we are moved to be members of the Body of Christ.
An example of the fleshliness of Jesus that helps to explain this might be from the visual arts: the famous 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano, entitled, “Piss Christ.” A small, white crucifix is submerged in a murky, yellow-brownish fluid, alluding to the piss that supposedly surrounds the religious object. For those who found the artwork offensive, I am guessing that they would find anything that alludes to the crass bodily nature of Jesus as gross and disgusting. Equally offensive for many Christians is “Christa,” the female crucifix sculpted by Edwyna Sandys. Some people still find the image of a woman presiding at the Eucharist to be offensive. I don’t know of many congregations who would want either the photograph or the crucifix as a centerpiece for their sanctuary. The artwork and statues in many congregations portray the kind of Christ that the members want to worship: clean, white, and male, with nice long hair. While this clean and tidy God might appear as one who is easy to worship, in fact, “his” appearance does not reflect the realities of our messy body-selves. Maybe every church, for a period of time, should hang either Christa or “Piss Christ” at the front and center in the sanctuary to remind them what it really means to be part of the Body of Christ. Otherwise our theology is not worth flushing.

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What it means to be Lutheran by other Lutherans than Luther

What it means to be Lutheran: To quote Lutheran theologians. Here are some observations about what it means to be Lutheran from Lutherans besides just Luther.

1. We are never outside God’s grace: “As paradigmatic instantiation of what really is, central to myth and ritual, Jesus Christ would rather portray, as the Eucharist does, that our essential reality is placed within the nature that God has created. We are never ‘outside’ God and the grace of God. God will use our lives, weak as they are, for the purposes of what really is. Christ’s message is not that he came to pay our debt through his death, but rather that despite our sense of guilt and inadequacy, we have never been outside God’s gracious ambience. The cross and death, far from paying some imagined debt, are instantiations of how life for us is to proceed, a project we are part of. That project is creation’s moving toward fulfillment according to God’s purposes, a fulfillment that requires our self-giving for the creation, even as Jesus gave himself.” Philip Hefner, The Human Factor (253)
2. Faith is freedom for service to the neighbor. “This is the summa of the Gospel: The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of mercy and grace. It is nothing else than continuous bearing of each other’s burdens.” Martin Luther, WA 10I-II; 366. Or in a contemporary theological statement: “Luther’s main thesis is daring: As a result of the presence of Christ, the Christian becomes a ‘work of Christ,’ and even more a ‘Christ’ to the neighbor.’” Raunio, Die Summe des christlichen Lebens.
3. How we “feel” about Jesus is meaningless. “There are times when I hear my name, turn, and recognize Jesus. There are times when faith feels like a friendship with God. But there are many other times when it feels more adversarial or even vacant. Yet none of that matters in the end. How we feel about Jesus or how close we feel to God is meaningless next to how God acts upon us. How God indeed enters into our messy lives and loves us through them, whether we ant God’s help or not. And how, even after we’ve experienced some sort of resurrection, its’ never perfect or impressive like an Easter bonnet, because like Jesus, resurrected bodies are always in rough shape.” Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix, p. 176-77.
4. To be Lutheran, is to be free. “People of faith sometimes say something the more: ‘I’ll pray for you.’ It is well said. It is well lived, as we remember that the Creator will draw on every resource, spoken or unspoken, in the artful venture of making truly free. To that end, the creature, imaging God in believing in the face of finitude and living against evil, can claim power that avails in a truly creative life.” Paul Sponheim, Love’s Availing Power, 131.
5. God is present in the opposite of what we expect. “The Bible directs humans to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
6. Faith is expressed in frustration and with honesty. “’The hand of God lay heavy upon all—age old words that had now become real. Pious people sought out their closets in secret and fear and there, behind shut doors, sobbed for mercy from the Lord’s wrath. . . Most of the settlers had neither the faith nor the courage to face crop failures and starvation. One after another they were pulling up stakes. . . The whole country was scorched. . . every field burnt up. . . settlers had abandoned all hope of ever establishing homes in that place. . . As for him, he wouldn’t give a cent for the whole God damn prairie. The man raged, desperation burnt in his eyes.” O.E. Rolvaag, Their Fathers’ God
7. God’s grace is not just for humans; it encompasses all of creation. “When we turn the attention of the church to a definition of the Christian relationship with the natural world, we are not stepping away from grave and proper theological ideas; we are stepping into the middle of them.” Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace
8. Faith engages intellect and understanding; reason is not opposed to faith. “. . . despite the claims that we live in a ‘postmodern’ age, the modern assumption that faith and learning are separate realms continues to permeate our culture and our consciousness. . . Even at our church-related colleges. . . faith and learning are sometimes seen as two separate realms. Furthermore, the more that faith is perceived as separated from intellectual debate and from knowledge of the arts and sciences, the more it becomes marginal to all that we consider meaningful and true.” Marcia Bunge, “Faith vs. Learning: Healing the Split.”
9. Faith is experiential, material, and bodily. Luther says: “On this we take our stand, and we also believe and teach that in the Supper we eat and take to ourselves Christ’s body truly and physically.”LW, 37: 29.
10. Always reforming, always changing

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In celebration of the Reformation

9-10 Theses for the Celebration of the Reformation


  1. God’s radical, loving embrace and grace encompasses all of creation. Nothing is outside of God’s grace.
  2. Christian faith is about being bodyselves—wholly physical, deeply rooted in the earth, passionately incarnational. Simply put: because Christianity is an incarnational faith, the Body of Christ the church reflects the experiences of the human bodies of which it is comprised. And like St. Paul and all of those who came with and after him, the church struggles to figure out what that means. And that struggle is especially important in light of those who the church continues to exclude, or whose bodily presence is not welcomed.
  3. Luther wasn’t worried about salvation per se. God’s gracious love frees us to stop worrying, so that we can go ahead and serve the neighbor: God has created, loved, and saved us and is continually creating, loving, and saving us so we can get on with life and live it! Being and becoming!
  4. Lutherans should stop worrying about whether they are Lutheran enough—particularly when they spend time arguing about what Luther said. Life is too short for that and the scope of the world’s problems too big!
  5. Jesus the Christ is not an object of our piety or religion; Jesus the Christ is the subject of our faith—the one who dwells in, with, and under.
  6. Lutherans should never be Lutheran alone—they must always worship with, talk with, reach out to others—religious and non-religious, Christian and non-Christian.
  7. To be Christian is to practice what is preached. I believe that the way we live together as church already demonstrates the shape of our church. The habits we practice create communities in which we live. If we live out of cynicism and stinginess our community looks like that. But if we live with grace and humor, humility and responsibility, we can hope to be both guest and host, as living sacraments of hospitality.
  8. To be Christian is to be church. The church is the living Body of Christ—not some abstract doctrine, or a specific building, or even the institution. Church is not a “what” but a “who,” that is, an assembly of people gathered for word and sacrament. When Christians worship, they share the words: the Body of Christ given for you and the blood of Christ shed for you. To use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous dictum: “Jesus calls us not to a new religion, but to life.”  We are called to be living sacraments for the world.
  9. The question for our generation might not be only how do we know a gracious God but also how do we love our neighbor, and even especially our enemy. We call each other names: conservative, liberal, heretic, and orthodox. McLaren says: “Rhetoric heats up, logic falls victim to the rhetorical fever, and hysteria turns the group delusional and sometimes dangerous.” Fanaticism follows. What can we do with these divisions? In St. Paul’s epistle to Corinth, he addresses a church that is much like the contemporary scenes I just described where differences turn to divisions that tear apart the Body of Christ. Corinth was a major metropolitan center of trade, tourism, and religious pilgrimage. And the community was marked by great diversity: Jew/Greek, slave/free. And these differences would often turn into hurtful divisions. This is the context in which Paul writes the chapter about love. Amidst the painful and hurtful divisions we create, Paul calls upon us to love one another. It is important to note that Paul’s words are to a specific congregation with specific issues—and so these famous words about love are not about some generic, feel-good, happy-clappy love—but instead are a counter-cultural proclamation and address  specific people who are hurting. God’s love for us and our love for one another must address the particular situations we find ourselves in. That’s the tough part about this text and about being church. These are words of tough love for hurting people. Healing the Body of God is not easy.
  10.  Being Christian is being a pilgrim on the Jesus Way. Church is about life along the way, an incarnational pilgrimage. Being and becoming the church needs to be about a radical experiment of living that way—about that community, about providing freedom from the constraints of our crazy lives that limit our being open to others and to God. We must discover God and church along the way—and we may find it in magic moments sharing food and drink, in compassionate embraces with those who suffer, in the companion animals who share our lives, and through the hard work and adventuresome play of daily life. 


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