on April 22, 2011
"This book could start a revolution. Borg cracks open the encrusted words of faith and pops them into fresh language that people can understand... " Anne S. Howard
There is no doubt that the revolution was already started in 1963, by former Anglican bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, who was a major force in shaping Borg's liberal and progressive Christianity. His controversial million-copy bestseller, "Honest to God" was not so much an attempt to reshape Christianity, but a trial of concepts and modern language that conformed Christianity to a modern pro-scientific world view. There can be little question that Robinson wished to reduce Christianity's dependence on belief in legendary accounts and on the supernatural. Some conservative Christians were, and others are still terrified by the same 'Jesus Seminar' attitude. They see in this approach an appeal for a secularized Christianity or even worse, an appeal for secular humanism.
Acclaimed Bible scholar Marcus Borg, revisits same issues again after a half century. He argues that contemporary Christian language has become non inclusive, disconnected from and not representing the beliefs which once substantiated it. Defending his case with allusion to N. T. Wright's "Simply Christian," Borg calls for a radical change to the language Christians use to express their beliefs. For Borg, as was for Robinson, it is the primary remedy that will permit the Church's words to once again communicate Biblical truth, faith, and hope. Borg is addressing what he wrote earlier in, "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time." By taking the Bible Seriously, But Not Literally he shares Robinson's main perspective. He does not believe in miracles in a conventional sense, yet professes his belief in the paranormal, and offers a definition that accords well with Robinson's views.
While twenty five chapters may echo 'too many notes' to the average reader, it is not so. This book, is Borg's confession of faith "On Being a Christian", making an effort to interpret what it means to be a liberal and progressive Christian. In his Confession book, he discusses various Christian themes, exposing each in a chapter, such as Salvation and The only way, God and Jesus, Believing and Faith, Mercy and Righteousness, Sin, forgiveness and Repentance, To be Born Again, Ascension and Pentecost, Rapture and Second Coming, Heaven (without Hell), Creeds and Trinity, Lords Supper and Lords Prayer. Meanwhile he tries to weave personal anecdotes and vignettes along the way.
Dr. Marcus Borg is a professor of philosophy, and a respected Historical Jesus Scholar, who has enjoyed an illustrious career explains how can we benefit from a spiritual, metaphorical understanding of the gospels, without taking them literally. He also proposes to reconcile the results of New Testament and Historical Jesus scholarship with a modern, even redefined Christian faith. Borg clearly holds to the Metaphorical Gospel, but seems to be open to dialogue and change. It may be unfair just to cite his earlier books, or take this last one to describe his dynamic position on all issues. Speaking Christian is a serious book that has to be read critically, with an open mind and a mustard seed faith.
Honest to God
"A historical approach is greatly illuminating. Language comes alive in its context. ... Thus a historical approach makes Christian language relative and not absolute." Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian
The early Church Fathers followed primarily one of two methods of interpretation: Allegorical (spiritual) or literal. Going beyond literalism, Origen advanced allegorical Bible exegesis, early in the third century, claiming that it hides the truth from those blinded by sin and pride, while revealing it to the renewed eyes of believers. Up to the Reformation, the Bible was not usually interpreted in a strictly literal way.
Marcus Borg, who pursued the search for the real historical Jesus, with the Jesus Seminar for the first decade of its work, now exposits an alternative understanding by restoring authentic biblical meanings. Dr. Borg believes Christian language needs to be set free from its contemporary literalism. He wrote some of the most thought provoking books of which Speaking Christian is the most recent. His vision, as he stated, "I think we're living in a time of transition within Christianity that's been going on for half a century... where what I call the common Christianity that most Christians ...took for granted is no longer persuasive and compelling."
Some Biblical historians believe that Biblical literalism came about with Sola Scriptura, at the rise of Protestantism. So, Dr. Borg coaches the reader, with the book conclusion, asking if literal interpretation was part of the foundation he would like to shake, in the words of Paul Tillich, one of the century's most influential Christian thinkers. The author now persuades you into a discussion, helping you recover true belief. While the questions are his, some answers are expected from you, in the early Christian Catechetical school tradition. How important has the promise of heaven, or the threat of hell been influential to your Christian experience. How was your interpretation of the Bible, driven by the 'Framework of Heaven / Hell' concept within Christianity. How central were sin and forgiveness to adulthood faith, and how central are they for some forms of Christianity?
In a recent interview the Bible scholar revealed that the turning point of his search for God, confessing that was his most formative religious insight, came in a series of mystical experiences. "They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word 'God'-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or the sacred) is real and can be experienced. These experiences also convinced me that mystical forms of Christianity are true, and that the mystical forms of all the enduring religions of the world are true."
Borg's liberation using a historical approach, which promotes a relative Christian language in understanding the creation, the flood, and the ten plagues goes beyond refuting literalism, to reconsider gender equality, same sex relations, and at its core to review the Christian doctrine of salvation as its only venue.
on May 25, 2011
This is a brilliant book and will be much appreciated by Christians who are serious about their faith but have misgivings about the literalism of many evangelical Christians. The author digs back to the original meaning of many key concepts in Christianity such as "salvation" and he points out how the meaning of that term has changed in the relatively recent past to mean "being saved is having our sins forgiven because of Jesus' death and we are now saved from hell and assured of eternal life in heaven." Originally it did not mean this at all. Salvation was initially being saved from slavery such as the Israelites in bondage in Egypt. Then it referred to being freed from bondage of the exile in Babylon. And now it refers to believers being released from the bondage to whatever is trapping them in this life - anger, alienation, guilt, or a suffocating relationship. Borg explains very clearly how more than a dozen key notions like this have been corrupted over time...much of this corruption due to the recent trend toward literalism which is a sad and recent phenomenon.
Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power - And How They Can Be Restored
on June 10, 2011
This is the best of some really good books by Marcus Borg. He introduces some new thoughts specific to the differences in language and meaning of some key Christian words and phrases, while providing a brilliant synthesis of some of his other major works like "The Meaning of Jesus," "The Last Week," "The Heart of Christianity," and, "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time."
This book, for me, is the most readable of all Borg's books. He seems to have put aside the "professorial" tone of many of his other books that made them less readable for me. This is more like a conversation with Marcus Borg.
This will definitely become a major reference source in my own journey through life.
on January 22, 2012
This is the only book of Borg's I have read. I came to this book as a Christian who is deeply concerned about social justice, the environment, and other "liberal" issues. I was already deeply committed to understanding the Bible and other religious language metaphorically. Given my viewpoints, one might assume I would warmly embrace Borg's message. Unfortunately, I only welcome his scholarship, not the narrow framework that he presents it in.
Early on, Borg explains that there are "two major causes shaping the way Christian language is heard. The first is the literalization of language in the modern period, affecting Christians and non-Christians alike. The second is the interpretation of Christian language within a common framework that [Borg calls] 'heaven and hell' Christianity." Borg spends the rest of the book giving his cures to these two problems. His remedies are clearly explained and supported by his extensive scholarship and tremendous expertise. I will treasure Speaking Christian as a valuable resource in that regard.
Unfortunately, Borg offers little to support his claim that he has correctly identified the "two major causes" of our problem understanding Christian language. Imagine the following. What if I claimed that the two major reasons that most Americans do not understand the language of computer science is that they take the computer/brain analogy too literally, and that computer science if filled with jargon that has no obvious meaning to them. That sounds somewhat believable, but it does not really ring true. Common sense tells us that the major reason most Americans do not understand computer science is that they have not studied computer science. Similarly, common sense tells us that the reason most people do not understand the language of Christianity is that they have not deeply studied Christianity. In fact, many may not even have the educational background to begin deeply studying a religion. (Our schools seem to be geared more towards producing skilled workers than people who are comfortable working with abstract ideas. A deep and solid liberal arts education must have little value in the marketplace.)
The problem of literalization and people's difficulty understanding the metaphoric nature of the heaven/hell framework are, to me, symptoms of this lack of serious study rather than root causes. Literalization naturally falls away as one progresses in study. For example, when first learning about electricity, students often use the water analogy as a stepping stone. Once their knowledge improves, they see how limited that analogy is. Thinking that electricity flows literally the same way water flows in a pipe is a sign that the student is a beginner, not that the incorrect analogy has been used.
Borg condemns the "heaven and hell" framework, but at what cost? Many find rich meaning in the symbolism of the heaven and hell framework. I am left wondering why Borg has done the work of interpreting some of the symbols of other religions to see where they intersect with Christianity, but is unwilling or unable to do this same type of work for some of his fellow Christians. In the end, this cheapens his work, tainting it with partisanship. Christians have a responsibility to embrace and understand others. Borg is too eager to shake his finger at those across the political aisle.
I would have been much more impressed if Borg, as a "liberal," also identified the common spiritual shortcomings of those who embrace historical-metaphorical hermeneutics. We all fall short, and often in stereotypical ways. If "conservatives" are more prone to being literal and militaristic, what are "liberals" prone to? Do we often take God less seriously than our conservative brothers and sisters? As "liberals," when we hear "conservatives" complain that liberals want to water down Christianity to the point that it is little more than something philosophy-based like secular humanism, we need to take that very seriously. After all, there is an important difference between philosophy and theology.
Philosophy is big-picture ideas (wisdom) about knowledge, while religion is big-picture ideas (wisdom) about the entire universe, which includes the known, unknown, and the unknowable. Although there are points where they touch, we cannot confuse philosophy with religion or religion with philosophy without damaging both. When Borg says, "ultimately, the central message of Christianity is simple," and then proceeds to demystify Christianity, it sounds as if we are getting dangerously close to confusing religion with philosophy. We cannot reduce Christianity to what is known. Since religion also deals with the unknown and unknowable, it must rely on symbols. Explaining the symbols can be a stepping stone to gaining understanding, but we must return to the symbols. Explaining away or discarding symbols sets off alarms for "conservative" Christians, and rightly so. By the way, I was also alarmed by Borg mentioning how seldom the issue of mercy comes up in his life. Some might see that as another red flag that Borg is feeding us "Christianity-lite" at times.
In conclusion, I wholeheartedly recommend reading the book, but watch out for the places where Borg goes beyond his depth, where he goes beyond the individual gems of his scholarship to offer his own, flawed, big-picture conclusions. Read it the same way you would read a book about mountain climbing written by someone who is the leading scholar on the facts and statistics of mountain climbing, but who has never climbed one of the great mountains himself.
on June 12, 2011
It is Marcus Borg's contention that many terms Christians have used for expressing or describing their faith have become distorted, since perhaps the late the eighteenth century. These terms have been misappropriated expressing superficial, literal concepts of the largely conservative believer. The author hopes to "redeem or re-claim the Christian language in all of its richness and wisdom."
For example, the expression: "Jesus died for our sins. Has taken on a literal understanding that doesn't square with the original intent of the phrase. These persons miss the richness of the metaphor. In fact, Jesus was crucified by the Roman and Temple authorities as a rabble-rouser and one critical of Rome and the high priests. The conservative position is that a perfect man had to pay with his life for the sins of mankind and that Jesus was the only man who qualified. The Bible does not teach that God is limited in any way in his ability to forgive sin. Closely related is the term "sacrifice", which is taken to refer to Christ's death on the cross as payment for our sins. But the author says the "Bible is never about substitutionary payment for sin."
Another example concerns the term "redemption". Many conservative Christians would say the word pertains to getting saved so one could go the heaven. In fact, Jesus talked very little about heaven as the ultimate goal. Rather Jesus' emphasis was on the Kingdom of God and his desire that it come on earth. Redemption, in fact, refers to being set free from the slavery that inhibits our leading the Christ-like life here on earth. Borg says, "...whenever Christianity emphasizes the afterlife as the reason for being Christian, the result invariably is a distortion of Christianity."
For the reader who is willing to subject his viewpoints to the light of scholarly thinking and swim upstream against some modern concepts, there is the satisfaction of understanding the original intention of the biblical writers and some surprising and freeing insights to be learned.
Marcus Borg, a recognized biblical scholar, has written a number of books that support in even more detail some of the concepts and understandings touched on in "Speaking Christian". This reader will be surprised if there isn't wide-spread acceptance of Borg's position as discussed in this book.
on September 6, 2011
I have never understood how seemingly intelligent people can read Jesus' message and then blindly believe the hocus pocus, magical-mystery-tour stuff that the "Church" has come up with over the centuries. Finally, through Marcus Borg's book, I see a glimpse of what Jesus, a flesh-and-blood man of God, was telling us. There is no easy out of believing the right thing, collecting forgiveness after a lifetime of being a sorry excuse for a human, and and then going to heaven. Jesus was telling us how to live here on earth NOW and bring the kingdom of God to earth NOW. Not by some supernatural die-on-the-cross so you can be a total bigoted jerk during your life, be forgiven for your "sins" and go to heaven. No, Jesus was telling us all to be decent, compassionate, caring human beings to EVERYONE and by doing that we bring God's vision for what this world can be into being right NOW.
I love that Borg's book clearly shows that so much of what your typical "born again" Christian believes to be gospel truth (forgive the pun), is actually very recent - and misguided - theology. Jesus didn't go around trying to start a new religion. He didn't ask people to change their beliefs; he asked people to change their behavior. The early Christians were Jews who who were set apart by what they DID and how they lived, not by what they believed. There is no supernatural do-over people. It's time to forget all that washed-in-the-blood and bodily-rose-to-heaven mumbo-jumbo. You might as well believe in vampires and the Easter bunny. Speaking Christian is about what Jesus was really talking about and it is not easy like going to confession or claiming Jesus as your personal, private savior. Jesus calls on his followers to stand firm for what is right and just and good; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, championing the oppressed, comforting the dying, healing the sick, and by doing so to bring salvation to the world right here and right now.
on August 6, 2011
I begin with a bit of simple, poignant
Years ago, a humorous exchange in
seminary homiletics classes involved
assisting ourselves and our hearers when
making a pulpit declaration about which
we were uncertain -
"Weak point, pound hard" - we said.
Years later, in the church choirs to which
I belong, we cross our fingers as we sing
beautiful lyrics with questionable words.
We keep reminding ourselves that -
"We can still sing what we cannot speak."
Both statements reflect what I believe
Marcus Borg is trying to tell us concerning
the modern state of Christian language.
We know that much of it has become quite
meaningless to many but we are nonetheless
inclined to overcompensate for this by
repeating the old words "with emphasis."
We love the music that accompanies themes
we no longer believe, but we keep singing
them anyway, simply ignoring the words we
are belting out.
"Weak point pound hard" and "Sing what we
cannot speak" describe a lack of integrity,
it seems to me.
I think these anecdotes describe a rather
common and unfortunate state of affairs
existing for many Christians today.
Traditional words no longer express what
is important to many of us. Yet, we seem
to lack a framework and a vocabulary to
describe our contemporary faith stance.
I thank Marcus Borg for helping us to deal
with this dilemma. Here is my take on what
he is attempting to do in his new book.
Borg knows language is important. He seeks
to build bridges, not barriers, with the
words describing our faith. He is not so
much interested in chucking the old words
as he is infusing them with new meanings.
Return to old meanings - is perhaps a better
way of putting it. Borg believes that many
images we have inherited from Christian
tradition were not originally Christian.
Using an approach he has long advocated -
"the historical-metaphorical method" -
Borg digs deeply into early Christian
biblical thinking. He claims, for example,
that the first Christians of the Bible
were not so much guided by a "heaven and
hell" philosophical framework as one which
emphasized "peace and justice."
In other words, their faith declared -
"I am a Christian, and therefore I will
work to make this world a better place."
Only secondarily did they advocate: "I am
a Christian, and I want to go to heaven
when I die."
Biblical faith, for Borg, was very
different from the faith most of us
have inherited through more recent
In a true sense, Borg is invoking a
new reformation, not unlike the one
experienced by many Christians five
centuries ago when 'faith words' had
to change to fit life's realities
and to give people a renewed sense
of life's meaning.
Today, fortunately, we can anticipate
a new reformation that many Catholics,
Protestants and others can jointly
Borg's concern is also about Christian
integrity. If our words do not reflect
what we really believe - (reflected in
the terms 'pound hard' and 'sing it
anyway') - we can be justifiably
criticised as hypocrites. The author
wants to help us use words that
describe who we really are and what
we are experiencing.
When what we say and do matches who
we really are, we can again become
people of integrity - and others will
see and perhaps identify with it.
Borg's task is an honourable, authentic
one. He does not disparage those who need
the traditional assurances of the faith
terms they genuinely know and love. To
these, he offers his blessing.
But for those of us who need words and
meanings that are genuine reflections -
Borg provides a blueprint and some
important building blocks for the
Borg is writing what he writes best.
His greatest gift to us comes when he
offers biblical studies with theological
depth, clarity and personal applicability.
on July 1, 2011
Have you ever wondered about "Christian talk", the specialized language that includes terms such as salvation and redemption and righteousness, just to name a few? Do you think that many of those terms need to be translated into modern English if Christianity is going to even have a chance of being relevant in today's world, much less the future?
In Speaking Christian, author Marcus Borg has taken on this task and unpacked many of these religious terms from his perspective as an Anglican theologian. The result is a highly readable and provocative book that will not only make you reevaluate your understanding of Biblical terminology, but may also make you reconsider your personal theology. As a bonus, it may give you a greater sense of God's divine presence.
The premise of Borg's approach is that the Bible is now badly misunderstood and misrepresented as the result of two causes. First is the "literalization of language in the modern period", whereby an increasing portion of the western world fails to see the metaphorical and symbolic language of much of scripture. Second is the interpretation of such language within what Borg calls the "heaven/hell framework" that has become the controlling worldview for much of Christianity.
Borg contends that the "ancient and authentic" understanding of God, Jesus, and the Christian life are much more focused on the present life than the heaven/hell assumption that has taken over at least half of the church world.
Important to understanding Borg's approach is that he does not propose to jettison the twenty or so terms that he examines in this book, along with related phrases and liturgies. Instead, he insists on "redeeming" them in the real sense of the word. Even in making that effort, he feels required to explain that to redeem is "to set free from slavery, bondage, captivity", as opposed to being "saved from sin".
Borg illustrates the importance of preserving Christian language, properly and freshly understood, by comparing it to any national tongue. An essential part of being French is being able to speak French. If a citizen of France quits speaking the language, he loses a great part of his identity. Language, of course, isn't the only touchstone for cultural identity, but it is among the essential ones. Thus it is important that Christians not lose their vocabulary, otherwise they lose much of the sense of who they are as a community.
Borg says he began to realize that not everyone understood the inside language of Christians when he left Minnesota thirty years ago to accept a professorship in Oregon. As he began to teach his New Testament class and alluded to the Jewish scriptures, he began hearing questions such as "What's Judaism", and "Who was Moses". To get a better feel for the background of his students, he began to probe deeper. He began to get responses such as, "I don't know much about the Bible, but I think there's a story in it about a guy in a fish..." He soon concluded that he was seeing a major cultural shift taking place in America, and that he could no longer assume that young people understood the terminology that Christians have been using for generations.
To be clear, as Borg takes up terms and phrases to unpack them, he is coming from a distinctly "liberal" point of view. As such, he is most likely dividing his audience into those who find him refreshing and insightful, versus those who think he is off-base to the point of being anti-Biblical.
A sampling of his chapters:
Salvation, much more than being about the afterlife, is about "the twofold transformation of ourselves and the world".
God refers not only to a being who is beyond and separate from the universe, but equally refers to "an encompassing sacred reality all around us and within us".
Mercy should be taken out of the sin/forgiveness framework and understood as synonymous with "compassion".
Righteousness is much more closely related to justice than it is to holiness.
Borg goes on to explore a variety of other terms and phrases, including heaven, sin, forgiveness and repentance, born again, Pentecost, heaven, the creeds, the Trinity, and communion.
No matter your particular religious or spiritual orientation, Speaking Christian will enlighten you on the origins of Christian language and at the very least provoke you to think about many of your assumptions and beliefs.
on May 29, 2011
This is a book I want to keep for future reference. It helps clarify many of the terms and concepts which appear in the Bible and in the Christian wisdom tradition. Marcus has done an excellent job once again.