Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book Report: Speaking Christian by Marcus Borg



Christian literacy means not simply the ability to recognize biblical and Christian words, but also to understand them.

Marcus Borg is my favorite Christian scholar and writer.  To me, he's a modern-day Christian Bodhisattva.  Just reading his books gives me a sense of peace and tranquility.  He's also a brilliant scholar of the bible and the historical Jesus.  Unlike many academic biblical scholars, however, he's also a Christian theologian.  I had the pleasure of hearing him preach one Sunday morning in Lexington, Kentucky, a few years back.

Anyway, in Speaking Christian, Borg addresses a topic that has been close to my own heart for a long time: namely, the problem with how we understand the words and phrases of Christianity. Words like salvation, grace, mercy, eternal life, sacrifice, even God.

Stating that "Christian language needs to be set free, released, reclaimed from its captivity to its conventional modern meanings," Borg looks at a number of common Christian words, phrases, biblical passages, and theological notions, and provides first the common, widely-understood meaning, then explains how this meaning has been distorted from the traditional, biblical meaning.    
He argues effectively that literalism is a modern development within Christianity, a hard reaction to the widening of human knowledge during and after the Enlightenment, yet also, paradoxically-enough, influenced by the Enlightenment.  Specifically, he notes that the Enlightenment "has led to an identification of truth with factuality," the notion that statements are either "factually true or they aren't true at all."

In recapturing the meaning of Christian words and phrase, Borg uses what he calls a "historical-metaphorical" method (as opposed to a "literal-factual" method) which places "biblical and Christian language in their ancient historical contexts."

So, for instance, Borg argues that when modern Christians talk about "believing in Jesus," what they mean is believing in a set of propositions about Jesus - that he was God's son, born of a virgin, that he died for our sins, that he was resurrected on the third day, and so on.  The traditional, biblical, and pre-modern meaning of "believing in Jesus," however, did not involve accepting a set of propositional statements.  Instead, Borg demonstrates, it meant to belove Jesus, to commit oneself to Jesus, to trust Jesus.  Similarly, "believing in God," for Christians, meant beloving God, being faithful to God, being one with God as known through Jesus.  

I have long been familiar with the basic thesis of this book, with the notion that biblical language is widely misunderstood within mainstream modern Christianity.  I've been involved, specifically, in a number of conversations and debates over the years about the definition of God.  Both my religious and non-religious friends have always been frustrated with my perspective that fits neither of their preconceived notions about what God is.  Believers and non-believers alike tend to describe God the same way, basically as "the Old Man in the Sky." The difference is whether they accept that image (a believer) or reject it (an atheist).  I've long believed that both parties are wrong, that both perspectives represent a basic distortion of the biblical God.  It's not that many writers of the Bible didn't view God as a supernatural entity living above the sky, but the overall biblical perspective of God is much richer, more broad, not nearly so one-sided.  It was refreshing to find a book written by an eminent scholar (my favorite, no less!) that addresses the subject specifically, and the more general subject of misunderstood Christian language.

I highly recommend this book to Christians who seek a deeper spirituality and a deeper understanding of Christian language, the bible, and God as known through Jesus.    

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