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Taking the Bible Seriously, But Not Literally

In October 2010, my wife and I attended a delightful lecture series by Marcus J. Borg presented at Stone Church of Willow Glen, CA, based on his soon to be published book Speaking Christian. Earlier that year in April, 2010, we had attended a stimulating symposium held at Wheaton College near Chicago featuring biblical scholar NT Wright.

Both Borg and Wright are biblical historians with huge intellects. They are friends who do not agree about everything, but are respectful, thoughtful and kind in their disagreements, as illustrated in their book The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. Both men have engaging, likable personalities. Borg emotes as a kindly, but cool scholar and devoted, but unorthodox Christian and Wright more as a learned, inspiring, orthodox Christian pastor and authoritative biblical scholar. Borg is now retired and a member of an Anglican congregation in Portland, OR. Wright was the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England and is also a prolific author.

Both Borg and Wright have been aptly described as leaders of “adult Christian re-education.” Wright’s For Everyone series uses highlighted words keyed to a useful glossary in the back of each volume to recast more historically accurate definitions of words such as salvation, heaven, gospel, justification, kingdom of God, repentance, resurrection, etc. Similarly, Borg uses 25 chapters of Speaking Christian to unpack fresh meanings to dozens of common Christian words, outside of the context of biblical literalism and a heaven-and hell framework. Borg’s book is about reclaiming and rediscovering the power of sacred language; it is intended to enhance Christian literacy and “redeem” it from that which distorts the original meaning of the language used.

For years, I have thought churches would be wise to teach classes in how to read the Bible. It’s not that easy. Much in the Bible is literary narrative or poetry, which needs to be read with that appreciation, not necessarily expecting it to be an historically accurate or literal account. Although the Bible is highly inspirational it is also the work of human authors, most of whom probably did not think of themselves as “writing scripture.” Often we are “reading other people’s mail” when we read the letters in the New Testament and it is important to understand the context. The Bible is usually translated from different languages than the oral traditions in which they originated. The words were written down decades after events occurred and reproduced by hand copying with unavoidable human errors. Most importantly, the meaning of the words used must be properly understood in the historical context in which they were written rather than imposing anachronistic interpretations. To complicate the matter, much of the theology that colors our current reading was not developed until centuries after the canonical documents were scribed.

We just completed a book discussion of Borg’s Speaking Christian under the leadership of Minister Ann Muir, so here are just a few of my reflections:

First, the book is very clearly written and easy for the general public to read – it is summary and repackaging of ideas Borg unfolded elsewhere and is not intended as a scholarly treatise. Most of the people in our group thought it is a great book that helps articulate some of the things they were already thinking based on other reading they had done.

I believe Speaking Christian is an important book for our time and recommend it as worthy of your time and thoughtful consideration of the ideas presented. I am hopeful that evangelicals and Catholics as well as mainline Christians will read it and find some common understandings, rather than reinforce their polarization.

Admittedly, it is a personal book, where Borg unapologetically presents his views – the ways he sees things – but not in such a way that he tries to convince readers that they should agree with everything. There is ample room for enhancing your own understanding.

I am surprised from a Google search, how little controversy Borg’s 2011 Speaking Christian book has created to date. Perhaps it is just not widely read yet. Critiques such as those of Andrew Perriman, seem more about some finer, scholarly points. By comparison Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins created  a much bigger storm in evangelical circles. Perhaps this is because Marcus Borg as well as other past leaders of the Jesus Seminar are simply dismissed as radicals, by conservative evangelicals. NT Wright is more generously embraced by evangelicals as “one of our own,” so perhaps conservative Christians just boycott Borg’s book.* Christianity Today** (a magazine of evangelical conviction) and Books and Culture seem to be silent about Speaking Christian. What a shame.

Amazon has some helpful reviews of Speaking Christian. I like David Crumm’s Read the Spirit interview with Marcus Blog. The video link on this post, from a presentation by Borg in Missoula, Montana will give you a flavor of Marcus Borg that might stimulate you to read some of his books.

Some readers may be put off by Borg’s socially and politically liberal interpretation of the Gospel, which are secondary to the main points in the book and do not flow quite as convincingly from his analysis of specific words, but this is not the primary purpose of the book. If you are open to taking the Bible seriously, but not literally, then this book will help you do that. Ultimately, it may help us all to be transformed as community and belove our world.


*Byron Borger‘s (reviewer for Hearts and Minds Books) quip about Dominic Crossan are symptomatic of this attitude:  “I am inclined to not waste time reading stuff which deconstructs the most essential of doctrines, and find such stuff to be harmful to the church. My people in the mainline have been there, done that.”

**Scott McKnight in Christianity Today sort of dimisses the quest for the historical Jesus as passe. He asserts that “historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was really like and orient their faith around that reconstruction” and “there is an irreducible futility to the historical Jesus enterprise.”