Marcus Borg’s “Jesus”

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Theologian/Oregon State Professor Marcus Borg has written a fascinating, insightful and challenging book titled “Jesus.” It has taken me weeks to write these few paragraphs for the Rabbit Room, possibly because of the uniqueness of the whole experience. Maybe I need to read more books, or maybe I need more friends like the one who sent this book to me. As a whole, reading this book was a joy. I found myself at times comforted, challenged, educated, shocked and disappointed, in total disagreement, and in total agreement with the author.

2ce7_7.JPGI read “Jesus” like a devoted fan rooting for the home team, (and to wring dry a baseball metaphor), I grimaced at the wild pitches and infield mishaps, but rejoiced at every triple play – and the occasional home run. While dissecting the Gospels through the lens of his understanding, Borg questions (and in many cases, rejects) the traditional understanding of foundational issues ranging from the virgin birth to the origin of John 3:16. And somehow, the overall impact was more encouraging than frightening. Maybe it is this – for all his academic machismo and occasionally flagrant scriptural malpractice, Borg’s version of Christianity still preaches Christ as Lord. Sometimes, I don’t understand how that could be, and it seems certain that confusion will inevitably plague younger believers who read his book. At the same time, confusion is often the doorway to deeper understanding. It is the Spirit, after all, who teaches.

Borg seriously doubts many of Jesus’ miracles. He attributes much of Jesus’ language in the Gospel of John to people other than Jesus. He calls Jesus ignorant of his transcendent role as Son of God. But, Borg’s insightful commentary on Jesus’ experience of his Father brought tears to my eyes. He smartly captures the experiential nature of Spiritual relationship, and for those unfamiliar with that kind of language, those passages may be worth the whole read. His call to political reform is fascinating for both its potency and its vast overreaches. And he consistently regards many of his most controversial assertions as from the “mainline” stream of thought. As you can imagine, this has been a difficult book to review.

Marcus Borg has written a book that will make many Christ-followers very nervous, and possibly very angry. And, I expect that most families are well acquainted with those emotions, especially around the holidays. However, I know from my own family experience that the only way to truly experience community together is to pray. We plead with Jesus for abundant measures of His grace so that we may live together, teach and learn together and be the love of Christ for one another. We must agree to disagree, and hold righteousness at a value greater than rightness. As a theological primer, I would not recommend this book. But as a testimony to the breadth and depth of the family of God, I could not recommend it more.


10 Comments

  1. Jonathan

    How does this compare to the impact of, say, N.T. Wright’s “The Challenge of Jesus”? I have not read Borg’s book, but Wright’s work, while intellectually rigorous, has been very challenging and inspirational to me.

  2. thad

    In response to the Jonathan’s comment, Borg and Wright have co-authored a sort of point-counterpoint book on Jesus entitled: “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions” that is worth reading.

    Randall, I’m curious how you sort out Borg’s view of the resurrection. I’m not a heresy hunter, nor am I prone to be looking for dividing lines in the family, qualifying who’s “in” and who’s “out.” I’m very much in favor of the family growing in its ability to have meaningful conversation beyond the normal, safe routine. I can engage most of Borg’s ideas – agree or disagree – in that spirit without a lot of hand-wringing.

    That said, I continue to find it very difficult to maintain neutrality, either in the immediate issue or in the broader family implications of it, on the matter of the resurrection. It seems such a pivotal commonality for the family – not so much as a litmus test belief, but as a common understanding of both the true identity of Jesus and as the literal glue that makes this idea of family more than sentimentality, but truly transcendent.

    Anyway, enough rambling from me. I’m just interested in how you encounter and react to Borg’s thoughts on resurrection.

  3. Profile photo of Randall Goodgame

    Randall Goodgame

    @randallgoodgame

    Thad, I lifted this quote from a PBS Newshour interview

    PROFESSOR MARCUS BORG: I think the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but I have no idea if it involves anything happening to his corpse, and, therefore, I have no idea whether it involves an empty tomb, and for me, that doesn’t matter because the central meaning of the Easter experience or the resurrection of Jesus is that His followers continue to experience Him as a living reality, a living presence after His death. So I would have no problem whatsoever with archaeologists finding the corpse of Jesus. For me that would not be a discrediting of the Christian faith or the Christian tradition.

    Borg’s take is a tricky one. To sum it up a bit presumptuously, he believes in the resurrection of Jesus. Possibly, the evidence for the resurrection overwhelmed Borg into considering the possibility of the risen Christ, and once he considered that possibility, faith found him. However, as an academic, his beliefs kneel before the throne of his research. As a mathematics professor, this would be fantastic. As a theologian…not so much.

    For obvious reasons, it is quite important for academic folk to establish their assertions and conclusions based upon verifiable evidence. After all, here on earth, they will either be remembered for getting it right, or getting it wrong. Those of us who don’t wrestle with that particular idol are free to consider the possibilities that lie outside what is verifiable. Even more, we are free to consider what may be highly improbable. Are we not fools for Christ?

    But Borg’s research can not account for a human body – even a powerful mystic – rising to life after being dead for 3 days. As a result, he must come up with an alternative that fits within his resurrection affirming research. Voila! Christ was resurrected, but probably as the Spirit that began to indwell his disciples. Or something like that. Of course, once you go there, you open up all kinds of new questions. And professors LOVE new questions. They scratch the same “leave a legacy” itch that a great song does for me and many of my songwriter friends.

    Now, I would choose Borg’s Christianity any day over a faith which closed its eyes and ears to reason and discovery. I simply cannot allow reason and discovery to reign supreme – especially considering a Gospel which is so terribly unreasonable.

  4. thad

    I just got my 8-week old daughter to sleep and it’s late, so I make no promises about the lucidity of the words to follow…

    Randall, let me first say that I by no means intend to muddy your eloquent words about Borg, Jesus, and Family with silly theological nitpicking. If this feels like that, I encourage you to not approve my comment. Really. No hard feelings.

    I agree that Borg’s voice should be heeded, and I affirm that he is a rarity in his gentle, pastoral approach to a message more often delivered with cynicism and disdain. My recommendation of “Two Visions” is sincere. He and Wright are both brilliant, passionate, and loving in their treatment of one another, the reader, and Jesus. This is more than I can say for many writers and pastors (myself included, at times) whose theology, to the casual observer, would fit more safely in the evangelical or reformed mainstream.

    Borg’s words from PBS are consistent with what he writes in “Two Visions.” Again, I’m not tied up in knots over it; I simply find resurrection and THE resurrection to be the very heart of the Good News (though I know Borg makes the same claim), so I wrestle with his take. Life overcoming death is the essence of the Gospel in all its dimensions and implications.

    I’m even okay with Borg’s deep affection for metaphor; I just think it’s a shame he embraces metaphor alone in so much of his understanding of God’s story. He seems to make the parallel mistake that so many conservatives make (in my opinion) in dismissing metaphor and story as though they impugn or deny literal truth. These two are not mutually exclusive.

    Resurrection is a good example of Borg’s error of omission in this way. What I mean is, Borg is satisfied with a non-physical resurrection so long as we still have the spiritual dimension of resurrection in place. This is sufficient to trigger the various pieces of the Gospel narrative which, for him, draws value exclusively from the growing metaphor. He flatly and repeatedly states that the literal details – bodily resurrection, accuracy of biblical events (particularly the miraculous works of Jesus), and so forth – are completely irrelevant.

    My sadness over this is not that he isn’t adhering to orthodoxy or that he’s tarnishing the Bible or [insert standard response to “liberalism” here]. My sadness is that he so easily minimizes the real, earthy implications of the metaphor he embraces. In other words, I find the metaphor incomparably poetic and beautiful. I do. However, part of that beauty is that the metaphor tells us the true story of God in Jesus – a story in which life can and does conquer death without limits. It really happens, even in human bodies.

    If resurrection is true as a metaphor and as a universally binding reality (particularly in affirming Jesus as Lord of all), it makes sense that the sheer cosmic power of that truth would have visited even the body of Jesus. Matthew says that as Jesus died, other dead folks (and he specifically refers to their bodies) came back to life and started ambling from their tombs. Unless we’re to dismiss that story as well, something in the cosmic equation of life and death was deeply connected to the real death of Jesus and the real, bodily lives of humans.

    What I mean is, as a man with flesh and bones, I feel and experience the spiritual reality Borg embraces because I believe it affects what I know. The tossing aside of the significance of the real accounts of the power of God revealed among us (true incarnation – not merely symbolic incarnation) bothers me less as heresy and more as reductionism. It simply fails to embrace the all-pervading revealed love and life of Jesus and accepts instead only an abstract reality whose literal manifestations become “irrelevant.”

    Again, though it may seem otherwise, it’s not about a theological debate for me. In fact, get this – I have regularly made a very similar claim to Borg’s about how various discoveries would or would not affect my faith. I am not blind to or dismissive of reason and discovery, yet I find it hard to imagine a discovery (the corpse of Jesus included) which would alter my spiritual reality. Something has been truly converted in my deepest parts, and I know God not because of concrete proof, but because he has made himself known to me in ways that transcend (though don’t negate) even logic and reason. Try as I may to spoil all of that (and I’ve tried hard), he sticks around, persistently drawing me into the life that is really life. Even better, my experience is not limited to some particular aspect of my being. That transcendent revelation in me daily affects and invades every dimension of life, including the physical.

  5. thad

    Also, the clock here in the Rabbit Room is set to Amazon Time. I’m just saying. It’s 4 a.m. in Sao Paulo and Caracas right now, but only 2 a.m. in Texas.

  6. Profile photo of Randall Goodgame

    Randall Goodgame

    @randallgoodgame

    Wow, Thad – thank you for that. I could not have said it half as well. I believe, as you do that Marcus Borg is missing out. And I applaud and give thanks for men who stand toe to toe with Borg and argue against his misleading theories.

    However, to me, the lukewarm Body of Christ in America is a greater conspirator in the spread of false doctrine. It is not enough to know and teach correct doctrine (as I’m sure you would agree). Seperated from a life which testifies to the power of Christ, sound doctrine can become an arch enemy, confusing things worse than the most bizzare heresy. This may be why I am eager to embrace Borg as a kinsman, and point out the good in his work. He will not settle for a false testimony. I pray that God would rend his heart from its intellectual fetters, but even more that we who disagree with his theology might make good use of our own.

  7. thad

    True that, Randall. I could not agree with you more. I am every bit as concerned about the growing obsession with correct doctrine at the expense of graceful living as I am about anything Borg has written or said. Truth be told, I’m probably bothered more by the former, though that might be a function of my relative proximity to the two. I cringe a little thinking that this particular discussion may leave me looking like a doctrine wonk. I probably stepped into this assuming some kinship that you had no reason to assume. So let it be said: I’m with you.

    I should also say this, since this is my first time to invade your space with my rambling thoughts: I really appreciate your music and writing. You and AO have injected new life and vitality to the music of CC, and I’m also a fan of the non-CC work you’ve both done. I was at A&M back when Caedmon’s first gained a real following outside of Houston, so I’ve enjoyed watching a bit of a rebirth take place since you guys came on board. I confess it brought me back in after several years of, well, it brought me back in. Well done. Thanks for creating.

  8. thad

    Also, it just occurred to me that my five year-old son, Aiden, would be appalled that I failed to speak thanks for him as well. We have determined, through MUCH investigation, that Jessie has, indeed, got the ball. This song is a favorite because of the appearance of my son’s name (we don’t discuss spelling yet) and because he has a cousin named Jessie (though our Jessie is a she).

  9. Profile photo of Randall Goodgame

    Randall Goodgame

    @randallgoodgame

    Thad,
    Thanks for the great comments. So fun to read and think through them with you. And tell Aiden that daddy has the ball. 🙂

    And Stephen, thanks for the link!

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