I saw the news last night that Dr. Marcus Borg has died. May light perpetual shine upon him.
I have not actually read many of his books despite that fact that he generally falls into my New Testament (NT) specialty. I have heard him summarized, and have read those who argue with him and with whom he argued. This year I will make it a point to read more of his works.
At this point, my feelings toward him are rather ambiguous. I know that he is widely read within the Episcopal Church, and that he has helped many progressive Christians and Episcopalians to be able to read the Bible again. He presents a perspective and an entre into the Bible that allows it to be read critically and rationally over and against fundamentalistic reading strategies. That he has helped people pick up and return to the Scriptures is a good thing.
However, I have noticed distinctive interpretive trends in most of the people I know who cite him with approval. Modern biblical scholarship of the 20th century (and the latter half of the 19th) focused on Bible as history. Thus, the questions biblical scholars brought and solutions they offered were around sketching the history of the early Christian movement and in the development of its ideas as reflected in the various writings of the New Testament texts. What I have heard of Borg and what I have read in those I consider his fellow travellers—Crossan, Funk, the Jesus Seminar crowd—is that they apply a hermeneutic of suspicion while they use the NT as a historical data mine. They’re certainly within their rights and privileges as NT scholars to do so; I think they go overboard and their results are skewed because they misconstrue the nature of their data-set.
When this approach passes out of scholarship into the lay realm it takes the form of this sort of narrative: Jesus was a revolutionary (peasant or otherwise) and was both co-opted and misunderstood by the early church. Thus, to understand him and his message properly, the claims of the early church should be downplayed (or dismissed). Furthermore, potential seams or disagreements within the writings of the NT and in the apocryphal literature are extrapolated into full-blown incarnate communities. The narrative of the formation of the canon of the NT and the emergence of the early church into public view in the 4th century, therefore, is of a supressive and repressive faction that becomes “orthodoxy” by getting rid of all other claimants (particularly the more diverse sorts!). In some variants of this narrative, Constantine is invoked as the one who declares Jesus divine in a complete departure from the peasant revolutionary who kicked off the original Jesus movement.
When this narrative is imported into congregations as theology, the result is a semi- to fully-Arian christology (one that considers Jesus as an exemplary person and teacher, but not a divine being) and a generally anti-orthodox approach that sees the early church and its councils as repressive agents of Empire.
A central problem is that, in our churches, this narrative and its resulting theology is seen as the only alternative to fundamentalism.
And it’s not.
I’m not a fundamentalist; I don’t read the Bible like a fundamentalist. I read it as a poetry of God’s presence and, in doing so, I read it in the company of the early church. I don’t read the Bible as a dead historical site to be excavated for its ideas, but as a living city that invites us to both imagine and live the world that God imagines.
So—I need to read some more Borg. I realize that I tend to respond to something of a caricature of his thought; I’d like to be able to be more fair to him and to be able to speak to what he does say rather than what I hear others report him to have said.