On Borg

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.

13 thoughts on “On Borg

  1. Greg Tallant

    Derek, Good reflection here on Borg. It seems to be the day that other people are saying things that I was trying to think of.

    Because you’re not in the academy rat race, you may not have any interest, but I thought I’d tell you that Candler School of Theology is looking for someone to lead the Anglican Studies Dept., and to have some crossover ability to teach as well. I don’t know much more than that, but if you’re at all interested, let me know and I’ll connect you with some folks who do.

    Peace, Greg


  2. Ian

    I am saddened to hear that Dr. Borg has passed. May light perpetual shine upon him.

    I was one of those who found his writing an exciting way to re-encounter scripture again and I find that for my Christian friends his framework for understanding who Jesus is (teacher, mystic, healer, radical) is very useful way to talk about the historical Jesus. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak when he was in Boulder, CO promoting his most recent book and it was, again, enlightening to hear him re-frame some classic Christian language in its original context. His book written with N.T. Wright is excellent and the balance they offer can’t be beat.

    Also, I think that lumping him too closely in with Funk and Crossan is off. In fact N.T. Wright discusses him separate from the Jesus Seminar because Borg maintains a sense of the apocalyptic in writing about Jesus. Its always exciting to see a scholar who defies party lines and is as well thought of by such different perspectives.

    But, at the end of the day I think that he has some bad theology. I think his understanding of the incarnation makes God passive, he is quasi-pantheistic, and there isn’t a real resurrection.

    But let us not for a second think that his mistakes in theology make him any less our brother in Christ and let us pray diligently for the repose of his soul and for those who now certainly are grieving for him.

  3. Joe Rawls

    For 17 years I belonged to a parish where Borg was the de facto official theologian. So everything that contradicted Enlightenment/secularist worldviews was reinterpreted as an inspiring metaphor but nothing that had to be taken literally. It was not fun, even if Borg was one of the few adults on the Jesus Seminar playground.

  4. bm9227

    I, too, have a theological suspicion of Borg, despite his popularity with progressive Christians. The smoking gun for me was this comment in an interview with the Progressive Christian section of Patheos.com:

    Q. Do you read the Bible devotionally, as well as scholarly?
    A. Seldom. I’m more likely to read The Book of Common Prayer. And of course that has a lot of biblical passages, especially from the psalms, and biblical language. I’m not against devotional reading of the Bible, it’s just that it doesn’t occur to me.
    (Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/marcusborg/qa-with-dr-borg/#ixzz3PadnwIjz)

    I was shocked. Also, the previous comment was on his spiritual practices, and not once does he mention the Offices or anything characteristically Anglican. I don’t understand how he can be seen to speak as an Episcopalian when he has so completely severed himself from our traditions in this way.

    But, I should read some of his work. He certainly has made an impact. May he rest in peace with Christ.

  5. Joe Mock

    Borg kept me connected to the Church during a period of turbulence and doubt a two or three decades ago … I soon outgrew him in a much more traditional direction, but I remain thankful to him. May he rest in peace.

  6. Lee M.

    I generally agree with some of the comments above. His books on Jesus are well worth reading, even if you don’t agree with everything (and I don’t), and I think Ian is right that he shouldn’t be lumped in tout court with the Jesus Seminar. Theologically, I think he often lapsed into a false dichotomy between “fact” and “metaphor” and would’ve been well served by a deeper engagement with the Christian theological tradition.

  7. Craig Uffman

    Bull’s-eye, Derek. All of your remarks, including how to read Scripture, are spot on and most welcome. And, btw, I look forward to your thoughts on my BBQ and Other Mysteries at Covenant, wherein you’ll find my response to your question about whether our prayer books should be prescriptive or merely descriptive. Thanks again for this reflection on Borg.

  8. Derek Olsen

    Hi Craig, I did see them and am collecting my thoughts for a response!

    I am sadden and disheartened, though, that you even made reference to one of the great heresies of our age: the notion that gas grills can, in any way, participate within the fullness of BBQ. :-)

  9. Rob Scot

    Thank you for this, Derek. I particularly appreciate the assertion that this perspective on the Bible (Borg, et al.) is not “the only alternative to fundamentalism.” Well said, and an important message for the Church.

  10. Barbara

    What’s really odd is that I’ve never met an Episcopalian who read the Bible in the “fundamentalist” way; it’s just not part of the DNA, as far as I can tell.

    So to me it’s extremely odd that this continues to be a trope in our church, as if it had anything to do with anything….

  11. Derek Olsen

    They do exist but there aren’t very many of them. The reason why this is a trope is because we do have a number of former or *recovering* fundamentalists. For many of them, their only way to not be fundamentalist was to not read the Bible at all (apparently).

  12. Barbara

    Well, I was speaking about “leadership,” really – people like Spong (I haven’t read Borg, either); people, IOW, who should know very much better.

    They are misrepresenting reality – I suppose for the sake of winning whatever argument they’re having with people not in the room. I’ve seen Borg do this, too, in his column….

Comments are closed.