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Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

| 8.5.03
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, by Marcus J. Borg

In Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg applies his "historical-metaphorical" method of interpreting the Christian tradition to the Bible as a whole. Starting with a thorough discussion of the various "lenses" through which readers see when they read, Borg moves through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, applying his method to a number of sample texts. With separate chapters devoted to the creation stories, wisdom literature, the prophets, gospels, Pauline letters, and finally Revelation, Borg covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages, demonstrating his method as a comprehensive and compelling alternative to "literal-factual" interpretations.

Part of what I find appealing about Borg's books is that while he is so provocative in many ways, he also seems to be consciously and respectfully attempting to maintain continuity with the Christian tradition and its respect for the Bible. Granted, his interpretations are often at odds with traditional interpretations, but in re-interpreting the Bible he upholds the Bible's crucial importance to the Christian tradition. This does Christianity a great favor by opening up the text to those who would otherwise be unable to accept it on any level. In an ironic sort of way, Borg is quite traditional in his goal, which is to help Christians use the Bible to connect with God. This is summed up most eloquently on page 18: "Being Christian, I will argue, is not about believing in the Bible or about believing in Christianity. Rather, it is about a deepening relationship with the God to whom the Bible points, lived within the Christian tradition as a sacrament of the sacred."

In the preface, Borg alerts the reader that his is a post-modern approach to the scriptures. By using "lenses" as a metaphor for the assumptions Borg brings to the Bible, he underscores the point that we all see things differently, and bring different culturally conditioned lenses to bear on how we see the Bible. Borg discusses pre-modern and modern approaches to reading the Bible, and notes that we are on the boundary of the post-modern age. On page xi Borg writes: "The test of our subjectivities. . . is whether they make sense to others." This quote can serve as the theme of the book, in a nutshell. Even while using modern historical scholarship, Borg tries to present his vision in as non-foundational a way possible.

At the beginning of chapter one Borg writes "As we enter the 21st century, we need a new set of lenses through which to read the Bible. The older set, ground and polished by modernity, no longer works for millions of people. . .the older way of seeing the Bible, which I will soon describe, has made the Bible incredible and irrelevant for vast numbers of people." The "older way" is actually two older ways, referring to both fundamentalism's view of the Bible (which is "incredible" to Borg) and liberalism's view (probably epitomized by Bultmann, although Borg doesn't say this) which renders the biblical text increasingly irrelevant. Both fundamentalism and liberalism are products of the modern age. Both in their different ways try to flatten the text down and make it "scientific." One thing I find exciting about Borg's way of reading is that it allows for surpluses of meaning --I could disagree with every one of Borg's specific interpretations of a text, yet still use his techniques effectively to draw my own meaning out of the text. I see Borg's approach as a kind of post-liberal post-modern reading, striving to keep the text relevant without resorting to fundamentalism, yet being aware of the historical issues surrounding a text and its creation and transmission.

One thing that struck a negative chord with me the first time I read Chapter 2 was Borg's insistence that one must choose between considering the Bible to be either inspired or a human product. It seemed to me easily possible that God inspired the writers but the writers, being fallible, could fail to accurately translate that inspiration into words. Upon second reading, however, I think Borg is so strident in this point in order to distance himself from what I'll call a "classic liberal" reading of the text --one that wants to sift through the text, discarding most or much of it, in order to find that little kernel of inspiration that is hidden within. Using historical research to "cut down" or find the "kernel of truth" is far too reductionist for my tastes.

By seeing the Bible as an entirely human endeavor, written by people in response to God, there is no inspired kernel to be found. What then are we to do with the text? Pitch it? If we want to do anything with it at all we need to be aware of the issues facing the people that wrote in their context, and then try to see it as meaningful in our own situation --the heart of the historical-metaphorical method. I still like to use the word "inspired," as in "The Bible was written by people based on their inspiration from God." However, what I mean by inspiration is the same thing that Borg means by "in response to" as in "The Bible was written by people in response to their experience of God."

In chapter 3 the historical-metaphorical approach is outlined in more detail. By "historical" Borg means trends in biblical scholarship that have arisen over the last 200 years, including critical methods, literary criticism and linguistics. By "metaphorical" Borg means a non-literalist approach to finding meaningful truths in the text. By combining the two, Borg constructs a theological lens that remains critical, but not overly so. On page 51 of this chapter, Borg writes: "The initial movement into critical thinking is often experienced as liberating, but if one remains in this state decade after decade, it becomes a very arid and barren place in which to live. . ." Thus by combining imaginative metaphorical reading with rigorous scholarship, one can hopefully move past the "barren place."

I disagree with Borg's wholehearted assertion that critical thinking is inevitable. In one sense, I think everyone develops a "crap-detector" as they get older, which allows them to sort through competing claims, retaining that which is useful to them, discarding that which is not. Relatively few people apply this to their religion, however. Why? I think that most people are satisfied with their religion. Marcus Borg's The God We Never Knew blew my mind when I discovered it on the bookshelf of my local Barnes and Noble back in 1998. But I was supremely dissatisfied with the way I envisioned my religion at that time, and was looking for an alternative. Most people have what works for them, so why expect them to change? Why should they change? One answer might be that if critical thinking offered more, people would be interested in it. But I'd say critical thinking generally appears to offer much less. That "arid and barren place to live," if you will.

Chapters 4 through the end of the book apply the "lenses" that have been so painstakingly defined to the scriptural canon. Borg reads Genesis 1 and 2 as "true myth" outlining the Hebrew view that ". . .something has gone wrong. Life began in paradise but is now lived outside the garden, in an exile of hard labor, suffering, pain, violence, and fragmentation. Though the world is beautiful, something is not right; we do live in a world of suffering and pain." (p.78) Here Borg retains the meaning (or a meaning) of the creation stories, while rejecting the need to take them literally. While I agree with Borg's interpretation, I do raise an objection to it. While Borg provides us with a way of making sense of the creation stories that doesn't conflict with the theory of evolution, does he really take evolution into account in his theology of origins? I think he sidesteps the issue, as does most theology. I have yet to see a theology of origins that dares to take the next step --i.e., draw conclusions about the nature of God based on the reality of evolution as the driving force of creation. I'd argue that such a God would look quite different than traditional views of God, and be potentially quite alarming, regardless of one's theological orientation. Such a God would seem overly capricious, random, chaotic, and distant. In his other works Borg outlines the panentheistic view of God, which sees God as very immanent in the universe, but not necessarily transcendent. Borg still sees this kind of God as representing somehow more than just merely the sum of the universe's parts (which would be pure pantheism, in my view).

One of the stories I have the most trouble with in the Pentateuch is the near-sacrifice of Isaac. A walk on the wild side, to say the least. I would have liked to see Borg treat it. I guess per Borg's theme of promise and fulfillment in Chapter 5, the sacrifice of Isaac could be seen as yet another way of raising the dramatic bar --that God still had the ability to fulfill the promise even if Isaac were killed. But --especially to someone who has children of their own-- this seems like an overly dramatic license to take. Plus if we are going to say that God doesn't act like this (a panentheistic God may not even have the ability to act like this) it seems strained to draw any sort of conclusion about God from this story.

In Chapter 6, Borg maintains that in the West Christianity is no longer synonymous with the dominant culture. Therefore for Borg the prophets once again become an indictment of the dominant culture. The prophets can be relevant to today, and this is echoed in some of the mainline churches' critiques of consumerism and globalization, although I don't think its articulated loudly enough, or clearly enough. Personally, I tend to think that if I start thinking I'm "there" or have "arrived" then I'm in big trouble because I'm not open to learning more. Maybe this was the problem with Christianity when it becomes culturally dominant. It gets too complacent, and started caring about itself more than the betterment of the world. These prophets raise all kinds of questions for me, and present visions for how things should be, but I don't see them as providing much of a roadmap for how to get from here to there.

In Chapter 7 Borg makes the same distinction between conventional wisdom and subversive wisdom (and the tension between the two) that he made in The God We Never Knew. I've found this distinction to be very useful in dealing with the tension between different voices in scripture. The subversive stuff (Job, Ecclesiastes, The Sermon on the Mount) really speaks to me, maybe because I live such a conventional life. Yet as I've grown older I recognize a place for the conventional wisdom (Proverbs) as well.

As Borg moves through the New Testament, the dual lenses of historical and metaphorical are applied in a manner consistent with his Old Testament approach. Generally speaking, events in the narrative that don't meet the muster of modern biblical scholarship get reinterpreted metaphorically. For Borg this takes some interesting and unexpected turns. For instance, since faith healing phenomena are reported in all religions and across cultures, Borg considers Jesus' reported abilities here to be historical. Likewise, Jesus' resurrection appearances, and Paul's vision on the Damascus road are affirmed as events that would have been real to those who experienced them, although not necessarily objective events. On the other hand, however, events that clearly violate the laws of physics such as turning water into wine at Cana, and Jesus walking on water are seen as metaphors for larger spiritual truths.

Borg concludes his book by enunciating three major biblical themes about God in the epilogue. 1) God is real, and can be experienced. 2) Life is made "whole" and "right" by living in conscious relationship to God. 3) God is described as a God of Justice (procedural) and compassion. While I readily agree with these three statements, and feel that they can be drawn out of the narrative using Borg's interpretive technique, I don't feel that they are the only possible interpretations using the historical metaphorical approach. Depending upon which sections of the narrative are interpreted metaphorically, and what historical criteria is used, these three assumptions about God could be deconstructed. I think postmodern theology's true challenge is presented by these large questions of meaning and the nature of God. Is there any meaning of purpose beyond oneself? If so, on what basis could one possibly promote such a purpose. With God only "an experiential reality" I don't see how God can possibly be used to legitimate any social agenda. Are we left only with the Darwinian struggle for survival? Does might end up making right after all?

PUBLISHER: Harper San Francisco; 2001; ISBN: 0060609184


Professional information about Marcus Borg
A Portrait of Jesus --from Galilean Jew to the Face of God. Good introduction to Borg's theology.

I've Moved!!!

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