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The First Paul

| 25.5.10
The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon
by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

I've been a fan of Marcus Borg for a long time. What he did for Jesus in Jesus: A New Vision and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time Borg and Crossan apply to their study and analysis of Paul. By separating Paul's letters into three categories: genuine (radical), contested (conservative), and authored by others (reactionary) they are able to highlight the radically egalitarian, non-violent, and mystical vision of the body of Christ and the kingdom of God which Paul preached as a sharp contrast to then prevailing notions of the Roman Empire and its emperor.

Two things stood out for me in this book. First, I have always been a bit perplexed about how the same man who wrote "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28) could also write such passages as "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:22) or "Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed." (1 Timothy 6:1) Attempts to harmonize these kinds of passages with each other inevitably water down Paul's more radical statements of egalitarianism, transporting them off to some spiritual realm where they cannot impact real life. Another approach, to claim Paul as the first wily pragmatist who said one thing to one church and the opposite to another is also ultimately unsatisfying. Crossan and Borg's historical approach, which defines the earliest genuine strand of Paul writings as the most radical, with subsequent strands reflecting later accomodation to culture as Christianity became more widely accepted through the Roman Empire makes sense to me as a logical progression and evolution of a religious tradition even as it disturbs me at the same time.

My favorite part of the book, however, was Borg and Crossan's treatment of Jesus versus Ceasar and the Kingdom of God versus the Roman Empire. Drawing upon Roman historical writings from shortly before the birth of Jesus, they are convincingly able to show that many of the most important ways in which Paul and Christianity talk about Jesus (i.e., Jesus is Lord, Jesus' divine birth, Jesus as the Son of God, and Jesus as the one who brings peace to the earth) would have immediately resonated with first century listeners as familiar language about the emperor! While not discounting the spiritual significance of these terms at all as they apply to Jesus, knowing their context viz. the god-king Caesar really awakened me to the political implications of Paul's writings, and also easily explains why the early apostles and followers of the Jesus movement were martyred by the Empire. Paul's writings were treason, threatening the legitimacy of the emperor. When Paul says "Jesus is Lord," that means Caesar is not.

One thing that I always appreciate about Marcus Borg is the clarity with which he explains difficult concepts. This book did not seem as clearly written as some of his others. I'm not sure if this can be blamed on John Dominic Crossan or is just part and parcel of a book that is written by more than one author. On the whole, however, I found it an enjoyable and illuminating read, even if the writing bogged down a bit in some sections. By placing Paul and his message in their first century contexts, Borg and Crossan are able to illuminate his radical message in a way that still speaks to us today.

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: HarperOne (March 3, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061430722
ISBN-13: 978-0061430725

Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian

| 12.5.10
Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian
by Paul Knitter

Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian was a fascinating read with the interesting premise that exploring another religious tradition can help better inform ones own religion. Knitter goes one step further in this part theological survey, part Buddhist apologetic, and part personal testimony by taking us with him on his spiritual journey from Roman Catholicism to Buddhism and back again.

True to the book's title, Knitter does not come back to Christianity unchanged by his Buddhist experience, but instead holds the two spiritual identities simultaneously in conversation and tension with each other. For Knitter, Buddhism gives a different lens through which to view Christian doctrines and practices that he found otherwise problematic or incomplete.

I think Knitter's book is most compelling as a personal account of one man's faith journey. As one who has also questioned and rejected much of the faith in which I was raised before being exposed to other ideas and experiences that eventually allowed me to return to it with a different understanding, I could relate to Knitter's descriptions of "passing over" into Buddhism and then "passing back" into Christianity. While I'm not interested in becoming Buddhist myself, I could appreciate Knitter's exploration of Buddhist ideas and was amazed at how well they sometimes enhanced and sometimes questioned traditional Christian ideas.

On the other hand, I sometimes found myself a bit skeptical reading this book, thinking to myself that perhaps there is not so much overlap between the two faiths after all, and maybe what I'm reading is more about liberal western notions of Buddhism having a lot in common with liberal western notions of Christianity. I found myself reacting to many of Knitter's "aha" moments thinking that there are already resources within the Christian tradition that come to similar conclusions, obviating the need to find the answer in Buddhism.

Without _________ I Could Not Be A Christian. Anyone who has left their childhood faith and later returned to a more mature understanding can fill in this blank. For me, I might fill the blank with "awareness of the full theological, historical, ethical, and cultural breadth of the diversity within the tradition," or "modern historical-critical biblical scholarship," or "mystical experience." I respect Knitter's answer even while I'm amazed that he can find it in dual religious citizenship. I recommend Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian for anyone interested in seeing how different religions can inform each other and the fascinating turns a spiritual journey can take.

Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Oneworld Publications (July 16, 2009)
ISBN-10: 1851686738
ISBN-13: 978-1851686735

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