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“Speaking Christian”: Marcus J Borg – Review by Wendy Dackson

Speaking Christian

Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—and How They Can Be Restored

For almost two years, I have been trying to reclaim my love of God and Jesus Christ, as (for reasons I will not enumerate here) it has been badly damaged by the institutional Church.  But about ten years ago, I stopped wearing a cross around my neck, although I have a small collection of some quite lovely crosses.  Apart from various theological claims (especially by Jűrgen Moltmann) that to make the cross into adornment is to trivialize it, I sensed that wearing it was more of a lifestyle-branding statement than a traditional symbol of Christian faith.  This kind of status-consciousness, the creation of an in/out group tribalism, was the occasion of some substantial uneasiness, especially considering that the message of Jesus is supposed to be radically inclusive, and I did not want to visibly identify myself with anything else—especially by wearing intricately crafted precious metals.

Marcus Borg, the liberal and sometimes mildly controversial New Testament scholar, has unwittingly identified much of the source of my malaise through his book Speaking Christian.  In it, he articulates clearly how much of what is claimed to be ‘biblical’ language by those who subscribe to a ‘heaven-and-hell’ version of Christian faith, is a far cry from the way the biblical writers intended their words to be understood.  In his opening paragraph, Borg claims that ‘big words like salvation, saved, sacrifice, redeemer, redemption, righteousness, repentance, mercy, sin, forgiveness, born again, second coming, God, Jesus, and Bible and collections of words like the creeds, Lord’s Prayer, and liturgies have acquired meanings that are serious distortions of their biblical and traditional meanings.’  A large part of the problem is that the way we use language now is not the same as it was at the time the documents which eventually became the Bible were written.  In our post-scientific age, we have become more literal in our use of language, and we have lost much of our understanding and appreciation of the more-than-literal meanings of words and phrases.  This literalness, coupled with the emphasis on the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, the penal substitutionary atonement theory of Jesus’ passion, and orthodox belief (in, of course, the literal words used in the framework of a heaven-and-hell Christianity), diminishes the power of Christian language.  This means that people who would wish to follow Jesus but cannot subscribe to this literal, individualistic religion based on punishments and rewards to be decreed in the afterlife are left with the option of a different understanding of Christian language.  And, according to Borg, ‘the differences are so sharp that they virtually produce two different religions, both using the same Bible and the same language.’

Borg guides the reader to this ‘alternative’ understanding.  But is it ‘alternative’ in the sense of ‘optional’, or ‘not what was really intended’?  He makes a good case that much of heaven-and-hell Christianity (in which I personally have little interest) is a distortion of biblical language.  Each of his chapters (and there are over 20—but they are short!) deals with a different word or collection of words, and explores the meaning of the word as it was most likely intended by the writers of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (or creedal composers).  For example, the word ‘deliver’ (or ‘redeem’).  In Exodus, the Hebrews did not long for someone to take them to heaven—they awaited someone to deliver them from economic and political bondage, from physical danger, from degradation.  This is not about afterlife, it is about life in the concrete here-and-now.  Likewise, the main petitions of the Lord’s Prayer—for ‘daily bread’ and ‘forgiveness of debts’ (and Borg points out why this is probably the actual word used)—are about the main perils (hunger and permanent economic deprivation) that faced a common person in the first century c.e.  Even ‘heaven’ in the Lord’s Prayer is a construct that may mean ‘where God lives’.  We are not asking to go to where God lives, but asking for God’s kingdom to come to earth—for our economic and political ordering to be a place where God might happily dwell.

To reclaim these more foundational meanings of the Christian lexicon could be what is needed, at least in part, to revitalize the church, and the faith of those like myself whose faith is diminished or damaged.  Although Marcus Borg is a scholar of international status, his writing is accessible and even friendly—especially to those who find much ‘popular’ Christian writing to be judgmental and exclusive.  This is a book worth reading by individuals, and for group study—clergy and parish book study groups could benefit from reading together, and discussing the implications for mission and ministry as we learn to do a better job of Speaking Christian for the 21st century.

Marcus J Borg: 2012 Edition; 2011 Edition EPub Edition March 2011, HarperCollins e-books (available through Amazon Kindle)

Wendy Dackson

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