Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary
© 1989 Marcus Borg
Marcus Borg is one of the two theologians who interested me in attempts to humanize Christianity and in the works of men like himself, Albert Schweitzer, and Shelby Spong. I looked forward to reading this book, but did not anticipate enjoying it as much as I did. Rather than simply creating a narrative from portions of the Christian gospels and promoting it, Borg attempts to distill all the information we possess to the point that a hypothetical “nonpapal conclave” composed of a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an atheist could agree on the story being told.
Before he does so, however, Borg establishes background by analyzing the information at hand and the interpretations thus far, categorizing the viewpoints into general categories and writing at length on the texts themselves. More importantly, he offers a historical and social analysis of the Roman Empire and the religious world of Judea -- something I find lacking in many books and that I was most pleased to see here. Jesus and his followers would have been shaped by the culture they lived in, and I’m glad that Borg emphasizes the importance of context.
What follows then is an examination of the gospel accounts: Borg divides them into three portions -- Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee, his last days in Jerusalem, and the road between the two. As he writes, he refers back to the contexts he established and to the important of symbolic language. What unfolds is a genuinely fair treatment of the Gospels: when I looked at the back of the book and saw it advertised as a “unifying vision for a critical time,” I scoffed because I figured the interpretations of Jesus are so varied that unifying them would be like unifying humanity -- probably impossible. To my surprise, however, the book neither insults rationality nor belief. When examining accounts of the miraculous, for instance, Borg does not spend time debating on if these things happened or not: he prefers to address the importance these stories held for the first people to tell them. What does it tell us about Jesus that they would say these things about him? A common theme is the importance of metaphor. What strikes me about Borg’s tone is his gentleness: he refuses even to label the Pharisees or Romans as evil even when acknowledging that they did disagreeable things. “You and I might enjoy the Pharisees’ company”, he comments, “and the Roman Empire was considerably better to live in than any other nation-state at the same time.” The Pharisees and Romans were both trapped by the economic-governmental system that they were born in.
The book isn’t wholly unifying, but I don’t suppose it could be. Borg believes there are two general types of Christians: those who place importance on holding particular beliefs, and those who place importance on living in a certain way -- on following Jesus on the Path, just as a Taoist follows the way of Lao Tzu and a Buddhist the way of Siddhartha Gautama. The latter Christianity is one Borg identifies as having been emerging since the 17th century. In his last chapter, he looks at how traditional/authoritative and emerging Christianity are shaping up in the United States. While admitting concern over the success of the Religious Right, he points out that mainstream Christianity’s fading-away is not necessarily a bad thing: it is simply the decay of imperial Christianity, and will ultimately free Christianity to be the lifestyle-changing religion it first was. Here I wonder if Borg has ever heard of Shane Claiborne: from what I’ve heard of Claiborne (thanks for the recommendation, Pom-Pom), I think the two would get along.
I enjoyed the book immensely and recommend it without reservation.