Wednesday, September 29, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Response, Part 1

This is the sixth post of a series on Reading the Bible for the First Time, by Marcus Borg.  The other posts can be found here:

Now that I have presented Borg’s sphere of thinking in this book, I’ll respond to his thoughts.  First, given that Borg has been gracious and forthright in giving his perspective, I should start by giving my own perspective.  Per his categories, he would consider me conservative evangelical.  I would mostly consider myself conservative evangelical though would not quite consent to the backdrop he has painted as there is considerably more diversity among those who would call themselves conservative evangelical.  His caricatures of evangelicalism range from fairly representative of a majority to being representative only of the considerably small range of experience during “childhood” (pre-college as he explains).  So while I would place myself squarely within the camp he criticizes.  I would also, in many critical places, put myself in a whole other category than what he acknowledges.  Namely, I would be part of the considerable number (and growing) of evangelicals who would not be comfortable being placed in the “literalistic” camp that he sets up.  Reading the bible is not just a matter of reading literally what it says (while acknowledging some proper metaphor when it comes along).  Literal vs. metaphorical just aren’t sufficient terms – this will be further explained later.  Though I’ve already started the criticism, it is necessary for showing roughly what my perspective is and to show roughly what “lenses” I’m wearing.  Given this, it should be obvious the direction this response will take.

It is important, however, to first point out the strengths of the book.  I would quickly affirm that the church at times has been too quick to hide behind the bible to answer all of life’s questions with a quick “literal” reading of the bible without being sensitive to its historical and cultural contexts (though I wouldn’t criticize the often-times good motives behind doing so).  The bible can often in the evangelical/fundamentalist camp, to use his categories, be merely a “handbook to life” when in fact it claims no such role.  It is not sufficient for all of life’s questions, though it is absolutely sufficient and foundational for all of life’s important questions, at least as God sees it.  So I would in some sense agree with what Borg seeks to find - a fresh reading of the bible - though I think he has fallen severely short.

Following on the heels of this is the fact that Borg seeks at many times to raise a cultural-historical awareness of the text.  Too often do Christians merely reflect on what the bible means to “me” without considering that in fact the bible wasn’t written to them (though Borg isn’t blameless in this matter either).  The bible was written to peoples within a culture, geography, and historical setting vastly different from our own.  If this is not accounted for, one’s reading of the bible is necessarily skewed to a considerable degree.  ** I should hasten to add here that this does not mean the main issues of the bible are completely unknowable without knowing the history behind it.  It is first and foremost true that there is a common plight to humanity and it is an amazing thing that peoples all over the world at every place and times have had in essence the same problems plaguing them from life to death.  Once this is to some degree grasped, the bible can be known in the way it was intended to be – though, never known absolutely. **

He also does a fairly good job at raising awareness of some of the categories and issues that need to be dealt with these days when looking at the bible from a fresh perspective.  It is always worthwhile noting where we are at culturally within religious pluralism, modernism, postmodernism, etc.  This is necessary to create an awareness of the “lenses” one is wearing allowing one to keep them in check to enable a less biased (and I daresay an almost objective) reading.
Despite the good features of the book, I feel that his understanding misses the mark considerably.  In the next number of posts, I will mention specific criticisms and then start to develop a different framework of understanding which acts as a criticism of his general framework.  Lastly, I will consider his chapter on rereading the gospels.

Monday, September 27, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Chapter 8

This is the fifth post of a series on Reading the Bible for the First Time, by Marcus Borg.  The other posts can be found here:

As stated previously, I wish to lay out Borg’s Chapter 8 in more detail in order to interact with it specifically.  Chapter 8 sets out to reread the gospel stories in light of Chapters 1, 2 and 3.  He first has some general things to say about Jesus and the gospels and then goes into depth rereading each of the gospels.  The gospels are of course products of the early Christian community.  But, Borg cautions, we should note that Jesus and his early followers were not Christian in the proper religious sense and thus distinct from Judaism, but saw themselves as Jews their whole lives.  There was then a shift towards the end of the first century where a number of factors like Gentiles not Judaizing and issues of Jesus being the Messiah caused “Christians” to exclude Jews.  But, he posits, this division was slow as a recent study suggests that the majority of Christians were still Jewish in origin as late as the middle of the third century.

According to Borg, the NT is dated to mostly 60 to 100 CE with a few books dated a few decades into the second century (such as the Pastoral letters).  He notes that there were only about 7500 Christians around 100 CE, making the NT an impressive literary production.  Within this, the gospels were written between approximately 65 and 100 CE.  We are not sure who wrote any of the gospels.  Though undoubtedly the names assigned to the books in the second century are the names of who wrote them, we must not suppose that they are products of those who knew Jesus.

The gospels themselves are the product of a developing tradition and contain different layers of earlier and later material.  Moreover, “They preserve the Jesus movement’s memory of Jesus and use the language of metaphor and metaphorical narrative to speak about what Jesus had become in their experience, thought, and devotion in the decades after his death.”  So there are two ways of reading the gospels. The first is to read “beneath the surface” to construct a sketch of the historical Jesus.  The other is to read them as “late-first-century documents that tell us about Christian perceptions and convictions.”  Both ways are legitimate, but must be distinguished.  When they are confused, that is, when what the gospels say about the canonical Jesus is read as historical reporting, Jesus “becomes an unreal human being and we lose track of the utterly remarkable person he was.”  He goes on to say, “Anybody who can multiply loaves, walk on water…raise the dead…and call down twelve legions of angels from heaven is not a credible human being.  He is not one of us.”  Borg sees Jesus as “a Jewish mystic, healer, teacher of unconventional wisdom, social prophet, and renewal-movement initiator.  Borg also sees Jesus as “the Christian messiah”.  That is, “The experience among his followers of Jesus as a living reality after his death, and the conviction that God had exalted him to be both messiah and Lord” (emphasis mine).  This is the canonical Jesus we meet in the NT and what Borg focuses on in the rest of the chapter.

In reading the gospels metaphorically, Borg sees each of the gospels as thematic constructions, each with its own portrayal of the “canonical Jesus”.  The gospel of Mark, written around 70 CE when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, has an “apocalyptic eschatology”.  For Borg this means that Jesus’ return in glory and the ushering in of his kingdom will happen within the lifetime of those Jesus is talking to (see Mark 13:24-30).  This links with Jesus’ inaugural scene in Mark 1:14-15 where Mark has Jesus open with saying, “the kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe in the gospel.”  The rest of the book says little about the nearness of the kingdom but of the way or path of following Jesus; note even Mark’s quoting Isaiah 40 in 1:2.  Of course the way of Jesus is the path of death and resurrection.  Likewise, Mark’s canonical Jesus calls his followers to the path of martyrdom, a major issue during the fall of the temple.

Matthew is written 10 to 20 years later, according to Borg, and points to Christian Jews in conflict with other Jews.  This explains why the book is both hostile to Judaism (e.g. Matt. 3 and 23) and in continuity with Judaism (Hebrew bible quoted 61 times at least, also see chapters 1 and 5).

Luke-Acts was written about the same time as Matthew and is dominant with the theme of the Spirit of God.  The promised Spirit fills Jesus - equipping him for his ministry, gives birth to the community, and directs significant advances in the community’s mission.  This includes reaching out to the Gentiles which indeed becomes a major theme.  In all, “The Spirit active in Jesus continues in the mission of the community.  By implication, then, the community is to continue Jesus’ activity in the world.”

John is of a whole different piece (no dating is given).  The differences between John and the Synoptics include chronology, geography, Jesus’ message, and his style of teaching.  But with these differences come some of the richest symbolic language in the NT.  For Borg, this rich symbolism in John means that “metaphorical narrative dominates history remembered and historical memory.”  As Jesus’ inaugural scene determines the gospel themes elsewhere, so here the scene of the wedding in Cana determines the theme of John.  For John, then, what Jesus is about is that it is “about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and the best is saved for last.”  To this metaphorical meanings can be multiplied.  In Judaism, a banquet was a frequent symbol of the Messianic age and marriage was often used to refer the intimacy of the divine-human relationship.  Thus the nature of John’s signs.

Borg then selects 4 narratives, some of which are found in some form in all 4 gospels,  that he feels are only metaphorical in nature and exposits them along the contours of his metaphorical hermeneutic.  I will explain his view of only one of them.

The first narrative of choice is the story of Jesus walking on the water (John 6:16-21, Matt. 14:22-33, Mark -51).  Borg finds numerous “metaphorical meanings” intrinsic to the story and not dependent on its “happenedness”.
            - Without Jesus, you don’t get anywhere.
            - Without Jesus, you’re at sea and in the dark.
            - Following Jesus may put you in difficult situations.
            - Jesus takes away fear.
            - Jesus comes to you in distress.
            - Jesus still storms.
Of course, this list is not exhaustive.  Borg notes that Matthew adds an episode where Peter walks on water.  He, naturally, “strongly doubts that Matthew’s point is literal: if you have enough faith in Jesus, you can literally walk on water.”  Rather the point is again metaphorical and intrinsic meaning could include:
            - Without faith in Jesus, fear takes over.
            - Without faith in Jesus, you sink.
            - With faith in Jesus, you can walk on water (metaphorically).
            - When you’re sinking, call out, “Lord, save me!” – and he will.
Additional meaning can be found when we factor in specific historical associations of sea imagery in the bible.  The sea was mysterious and threatening force opposed to God so when the Hebrews wanted to stress God’s power and authority, they spoke of God’s mastery over the sea (see Psalm 107:25-29).  The same authority is accorded to Jesus here in the gospels.  Thus the early-church canonical Jesus can do all of the above because he participates in the power of God.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Chapter 3 to the end

This is the fourth post of a series on Reading the Bible for the First Time, by Marcus Borg.  The other posts can be found here:

Chapter 3 is the last foundational chapter, in which Borg develops his “historical-metaphorical approach”.
First, the Historical Approach: The chief concern of this approach is to ask the question, “What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?” (emphasis his).  This includes using a number of tools (which I won’t list off here) developed within the last 200 hundred years that “help us understand the very different cultural worlds in which the bible originated.”  The focus is two-fold: “the historical meaning of a text in its historical context” (emphasis his).  The context of a word shapes the meaning.

But if we want to get past the ancient meaning of a text – it does, after all, speak to us today - we need something else.  Borg sees the Metaphorical Approach as necessary to transcend the ancient meaning to reading it within new settings or contexts.  This most broadly means a nonliteral way of reading biblical texts.  “It moves beyond to the question, ‘What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?’”  Metaphor has an important characteristic: “it has more than one nuance or resonance of meaning.”  To use his example, if I say, “My love is a red, red rose” this calls up more than one association.  I could point to my beloved’s beauty, to her pleasant smell or being in full bloom, or even may point to ephemerality and finitude.  To use a biblical example (again his) “we can see the story of the exodus as a metaphorical narrative of the divine-human relationship, depicting both the human predicament and the means of deliverance.”  Lastly, metaphors can be profoundly true, even though not literally true.  “Metaphor is poetry plus, not factuality minus.  That is, metaphor is not less than fact, but more.  Some things are best expressed in metaphorical language; others can be expressed only in metaphorical language.”

There is good justification, Borg feels, for this approach with the bible.  First, some biblical narratives are obviously metaphorical and so require a metaphorical interpretation.  Even the NT writers used OT writings in a metaphorical way.  But even when the metaphor is not obvious, there is good reason since the bible is a “religious classic”.  That is, it “is a piece of literature that has endured through time and has been…read and reread in new settings.”  By definition, it has a surplus of meaning.  “Its meaning is not confined to the intention of its author.  Borg recognizes that both of these approaches have limits, but it’s not necessary to get into them.

Borg then explores the two categories of narratives that fit within his structure, the narratives that metaphorize history and the purely metaphorical narratives.  An example of the first is Mark .  Borg concludes of this passage: it is “history remembered: Jesus really did make a final journey to Jerusalem” while at the same time being history metaphorized: “the way the story of that journey is told turns it into a metaphorical narrative about the path of discipleship.”  For purely metaphorical narratives, no particular event lies behind them but the stories as a whole are symbolic, such as the stories of creation and human beginning.

The decision about whether to see a story as purely metaphorical or not involves two factors for Borg.  The first is internal to the story: does it look as if it’s reporting an actual occurrence or are there signs that it is to be read symbolically (such as the creation story).  The second involves a judgment about what Borg calls “the limits of the spectacular”.  He asks, “Are there some things that never happen anywhere?”  Now, Borg doesn’t want to draw limits that are too narrow.  Certainly Jesus really did perform paranormal healings.  But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere?  As a historian, Borg cannot say that Jesus could do such things when nobody else has ever been able to.

One last point:  We need to recognize, says Borg, that, given what he has laid out, the ancient communities that produced the bible often metaphorized their history and in fact this is the way they invested their stories with meaning.  But we in the modern period have historicized their metaphors.  These stories and narratives are about the divine-human relationship not simply about the relationship in the past, but also in the present as the bible portrays problems and issues that are perennial.

In Chapters 4 – 10, Borg applies this whole hermeneutic he’s developed to various major corpora of the bible.  Later, I will put forward his thoughts in Chapter 8 in order to interact with it and wrestle with some specifics.

At the end of the book, Borg summarizes what he sees as the major voices of biblical tradition sharing three primary convictions:
1) There is a deep sense of the reality of the sacred.  God is not only real, but knowable.  Moreover, the sacred is known not in a set of statements about God, but experientially, as a Mystery beyond all language.
2) The strong conviction that our lives are made “whole” and “tight” by living in a conscious relationship with the Mystery who alone is Lord.  It’s all about becoming conscious of a relationship that already exists, for the God of the Bible has been in relationship with us from the beginning, whether we know it or not, believe it or not.
3) These voices are convinced that God is a God of justice and compassion, which “flows out of the very character of God.”  God cares about suffering, and rages against all humanly constructed systems that inflict unnecessary wounds.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Chapter 2

When we reach Chapter 2, Borg introduces us to what the bible really is, that is, its nature, which enables us to correctly read it.  The bible, Borg tells us, is hardly a divine product, whether indirectly or directly, as the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture states.  Rather, the alternative that it is a human product is how Borg sees the bible.  It is the product of two ancient communities: one of ancient Israel and the other of the early Christian movement.  Of course, this doesn’t deny that there is a God as God is real and can be experienced.  Indeed the bible, like sacred literature generally, originates in experiences of God, experiences of “the holy”, “the sacred”.  The bible is a human response to God.  It is the perception of two ancient communities of God’s character and will and of the human condition and the paths of deliverance.

But before one objects (or screams) “Why can’t it be both human and divine?” Borg demurs, “It leaves us with the dilemma of treating all of scripture as divine revelation.”  Though not explicit, the problem for Borg seems to be that people who affirm both have a hard time following this through in doctrine and practice.  More typically, in his experience, affirming both leads to separating out which parts are divine and which are human.  And naturally the divine parts are seen as having more authority and we normally come to think of the divine parts as those which confer on what matters to us.  But, of course, the bible doesn’t come to us with footnotes as which parts are divine or not, declares Borg.  This is an extremely subjective argument, but we’ll get to that later.

But there are three other important things we have to understand about the bible, Borg tells us.
1) It has a sacred status.  The bible became sacred through a process of “canonization” which took quite a gradual process and happened in stages.  This happened for the OT Law, Prophets, and Writings by about 400 BCE, 200 BCE and 100 CE respectively, and for the NT in 367 – about 260 years after it was complete.  (For the year 367, he’s almost certainly referring to the Epistle of Athanasius that lists the canonical books.)  An awareness of these facts enables us to see that “any document is sacred only because it is sacred for a particular community.”  The bible then serves as the ground of the world in which Christians live rather than being an authority standing above us.  It shapes the Christian’s vision and identity.
2) It is also a sacrament of the sacred.  Broadly defined, a sacrament is “a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present and through which the Spirit is experienced.  The bible functions this way for Christians.
3) The bible is “the Word of God”.  Given that Borg doesn’t see the bible as coming from God, “Word” is best seen in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense.  That is, a word is a means of communication and disclosure.  “Christians find the disclosure of God – not because the Bible is the words of God but because the bible contains the primary stories and traditions that disclose the character and will of God.”
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