This is the second post of a series on Reading the Bible for the First Time, by Marcus Borg. The other posts can be found here:
Response to Borg’s Rereading of the Gospels
Response to Borg’s Rereading of the Gospels
In Chapter 1, we are informed by Borg that the traditional approach, characterized by fundamentalism, is modern; that is, it is a reaction to modern culture. However, the roots of the evangelical understanding go further back to the Protestant Reformation (16th century) where the authority of the church and its tradition was replaced with the sole authority of Scripture. That the bible was actually infallible and without error wasn’t developed until the 2nd or 3rd generation Reformers and so fundamentalist/evangelicals “cannot claim to be the ancient and traditional voice of the church” on this issue. In fact, Borg says, historically, ordinary people couldn’t even read the bible for themselves but only the few who knew Latin, Greek, or Hebrew and could access the original handwritten manuscripts. But then the printing press was developed and changed all that. Soon everyone was reading for the bibles themselves in a never before bound single volume and naturally came to see “it as a single book with a single author (namely, God).” This was such the majority for such a long time that Christians weren’t even aware that that was how they were reading it.
This “older” way has been called “natural literalism”, a state where the “Bible is read and accepted literally without effort.” Someone in this state has no reason to think differently and so a literal reading of the Bible poses no problems. Natural literalism leads to 3 conclusions in particular about the bible:
1) Origin: The Bible is a divine product, not a human product, and comes from God in a way no other book does.
2) Authority: The Bible is therefore true and authoritative since its origin is from God.
3) Interpretation: The Bible is thus historically and factually true and it is taken for granted that what the Bible says happened really happened (emphasis his). Though, of course, “natural literalists can recognize and appreciate metaphor.”
Quite distinct from “natural literalism” is “conscious literalism”, a “modern form of literalism that has become aware of problems posed by a literal reading of the Bible but insists upon it nevertheless.” When the tradition of natural literalism met the enlightenment (my word) of modern intellectual thought and discovery, there was some recognition of the problems discovered but insisted against them nevertheless. It, therefore, actually required faith to believe that the bible is literally true whereas before it was simply taken for granted.
But, Borg says, this won’t do for our culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The older way of seeing the bible is no longer persuasive because of four cultural factors.
1) We are aware of religious pluralism. Our increasing global awareness has enabled us to be conscious of the world’s religions so that many find the exclusivistic claims of the Christian tradition impossible to accept. Commonsense asks if it “makes any sense that the creator of the whole universe would be known in only one religious tradition…which happens to be our own?” According to Borg, theologically, such a claim goes against centrality of grace: “If one must be a Christian in order to be in a right relationship with God, then there is a requirement….though we use the language of grace, we are no longer talking about grace.” (Although, I’m not so sure “grace”, despite how clearly important it is in the bible, is such a controlling theme as this implies. Was God being gracious when promising death to those who rebel against his commands and making good on it when they did rebel? That shows God is just and righteous. That God shows any grace at all is the issue, not that God only shows grace.)
2) We are aware of historical and cultural relativity. “We are aware that how people think is pervasively shaped by the time and place in which they live, as well as by social and economic class.”
3) We are modern people (culturally speaking). Modernity is first characterized by scientific ways of knowing: we know something to be true today by experimentation and verification. Second, modernity is marked by the worldview that what is real is that (and only that) which can be known through the methods of science.
4) We live on the boundary of postmodernity. Postmodernity is new, large and complex but can at least be characterized by three things:
a) It realizes that modernity itself is culturally conditioned.
b) It is marked by a turn to experience, thus the rise in spirituality, the experiential dimension of religion.
c) It is marked by a movement beyond the need for something to be factually true to realizing that stories can be true without being literally and factually true.
(This of course makes 1 and 2 subcategories of 4.)
Borg doesn’t appear to see any problems with these “modern” perspectives except where they denigrate religion and, as it becomes clear throughout the book, Borg accepts them for what they are and seeks to make religion a palatable, even desirable thing to those who live with this worldview.
In the end, the point is that “What is needed in our time is a way of seeing the Bible that takes seriously the important and legitimate ways in which we differ from our ancestors.” In light of what he’s taken a whole chapter to explain, we are a “new” community in which the reading glasses of traditionalism no longer work for seeing the Bible properly, especially given our advances in biblical understanding. We need our reading of the bible to catch up to where our cultural framework is today.