Tuesday, September 21, 2010

BORG: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Chapter 1

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.


  1. I agree that we shouldn't just accept the traditional reading of the Bible as the correct one - but I am curious as to why Borg thinks that reading the Bible through to THESE cultural lenses is any more acceptable than reading them through PRIOR cultural lenses. Does he presume that truth shifts with culture, that the "traditional" way of reading the Bible was indeed right, then, but that now there is a different right way to read it, and that in another fifty years, when culture has shifted again (as it inevitably must) there will be a new right way to read it? That, I know, is the accepted postmodern view, so I'm intrigued as to whether Borg holds that, or whether he simply thinks that now, this way, is the all-time right way.

    I also disagree with his statement that we are a modern culture standing on the brink of postmodernism. In my understanding, we are a postmodern culture on the brink of ... something new, a new shift in thinking that hasn't yet gotten a name. Neo-postmodernism, perhaps? At any rate, especially in Europe, I know, even using the term postmodernism has become somewhat passe.

    That's a minor quibble, though - I'm eager to read the rest of your summary of Borg's points, and most especially your response.

  2. It seems to me that Borg feels these cultural lenses are better precisely because this is where we're at. I get the impression that Borg feels the "truth" found in the Bible is precisely found in one's experience of God. So, I think Borg would not have a problem reading the bible differently 50 years from now. Stay tuned for more on this.

    Concerning postmodernism, I'll comment on this too, but right now I'll say that I think the Western culture in general is a variegated mixture of modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism.

  3. oh, dear. i don't like where i feel he is going with these 4 factors because it feels very relativistic and revisionist. but i shall carry on reading your review and see if my instinct even comes close. you write so clearly, btw.

  4. Thank you Laura. That's very encouraging seeing as how I haven't written much in a long time (technical engineering writing doesn't count). I have a feeling it might get a little befuddled in a couple of posts soon.

  5. When I read this:

    "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."

    I couldn't help but think that even as someone who tends to fall on the Borgish side of things, for now, I don't see that much of a dichotomy between what literalists and non-literalists believe about the Bible. The Bible is ABOUT God, about people who knew him experientially, so of course it is OF God. And of course it is TRUE: who can say what someone else's experiences of God can be?

    A hallmark of postmodern literary scholarship is the close reading: reading a passage of a text completely in context of itself. At our Bible study blog, Laura posted something about the Old Testament, especially, being peoples' experiences of God. Taking a strict postmodern stance, shouldn't we simply accept these experiences for what they are: honest experiences of God, whatever or however the subject of the narrative experienced him to be?

  6. It's true that the OT (and whole bible) is in many ways about God and people's experiences of God. But I'd say that the Bible is PRIMARILY about God actively REVEALING HIMSELF TO US (wish I had italics). (This doesn't take away from what Laura said, which was probably in a different context.) This inevitably means that the people of biblical history experienced God, but such experience is of a different category than the merely subjective experience that Borg adheres to. This is where I think the fundamental difference lies between the two camps Borg draws.

    Along these lines, the importance of the New Testament is that God finally and ultimately revealed himself, actively in history, in the person and work of Jesus Christ (cf. Heb 1:1-2, John 14:8-11); to which the NT claims to be a reliable witness. Any true personal experience of God is necessarily bound, to some degree or another, to the truth of God which has already been revealed in God's actively revealing himself to us.

    Without some objective "experience" (revelation), though one can't assert someone HASN'T experienced God, who's to say if someone HAS experienced God? What if all experiences of God are simply ephemeral emotional highs based on the social and cultural constructs of a community, etc., etc... which will at some time necessarily conflict with others?

    I'll get more into this in later posts (some of which I've posted).

    Thank you for your comments. For your last sentence, if I'm reading it right, I agree that there can be an inconsistency with postmoderns on this issue.


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