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.

1 comment:

  1. Carl-

    thank you for reading and reviewing this book

    so i do not have to.



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