Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 4, 2001
Truth without fundamentalism
Author provides impressive introduction to basic biblical themes
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, by Marcus Borg, Harper-Collins: New York, 2001. Hardcover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Martin Luther helped make the Bible accessible for people in the 16th century. After reading this book you may conclude with the reviewer that Marcus Borg does the same for people in the 21st.
The purpose of this book is to address the current conflict between literalist and modernist tendencies about the Bible. It provides Christians with a persuasive way of seeing and reading their Sacred Scriptures. Borg takes the Bible seriously without taking it literally.
Borg is relatively unknown to Canadian Catholic readers. He was raised in North Dakota, a Lutheran, during the 1940s and in the course of his career as a religious studies teacher he left that Church and went through a "dry period."
A decade later, Borg joined the Episcopal (Anglican) Church and for the past 20 years he has been a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University.
Borg's method and style flow naturally from his life experience. He is earnest about his personal spiritual quest believing that, apart from the "academic" factor, his journey through precritical naiveté, critical and post critical thinking about faith and the Bible is common.
"Jesus was at the centre from the beginning . . . for over 35 years I have been teaching the Bible . . . my special area of study has been Jesus and the Gospels."
In his precritical, early childhood state, he took for granted that whatever the significant authority figures in his life told him he believed to be true. "We simply hear the stories of the Bible as true stories," he says.
Critical thinking begins in late childhood and early adolescence. We don't have to be intellectuals for this to happen. We sift through what we learned as children to see how much we should keep.
Critical thinking in our culture is concerned about facts. It is deeply corrosive of religion in general, of Christianity and the Bible in particular. "As critical thinkers . . . most of us no longer hear the biblical stories as true stories . . . or at least their truth has become suspect," he continues. "Now, it takes 'faith' to believe them and faith becomes believing things that one would normally suspect."
Post-critical naiveté is the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories. They may not all be factually true, but their truth does not depend upon their factuality.
You end up being able to say, "Now I don't know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true."
The old way of reading Scripture still practised by some fundamentalists is the way of "natural literalism." The most important events of the Bible happened pretty much as they are reported. The message coming out of that interpretation is often literalistic, moralistic, exclusivistic and after-life oriented.
In our age of religious pluralism and historical/cultural relativity we can become skeptical about the traditional interpretation. What we need, says Borg is a post-modern return to experiencing faith that will help us move beyond "fact fundamentalism" to a realization that the Bible can be true without being literally or factually true.
"All this has very little to do with believing," he says, "but a deepening relationship with God to which the Bible points."
The author's main attention is directed to key parts of the Bible. The Hebrew Scriptures section deals with the creation stories, the Pentateuch, the prophets and wisdom literature.
The New Testament section focuses on the Gospels, the writings of Paul and the book of Revelation. This scriptural overview is not exhaustive; some parts of the Bible like the minor prophets and the non-Pauline letters are given short shrift.
For a thinking layperson, however, what Borg does cover is really quite impressive in a book of 300 pages. He deals with many of the Bible's major themes. This is an introduction, not unlike a Scripture studies overview undertaken by seminarians.
What makes this book valuable is that it provides ordinary readers with a critical approach and accessibility to prominent themes.
For this reviewer, the chapters on creation and Revelation were particularly worthwhile. Borg develops the two creation stories found in Genesis and unpacks the meaning of myth and reality.
Few mainstream Christians are familiar or comfortable with the book of Revelation. The most common, vociferous voices on Revelation today are "end of the world" millennialists who pervade the media and fill bookshelves with their apocalyptic rant. It is worth the price of this book to read what Borg has to say about John's Apocalypse.
Since the author is essentially a Jesus scholar, he relies heavily on the work of other biblical specialists, including major Catholic writers, to provide substance and thematic strength to his work.
Readers should be aware that reading this book may stir up strong feelings as long held but unchallenged views are confronted.
While Borg is but one voice on the contemporary Jesus scholar scene, his is substantial and credible. His gift to the reader is essentially a lens through which to view the Scriptures. If you have never engaged in a serious read or discussion group focusing on how to understand the Bible from a modern perspective, this book well serves that purpose.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)