Currently viewing the tag: "Marcus Borg"

Last night I was standing at my kitchen counter, reading the first chapter of Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, by Marcus J. Borg.

I read the following words and made an audible, “Oh.”

“By viewing the documents of the New Testament in their historical context, we recognize that they were not written to us and for us, but to and for the ancient communities that produced them.”

I knew this already, but something in Borg’s concise language drove the point home.

I was not raised in an atmosphere of Biblical literalism. I did not grow up believing that every word of the Bible had been uttered by God, Himself. “Cultural context” came up often in the bible studies of my late teens and early 20’s, but not nearly enough in conversation with other Christians. Most often the messages of the Bible were framed in a very modern context, as though the book was some sort of how-to manual for everyday life.

I’m not sure that it was written to function in that way. Borg states,

“To try to read the New Testament without taking into account its historical context produces misunderstanding. What we read is about “their then,” not directly about “our now.”

[emphasis mine]

I find that most of the conflicts I have with the ideologies of Biblical literalists, and the religious practices built around said literalism, are rooted in this “misunderstanding” that Borg speaks of. Pulling Bible passages to prove a point, to defend a modern conservative political position, or to alienate or shame someone seem like a misuse of Scripture to me. Always has.

The Bible, when read as nothing more than a rule book, can easily become a tool of the modern-day Pharisees. And if I recall, Jesus did have a few things to say about the Pharisees.

Borg places the books of the New Testament in chronological order, starting with 1 Thessalonians and ending with 2 Peter, with the Gospels falling somewhere in the middle. Read them in this order, Borg asserts, and you begin to see a completely different picture of how early Christians came to understand the relevance of the person of Jesus. Their understanding about Jesus evolved over time. It was not revealed in the Gospels, as the current ordering of the New Testament might have you think; rather, the Gospels were the product of years of Christian oral and aural tradition.

Borg’s position is undoubtably threatening to Christians who would like to simplify Jesus into a one-dimensional symbol (i.e., Savior, Redeemer of Sins, God Incarnate, etc.). It gets even more complicated when you consider that the language popularly used to describe Jesus, himself, has its own history.

Regarding the emperor Augustus:

“…Octavian became “Augustus.” The word means “he who is to be worshipped and revered.” He was heralded not only as “Augustus,” but also as “Son of God” and “Lord.” He was called the “savior of the world” who had brought “peace on earth” by ending the vicil war that was tearing the empire apart. His birth was the beginning of the “gospel,” the “good news” (the Greek word used in the New Testament and translated into English as “good news” or “gospel”). Stories were even told about his divine conception: he was the son of the god Apollo.”

This is not news to most Pagans. The evidence of other divine-human hybrids in world mythology has been used to dismiss the uniqueness of Christianity. Jesus is just another in a long line of Sons of God(s). This is not altogether untrue.

And yet I don’t find my newfound sense of faith shaken or torn apart. I do not believe that the God who quietly called to me through a moment of service was calling me into a legalistic system of “right belief” or “right piety”. My experience of calling, although it garnered a certain amount of media attention on account of my career in music, was not a sensational one. It was a calling born of simple service to a person in need.

I think there is relevance in understanding the person of Jesus, just as I believe that Jesus points to the Divine in a very particular, important way. And Borg reminds us that to have said within the context of early Christianity that Jesus was the “Son of God” was to make a political statement about the nature of power, rulership and authoritarianism. It was an act of subversion, even as it was a statement of theology.

This is no small point.

This, for most mainline Protestants in the West, is a revolutionary way of thinking about Jesus.

Borg writes,

“The gospels, Paul’s letters, and the other New Testament writings use the language of imperial theology, but apply it to Jesus. Jesus is the “Son of God”–the emperor is not. Jesus is the “Lord”–the emperor is not. Jesus is the “Savior” who brings “peace on earth”–the emperor is not. The contrast is not just a matter of language. The contrast is also about two different visions of how the world should be. The world of the domination system is a world of political oppression, economic exploitation, and chronic violence. The alternative is a world in which everyone has enough and no one needs to be afraid. The gospel phrase for this is the “kingdom of God,” the heart, as the gospels proclaim, of Jesus’s message.”

[emphasis mine]

Thanks to this book I find myself reading Scripture with a new passion. Now I am reading to get a better sense of who these early Christians were, and to understand what motivated them to create community around this crucified man.

I am reading with the knowledge that these words were not written for me, even as they continue to transform my heart.

jlhopgood - His Hand

“Excuse me,” the voice said from off to my side. “Can you help me?”

She was an old woman, perhaps in her 80’s. Her bones looked small and fragile. She wore a dirty coat. For some reason the coat really bothered me. This woman shouldn’t have been out there in the cold. She should have been in a home; in a warm, clean place. She should have been cared for. But instead she was on the sidewalk beneath the Sur la Table, calling me to her.

“Yes. How can I help you?”

Perhaps she wanted money. I would have given it to her, no questions asked.

“Could you help me stand up? I need to get turned around so that I can walk up to Whole Foods.”

She was sitting, hunched over the walker about half a block from the grocery store. I placed my hands under her shoulders as gently as I could and lifted her up. She moved as though my speed might break her, so I let her set the pace. Once she was standing and redirected she thanked me, and headed on her way. It was a simple goodbye. All she wanted was that small bit of help and nothing more.

I turned to see my husband with tears in his eyes. That’s his natural response to seeing people in pain, or dogs without homes, or whenever he thinks about kids so poor that they might not ever get a gift from their parents.

I pulled him close to me.

After a few minutes we made our way back toward our original destination, Powell’s Books. We were just a few feet into the store, climbing down the stairs towards the bookshelves when it happened. Into my head came the thought,

“I’m just going to go ahead and believe in God.”

My first response was to think,

“What? What does that even mean?”

The thought felt like it was mine but also not mine, as though there was something outside of me motivating it. It’s like the thought happened to me. It didn’t feel like some kind of clouds-parting conversion experience. It was just a calm, still voice making the declaration that I was going to believe in God.

In the Patheos article, What Is A Christian, Marcus Borg unpacks the etymology of “believe” in a way that sheds light on what this unexpected thought may mean in my life.

He writes:

… The language of “believing” has been part of Christianity from the first century onward. But it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs. It meant something like the English word “beloving.” To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus. Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness. Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing.

Even the two most frequently heard Christian creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, reflect this understanding. They both begin with the Latin word credo, most commonly translated into English as “I believe.” But the Latin roots of credo mean “I give my heart to.”

(emphasis mine)

Looking at it now I think that this is what happened in the moment those words came into my mind: I gave my heart to God. It was hardly an altar call experience. In fact, it didn’t feel like something I was making a choice about at all. It was just the natural response to this encounter on the street.

My heart has not been the same since that woman reached out to me. Something inside me feels differently, as though my capacity to feel was just increased exponentially. The thought of people in pain, people without food, people without the feeling of love in their lives — these things have been affecting me in a way that they never have before — even during my pre-Paganism Christianity.

God likely doesn’t need my help, but this woman did. And others like her do. The lesson I take from this experience (perhaps the first lesson of many) is that through serving others I experience the love of God. Through giving freely of myself I come to better understand Christ. When I serve, I experience the Divine within myself and in others.

This woman called me back to beloving God by allowing me to serve her. It’s a calling I cannot deny or easily dismiss.


Photo by Jlhopgood