A conversation with Marcus Borg

Gordon Atkinson, who blogs at CC blogs had a conversation with Marcus Borg. In his blog, he introduces “his thinking and explain why he is such a controversial figure, certainly among conservative evangelical Christians, but for many mainline theologians as well.”

The conversation reveals how it is that the study of the Christian tradition has allowed Borg to remain Christian.

It all has to do with how you read the gospels. Most Christians in the world read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as literal accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

These are the texts; they tell us what happened. Many of us grew up in Christianity and have a history of reading the gospels in just that way. And we recognize the power of such a thing. After all, most people in the world will not have the privilege and joy of a higher education. For many of these, a simple, child-like approach to Christianity is their way. To scorn them or in any way make fun of them would be cruel and arrogant. And it would discount things Jesus said to praise such child-like faith.

Jung describes such people as living fully within their myth. And Jung understood, as do scholars like Joseph Campbell, that such people are the driving force behind most of human history.

Some of us went off to seminary to be trained as ministers. While there we were taught to engage the gospels in a very thorough and rigorous way. In doing so, it seemed very clear to some of us that each of the gospels developed out of its own tradition. Mark perhaps less than the others, but various traditions about the teachings and life of Jesus led to these accounts of his life and death, which differ greatly from each other. Jesus was a man who lived on this earth. 30 to 60 years after he was gone, various Christian traditions wrote down their gospel stories of his life. As humans it was inevitable that their memories would be influenced by their post-Easter experiences as the Church.

Most of us ministers have made our peace with this. We understand that the gospels clearly reflect early Church theology. That’s okay because that theology was the present experience of the friends of Jesus. It has value too. Our approach is to preach and teach from the gospels, taking the text as given. Trying to distinguish what might be the actual words of Jesus and the actual events of his life from what might be slightly embellished Church tradition is something that would be interesting, but ultimately it a question that cannot be answered. Moreover, we are busy with the real lives of people in our world who are following the spiritual path of Christianity as a means of salvation and spiritual growth.

Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar scholars have, however, taken up that task and have sought to distinguish carefully between the pre-Easter Jesus, who was a man defined by what he actually said and did, and the post-Easter Jesus, who is the figure venerated by the Church.

Please keep this in mind: These scholars are not dealing with spiritual communities. They are free, therefore, to pursue their scholarly work and publish and present their theories.

If my experience with Marcus Borg is indicative of other Jesus Seminar scholars, they understand the difference between the spiritual purpose of the Church and the scholarly pursuit of their discipline. But because the findings of the Jesus Seminar can be threatening to many and seem to undercut their spiritual life and journey, scholars from the Jesus seminar are often harshly criticized.

I was impressed by how passionate Marcus is about the life and teachings of Jesus and his own life as a Christian. Marcus is a worshipping, praying Christian man. That he is also a fearless participant in the search for the historical Jesus does not, in my opinion, negate that in any way.

And finally this: There are millions of people in our modern world who read the gospels honestly and who cannot help but have trouble believing them. People who grew up in the church and were nurtured by the scriptures sometimes cannot realize how difficult the gospels can be for educated people in our culture. Marcus Borg has made the spiritual journey of Christianity something that is intellectually possible for many intelligent, educated people. Thousands have told him that they were able to remain in Christianity because he gave them permission to express real and honest doubts and concerns about the text.

As I put it in my conversation with Marcus, he has kept a good many people in the game.

The conversation may be heard here.

Does this kind of inquiry “keep you in the game” or does it diminish your faith? What is the balance you have found in your Christian life?

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