Dr. Watson’s Wednesdays@Whenever
August 5, 2020
I would like to talk about one of my favorite authors today-someone who may be your favorite Christian writer as well: Marcus Borg. (Borg is so popular that it could be argued that I am preaching to the choir this morning. And by the way, for all you Star Trek aficionados, Marcus Borg is not related to the Borg.)
Borg was an American New Testament scholar and theologian. He passed away in January 2015. We lost him too soon. He was one of the most influential, widely known, respected, and beloved voices in progressive Christianity. He had a humble spirit and an unassuming demeanor. I will say this: in terms of his influence on my understanding of Christianity, he kicked butt.
I want to focus today on what I see as a key part in one of his writings, from the book titled The Heart of Christianity. Early in the book he has a section called “A Tale of Two Paradigms.” A paradigm is a typical pattern. Applied to the way we read the Bible or understand Christianity, Borg suggests that there is an earlier paradigm and an emerging paradigm. Traditional versus progressive. Conservative versus cutting edge.
Borg, of course, favored the emerging or progressive paradigm. The earlier way no longer works for many Christians, so many of us have turned to an emerging way of seeing Christianity’s “heart,” to use the central metaphor in Borg’s book.
The earlier paradigm’s view of Christianity has been the most common form of Christianity for the past few hundred years. Today, it is affirmed by folks we call fundamentalists, most conservative evangelicals, and many Pentecostal Christians. And because it has dominated Christian television and radio (including “contemporary Christian music”), it has been the most publicly visible version of Christianity.
For many years I noticed that when the media wanted to hear a religious voice, they would usually turn to someone who exemplified the earlier paradigm. I won’t mention any names, but many of them are household names. This seems to be changing somewhat, perhaps because some of the individuals in question have a pattern of saying some ridiculous things. Fortunately, these days, I think, we are just as likely to see or hear an emerging or progressive Christian leader in the public eye. There is seemingly an ebb and flow to this, a pendulum swing, but I like the way the swing is going these days.
The emerging paradigm has been visible for well over a hundred years. In the last few decades it has become most visible in both laity and clergy in mainline Protestant denominations, such as the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Presbyterian Church USA, the American Baptist Convention, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The emerging paradigm is also present in the Catholic Church.
So, what does the earlier and emerging paradigms look like. Borg writes about this mainly in terms of how we approach the Bible and understand the Christian life. He argues that in the earlier or traditional paradigm, the Bible is seen as a divine product and is interpreted literally.
In my former Southern Baptist context, a very traditional setting, we used the phrase “biblical inerrancy.” This is the doctrine that says the Bible is without error in all its teachings because, in some form or fashion, God wrote it. (And God don’t make no mistakes!)
You might be thinking, “Well, what about the inconsistencies in the Bible-which are many-or what about historical or scientific inaccuracies? How does the literalist square with those things?”
One of their favorite responses is to throw in the caveat that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts. When the biblical texts were first penned, say the inerrantists, they were factual and without error. Of course, what they don’t tell you is this: we don’t have the original manuscripts in our possession today, which makes all of this a rather moot point.
Funny story: Most inerrantists just happen to be fans of the King James Version (not the original 1611 version, because it is so difficult to read. Most of them, in fact, are not even aware of the original 1611 version, so there you go).
Years ago, a plumber was working in the parsonage where I lived, and we started talking religion. He told me his church only reads the KJV. I said, “Well, if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Not knowing I was being facetious he shook his head in agreement with me. Ya gotta love the inerrantists!
In contrast to the earlier paradigm, the emerging paradigm understands the Bible through three lenses: historical, metaphorical, and sacramental. First, we see the Bible as the product of two ancient communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement. The Bible was not written to us or for us, says the historian, but for the ancient communities that produced it. We should always read the Bible with that in mind.
Second, the Bible is interpreted metaphorically, which means “more-than-literal.” It is not as much concerned with the historical accuracy of the biblical stories as it is with the meaning of the stories. This comes out in most of my preaching. I always want to know what the story means for you and me today.
Third, to read the Bible sacramentally means to acknowledge the Bible’s ability to mediate the sacred. Like our sacraments-communion and baptism-the Bible can be read as if it is a conduit of the sacred (for all you mystics out there).
Briefly, Borg makes three other points about the earlier, or traditional paradigm. In the earlier paradigm, he says, “faith as believing is central.” Borg argues against this by noting that when the word “faith” pops up in our English translations of the Bible, it usually means “trust” rather than “belief.” When we say, “I have faith in God,” in other words, we do not mean, “I believe in God”-that really wasn’t an issue in the ancient world. Instead, it means “I trust in the God” (that I already believe because everyone believes in God).
Second, in the earlier paradigm, people are fixated on the afterlife. This is why traditionalists believe “salvation” has to do with punching a ticket for a bus rise to heaven after one dies. This is all well and good, but its not exactly what the Bible is emphasizing.
“Eternal” life in scripture is more about quality than quantity of life. It is about being transformed in this life through our relationship with God. Furthermore, the word “salvation” comes from the word “salve,” which refers to healing. So, in the emerging paradigm, salvation is about healing-physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual healing in this life, right now. It’s about well-being.
Finally, in the earlier paradigm, Borg says that the Christian life is primarily about requirements and rewards. This is why traditionalists will often focus on the laws of the Old Testament-if you see a Ten Commandments sign in someone’s yard, you can bet your bottom dollar that the inhabitants of that house are traditionalists. The earlier paradigm puts more emphasis on sin, whereas the emerging paradigm puts more emphasis on such things as grace, love, and transformation, etc.
There is so much more to talk about, especially in terms of the writings of Marcus Borg. This is just meant to be an introduction for those of you who haven’t yet immersed yourself in his writings. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and start reading his books. Regardless of your religious background or current affiliation, you will be transformed through his writings.