Perhaps nothing illustrates the way my thinking has changed over the past decade better than the evolution in my appreciation for Marcus Borg.
Like many students of conservative, evangelical theology—the tradition in which I grew up—I first learned of Marcus Borg in his role as one of the most prominent figures involved in something called The Jesus Seminar back in the 1980s and ’90s. That endeavor comprised 150 academics and laypersons who met occasionally to debate the authenticity of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. The group’s methodology for registering their individual opinions—i.e. depositing colored marbles in a box, each different color representing greater or lesser likelihood of authenticity—provided ample material for jokes and put-downs in the conservative circles where I moved at the time.
We generally regarded the work of The Jesus Seminar as the efforts of mainly second- and third-tier “scholar wannabes” seeking to make a name for themselves. That critique did not apply to two members of the group, however—John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg—who had already established themselves as responsible thinkers and writers in liberal/progressive circles, even if they were basically unknown to conservatives prior to their work with The Jesus Seminar.
As a Bible college instructor from 1995-2008, I read several titles by Marcus Borg in an effort to stay current with the work of liberals whose perspective on Christianity and faith and discipleship differed from my own. Today I regard him as one of the most concise and level-headed exponents of a perspective on Christianity that I embrace with enthusiasm. (If you’re interested, I am currently working on a book that tells that story in some detail. It bears the working title A New Way of Being, and it will explain how the work of Marcus Borg and a few others–such as Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass–provided both a spiritual and an intellectual foundation on which I could stand and still retain my identity as a Christian. Without Marcus Borg, I might very well have given up on the whole enterprise.)
People (very often former students but increasingly from other quarters as well) frequently ask me to summarize the essence of Christianity as I now perceive it. I tried to shape a stock response that I could draw on without having to compose a new statement each time. Nothing I wrote satisfied me. Then, I picked up this book by Marcus Borg—Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most—for the umpteenth time, and I found what I was looking for: the list of chapter titles in the book’s Table of Contents.
Here is that list, slightly edited but in the same order as it appears in the book. The first chapter, titled “Context Matters,” surveys and summarizes the various ways people approach their understanding and experience of “being Christian.” It sets the stage for what follows—a sequential summary, a distillation, of the essence of Marcus Borg’s thoughts about Christianity after a lifetime of study and writing and practice as a churchman and scholar and teacher. The list below begins with chapter two.
- Faith is a journey.
- God is real and is a mystery.
- Salvation is more about this life than an afterlife.
- Jesus is the norm of the Bible.
- The Bible can be true without being literally true.
- Jesus’ death on the cross matters—just not in the way we’ve always been taught.
- The Bible is political.
- God is passionate about justice and the poor.
- Christians are called to peace and nonviolence.
- To love God is to love like God loves.
It would be difficult to improve on that series of ten points as a way to summarize the heart of the Christian faith as I perceive it and try to live it these days. I could easily spend the rest of my life talking to people about why I find that list so satisfying. In fact, I’m hoping that someone in central Ohio picks up on that idea and contacts me about the possibility of forming a reading group that would meet once a week or so to discuss the meaning and implications of each of the eleven chapters, one per meeting, that comprise the content of this fascinating book. If I were to be involved in planting a new church, I would hope the core group would make this book a manual for shaping their theological beliefs from the get-go.
Convictions was published less than a year before Marcus Borg’s untimely death, at age 72, in 2015. I understand an anthology of Marcus’s work, much of it previously unpublished, with the title Days of Awe and Wonder, is slated for public release in a week or so. I have already ordered it, but as enlightening as I’m sure it will be, and as delighted as I am that we have not yet heard the last from Marcus Borg, I imagine that this work, Convictions, will continue to serve the church for generations to come as a concise but comprehensive summary of the heart of Christian faith from a progressive point of view.
I hope you will read the book, and if you do, I hope you will let me know what you think.
Thank you, Marcus, for this magnificent gift to the church. May you rest in God’s peace and may light perpetual shine upon you.
Note: This is the fourth in a series of fourteen special posts for Lent 2017. Each post references a different book, mostly recent works, that I have found especially helpful and encouraging for my life pilgrimage, especially in light of major changes in my thinking and beliefs in the past decade or so. To read the introduction to the series that I posted on Ash Wednesday, click here. The posts follow the introduction in sequence and will generally be published on Tuesdays and Fridays between now and Good Friday, on April 14.