Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – and How They Can Be Restored Marcus J Borg
In this book Marcus Borg turns his attention to the language of Christianity, which he sees as being in a state of crisis. The problem exists not only among the increasing number of people who have had little or no contact with Christianity but also among Christians themselves. Sometimes, Borg says, the problem is diminishment, the re-duction of rich and multiple meanings to one particular meaning. At other times it is a matter of distortion of the original meaning.
Borg suggests two main reasons for this. The first is what he calls the ‘literalisation’ of biblical and Christian language, whereby people assume that the most faithful way to understand Christian terms is as literal and absolute representations of the inerrant revelation of God. The second is the common and widely shared framework within which biblical and Christian language is most often understood, what Borg calls ‘the heaven-and-hell framework’.
Borg identifies four central elements in the heaven-and-hell framework: the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus’s dying for our sins, and believ-ing. For many Christians what Christianity is fundamentally about can be summarised as: Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven, if we believe in him. This frame-work, Borg says, ‘is like a black hole that sucks the meaning of Christian language into it, chang-ing and distorting it’. He goes on to say:
The meaning of Christian language within the heaven-and-hell framework of conventional Christianity has become a problem for many. For some, it renders much of Christian lan-guage opaque and deprives it of its richness. For others, the issue is more than deprivation; Christian language has become an obstacle, an intellectual stumbling block, sometimes so large that taking Christianity seriously be-comes very difficult. (pp 16–17)
Borg points out that literalism, based on an understanding of the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of God, is a relatively recent devel-opment in the history of Christianity. In its place he proposes a ‘historical-metaphorical approach’, which involves taking into account the original historical context of the text and looking for meanings beyond the merely factual. He says:
Biblical and Christian language is rich. It needs to be redeemed from its cultural captiv-
ity to literalism. When understood literally and absolutely, it becomes incredible. For many, Christian faith becomes believing in the literal and absolute truth of statements that you otherwise wouldn’t take seriously. But is that what being Christian is? (pp 32–33)
The bulk of the book is made up of twenty-two relatively short chapters, in each of which Borg examines a particular Christian term or concept, such as salvation, God, the death of Jesus, Easter, believing and faith, mercy, righteousness, sin, forgiveness and repentance, born again and heaven. Some chapters are on subjects such as John 3:16, the only way, the creeds and the Trinity, the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Prayer. In every case he shows how, to a greater or lesser degree, the concept is commonly distorted or diminished in meaning, and he takes readers back to the origi-nal biblical meaning and shows how this makes the term more relevant and helpful for our lives today.
In the book’s conclusion Borg writes about the importance of how we understand Christian language, since what is at stake is how we un-derstand Christianity itself. He contrasts two visions of Christianity, one that emphasises the next world and what we must believe and do in order to get there, and the other emphasising God’s passion for the transformation of this world. The latter, he says, takes seriously the ancient meanings of Christian language in its original context. By contrast, heaven-and-hell Christianity, which arose when Christianity became allied with the dominant culture, ‘domesticates – indeed, commonly eliminates – the political passion of the Bible’ (p 234).
In the introduction Borg suggests that his book might be seen as a ‘Christian primer’. Its purpose, he says, is ‘to help us to read, hear, and inwardly digest Christian language without preconceived understandings getting in the way. It is about learning to read and hear the lan-guage of our faith again’ (p 3). In this sense the book, written in his usual clear and simple style, is indeed not only a pleasure to read but also a good primer for progressive Christians.
Reviewer: John Pfitzner (2011, HarperOne. 248 pages)