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A Review of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 30, 2012

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not LiterallyReading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally by Marcus J. Borg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this book really engaging, but I can now see why so many fundamentalists/evangelicals view Marcus Borg as little more than a heretic. He argues that you shouldn’t read the Bible literally, but through a historical-metaphorical lens. And he makes some great arguments, but he also makes some potentially faulty assumptions and, further, throws a number of things in the Bible right out the door without considering them seriously simply because they don’t seem realistic. He writes that you should see the Bible as a “human product” and writes that it is

“a human response to God. Rather than seeing God as scripture’s ultimate author, I see the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities [Jews and Christians] to their experience of God. As such, it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves. As the product of these two communities, the Bible thus tells us about how they saw things, not about how God sees things.”

Well. As you can see, that might be controversial for some people. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument, of course. It’s not new. But I’ve never actually read a book on it, and one so well written. Borg makes some compelling arguments. This Biblical view would be hard for virtually any fundamentalist/evangelical to hold. I grew up in such a background and I was taught that the Bible was the inherent word of God, that is was ALL completely true and literal, etc. — or else. (Of course, no one’s ever been able to satisfyingly explain to me then why certain sins and laws are so important — like opposition to homosexuality — and why some Old Testament laws were trashed, like the ones regarding shellfish, different cloth materials, etc., et al.)

As previously mentioned, here’s where Borg really starts getting into trouble in the evangelical world:

“…Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and … they cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms. I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I became persuaded that they do, then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to. Thus I regard these as purely metaphorical narratives.”

Trouble. If you don’t buy into Jesus doing miracles (and why some, but not others Mr. Borg?), then would his argument was that he was the son of God be reliable or compelling? And if he was truly the son of God, why couldn’t he perform these miracles, even if no one else has ever been able to? No one else has ever been the son of God. Still, it’s food for thought, right?

Borg continues to trash Biblical miracles:

“To use the story of the crossing of the sea as an example: something happened at the sea. But it was not the sea dividing into parallel walls of water with a canyon of dry land in between. To imagine that God acted to bring about that in the past violates the principle of ‘divine consistency.’ Divine consistency affirms that God acts now in the same way that God acted in the past. Some might — some do — argue with this claim. But the notion that God acted in fundamentally different ways in the past compared to how God acts now presents insurmountable difficulties. Why would God change how God acts? What possible reason can be imagined? If God intervened in such dramatic ways then, why not now?”

Borg’s answer is, once again, historical-metaphor. These were stories constructed by ancient people who handed them down via oral tradition. They weren’t written down until some time later, in some cases, quite some time later. They’re not meant to be read literally. My old roots make it difficult for me to accept this, but it makes sense to me. I was (foolishly) shocked to read that Moses didn’t write the first five books, but his story and the events as told in the first five books were written possibly centuries after his death! If that’s true, who knows what reality was like?

Like Brian McClaren and other leaders of the emergent church movement, Borg argues that “social justice” is really important to Biblical authors, particularly the Old Testament prophets. He uses Amos extensively to illustrate this. He also uses various proverbs to discuss wealth and poverty, also like the emerging church leaders. There’s a lot I could say about this, but it’s taking me far too long to write this review, so I’ll probably be cutting it short soon….

The book has an interesting chapter on Job, and it argues the book makes one ask “why be religious? Why take God seriously?” and more. It’s a pretty good discussion.

Borg continues to hit the historical-metaphorical idea again and again:

“Like the historical narratives of the Bible generally, the gospels are the product of a developing tradition, containing earlier and later layers of material and combining history remembered and history metaphorized. They preserve the Jesus movement’s memory of Jesus and use the language of metaphor and metaphorical narrative to speak about what Jesus had become in their experience, thought, and devotion in the decades after his death.

As developing traditions combining historical memory and metaphorical narrative, they can be read in two different ways. On the one hand, as virtually our only source of information about the historical Jesus, they can be read for the sake of reconstructing a sketch of what Jesus of Nazareth was like as a figure of history. On the other hand, they can be read as late-first century documents that tell us about Christian perceptions and convictions about Jesus some forty to seventy years after his death.”

Borgs writes a lot more about this, but I want to touch on his treatment of Paul and the idea of being saved by grace, not works.

“First, justification by grace in opposition to justification by works of the law is not about the inadequacy of the Jewish law or Judaism…. The failure to recognize this has erroneously led Christians to think of Judaism as a religion of law, works, and judgment and Christianity as a religion of grace, faith, and love…. Second, justification by grace is not about forgiveness; it is not simply an affirmation that God will forgive those who repent…. This, justification by grace is not about who goes to heaven, or how. The notion that it is flows out of conventional Christianity’s preoccupation with the afterlife through the centuries, as if that were most central to the message of Jesus and Paul and the New Testament…. Fourth, Paul’s understanding of justification is not about the replacement of one requirement with another. This frequently happens in Christianity when ‘faith’ replaces ‘good works’ as what God requires of us. The system of requirements remains; only the content has changed…. So what, then, is justification by grace about? Very simply, it is about the basis of our relationship to God in the present….”

Whew! That’s a lot to swallow in a couple of pages. There’s a lot there and I encourage interested people to read it and think about it. The final chapter is on the book of Revelation and it’s pretty interesting. Not too surprisingly, Borg argues that it’s not about some future apocalypse, but simply a letter intended for specific early church members about the Roman empire in which they lived. I’ve heard this argument before, but Borg lays it out nicely here.

Some people will be horrified at the contents of this book. Some people will be offended. Hopefully some will find it as engaging as I have though. It’s thought provoking and I think that’s what Borg is after. I’m no longer an evangelical, so I’m open to much of what the book discusses. That said, I think Borg’s picking and choosing what’s to be read literally and what’s to be read metaphorically places him (and us?) in a God-like role, and hence, is the book’s greatest weakness. A recommended book nonetheless.

View all my reviews

2 Responses to “A Review of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time”

  1. indytony said

    This is a good review of a book I thought I might read some day, but now don’t think I will. You are right that Borg’s thesis isn’t new. It is quite similar to Thomas Jefferson’s views on excluding the miraculous and other hard-to-believe sections.

    All professing Christians must wrestle with just how the Bible functions as divine inspiration. You are right that many literalists choose to castigate some sins (same-gender sexual activity) and overlook others (loving enemies – instead of killing them in wars or through the death penalty). At the same time, more liberal “followers of Christ” (if they even identify themselves as such) must recognize that Jesus took the Bible (at least the Torah and prophetic writings) very seriously.

    Anyway, thanks for the review. I will be following your work.

    Like

    • Thanks Indytony! I appreciate it. There’s so much more I could have written about in that book, but the review was getting long. Much of it wasn’t new, as we agree, but he framed it in interesting ways I hadn’t always thought of before.

      The next couple of books I’ll review will probably be political nonfiction, but I picked up an interesting looking book over the holidays called Jesus Was a Liberal that I’m eager to start reading soon. I’ll write a review for that one when I’m done. Hopefully you’ll find that interesting.

      Have a great New Year’s. Cheers!

      Like

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