Being Christian in the 21st Century
Marcus J. Borg holds the Hundere Chair in Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University.
Internationally known in both academic and church circles as a biblical and Jesus scholar, he is the author of 12 books including Jesus: A New Vision (1987) and the best-selling Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994).
Recent books include The God We Never Knew (1997), Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (2001) and The Heart of Christianity (2003). His most recent book, The Last Week, co-authored with John Dominic Crossan, was released in the spring of this year.
Described by The New York Times as “a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars,” he has appeared on NBC’s Today Show and Dateline, PBS’s Newshour, ABC’s Evening News and Prime Time with Peter Jennings, and NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
A Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, he has been national chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, is past president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and is a regular columnist for “Beliefnet.”
His work has been translated into eight languages. His Ph.D. is from Oxford University and he has lectured widely overseas and in North America including the Chautauqua and Smithsonian institutions.
We met with Borg over a lunch break during a conference in Denver at the Hope United Methodist Church in February. The theme of the weekend gathering was: “Hearts and Minds: Being Christian in the 21st Century.” After unpacking the box lunches the Hope UMC staff had graciously provided for us, we began our conversation with an item that was then in the news.
HOMILETICS: Luigi Cascioli, 72, a lifelong atheist, suing the Rev. Enrico Righi, 75, a local parish priest, presented arguments in an Italian court that Righi and the Catholic Church have violated two Italian laws “by making the assertion that Jesus Christ existed, an assertion which has deceived people for 2,000 years, and since the church knew the claim to be false, the church is guilty of fraud.” So we have the proposition: “Jesus once walked this earth.” True or false?
BORG: True. You want more?
BORG: The reasons for thinking that Jesus was invented by the early Christians are so weak. We have no reason to think that they did. It’s true that we have only one first-century reference to Jesus that wasn’t written by a Christian, and that’s from Josephus around the year 90. So everything else comes from his followers. And that’s been the basis for eccentric scholars occasionally suggesting over the centuries that “How can we be confident that Jesus existed if all we have is testimony from those who were devoted followers?”
HOMILETICS: Wasn’t there something from Tacitus?
BORG: Yeah, but he’s early second century. So Josephus is the only first-century writing we have. I myself don’t know how to say this in any eloquent way, but I just think it’s a crazy argument. You know, all historical judgments are “probability” judgments and as to the historical judgment that Jesus never existed — I think the degree of probability is so low for the truth of that statement.
Now if someone wants to say, “Can you prove absolutely beyond any shadow of a doubt that Jesus existed?” one would have to say, “No.” Can one prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that Julius Caesar existed, one would have to say, “No.” But again, we’re talking about probability judgments, so that the inability to prove something absolutely, does not mean that its opposite is therefore likely to be true.
HOMILETICS: You’re familiar with C.S. Lewis’ stuff. You recall his famous comment about those who argue that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not the Son of God. Here is the extended quotation: “I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him [Jesus Christ]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God’. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.”
BORG: Two things: The first is that Lewis’ statement depends upon accepting John’s gospel as a historically factual account of how Jesus spoke: “I am the light of the world,” “Whoever has seen me has seen God,” “I and the Father are one.” Most mainstream scholars today would say that Jesus never made those claims for himself, that they are the post-Easter testimony or witness of the early church, and when one no longer thinks of Jesus making those claims for himself, then Lewis’ argument evaporates.
HOMILETICS: But Lewis was no slouch when it comes to literary criticism —
BORG: — but not biblical criticism.
HOMILETICS: So this would be an argument that would be unknown to him?
BORG: Well, either unknown or dismissed. The early Lewis was a pugnacious Christian apologist.
HOMILETICS: The guy who wrote The Screwtape Letters.
BORG: Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain. The later Lewis is much more perceptive, and I think virtually disavows some of his arguments. In his book, A Grief Observed, which some of his conservative followers dismissed because they said that he was so overcome by his grief that he was no longer thinking clearly, he refers to his former set of beliefs as a house of cards that God had now smashed down. And I find a much more persuasive sense of the mystery of God and the mystery of life in his later writings, including A Grief Observed, but probably starting with Surprised By Joy, than I do in his early pugnacious, polemical works. So I commonly speak of an early Lewis and a later Lewis. The later Lewis, I think, is a much wiser source of insight.
HOMILETICS: Did you read The Da Vinci Code?
HOMILETICS: Looking forward to seeing the movie?
BORG: Well, unless it gets bad reviews, I’ll go see it. The Da Vinci Code is a great airplane read/retreat. It’s a thriller, in the best sense of the word.
HOMILETICS: So it didn’t get your blood going?
BORG: No, it’s an intellectual book, i.e., the possibility that there may be evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers and had a child together, and I think that, and Holy Blood, Holy Grail which the book is based upon, are basically rubbish.
HOMILETICS: But the story is good.
BORG: Sure! It’s not high literature, but for its genre I think it works very well. One of the things I was struck by about two-thirds of the way through the novel, was that only about eight hours of novel time had passed. This is all happening from 9 p.m. one evening to 3 a.m. the next morning! So it’s this fast-paced book and you can almost see it unfolding movie scene by movie scene.
What I find interesting is that that novel, along with Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, and the Left Behind novels, all of which were phenomena of 2004 and ongoing — they point to our enormous cultural fascination with Jesus. The best grossing movie of 2004? The Passion of the Christ. The best-selling series of novels? The Left Behind series. The best-selling single novel? The Da Vinci Code.
I think it was Walker Percy who wrote in the early 1970s in the first paragraph of his novel, Love in the Ruins, that we are a Christ-haunted and Christ-forgetting culture. I think that The Da Vinci Code along with The Passion of the Christ and the Left Behind novels are a perfect illustration of this. My hunch is that the people who are fans of Gibson’s movie, and people who are fans of The Da Vinci Code are basically two different demographic groups. One is titillated by the possibility of something that would discredit conventional Christianity. The other one is enthralled by something that reinforces Christianity.
HOMILETICS: Back to Gibson’s movie. The pope said, “It is as it was.” A movie about the passion, or the death of Christ. So why did Jesus die, anyway?
BORG: There’s the historical question of why did it happen, and then there’s the post-Easter interpretive question, “What is its significance?”
For the historical question, it’s important to remember that it’s an execution. Jesus didn’t simply die. He was executed. One of my two major criticisms of Gibson’s movie is that it provides absolutely no reason as to why the authorities executed Jesus. What was it about him that they found threatening or that they didn’t care for? And I would say that Gibson narrowed the meaning of passion to mean the suffering of Jesus rather than broadening the meaning to raise the question: “What was Jesus passionate about?” Because I’m convinced it’s what Jesus was passionate about that led to his arrest and execution.
What he was passionate about, of course, was the kingdom of God, which involved him in radical criticism of the authorities of wealth and power. Almost all of his teachings about riches are directed against the elites; he’s not talking about slightly well-to-do peasants who have a little more than what they need. The wealthy in that society were the wealthiest one or two percent who were also the powerful. His criticism of the temple is really of the temple as the center of the native aristocracy. His criticism of the temple is really about the economic role of the temple in the domination system of the times.
So Jesus was executed because he was criticizing the authorities and, quite frankly, they didn’t care for it. To which I’d add, he was criticizing the authorities and he had attracted at least somewhat of a following. If he had just been an individual criticizing the authorities and no one was paying attention to him, I doubt the authorities would’ve cared.
So, historically speaking, Jesus is a martyr. Martyrs are killed because of what they stand for. Historically speaking, he is not a sacrifice. Okay?
The post-Easter interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death makes use of a lot of different metaphors. Even in Paul, we have at least three ways of talking about Jesus’ death. One is that he was a sacrifice for sin. The second is that the death of Jesus incarnated or embodied the path of transformation. Paul says, “I’ve been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” He refers to himself as having undergone an internal death and resurrection. That’s cross and resurrection as an image for an internal process we are all invited or called to go through.
And then Paul also speaks of the death and resurrection of Jesus as exposing the moral bankruptcy of the principalities and powers. In the cross, God triumphed over the principalities and powers making a public display of them and also, if they had known what they were doing, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. That’s the execution of Jesus as exposing the moral bankruptcy of the very system that put him to death.
Now back to the sacrifice. More than one thing to say. First, it’s important to contextualize the language of sacrifice in its first-century setting. In the world of early Christianity, the temple in Jerusalem claimed an institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins, because there were certain sins that could only be dealt with through sacrifice in the temple. In that setting, for early Christians to be saying, “Jesus is the sacrifice for sins” is an anti-temple statement. It undermines or subverts the temple’s claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness. And because within that theology the forgiveness of sins was the necessary prerequisite for entering into the presence of God, the temple also claimed a monopoly on access to God. Once again, Jesus as the sacrifice for sin is a statement which subverts the temple’s claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and a monopoly on access to God.
It’s thus — in its first-century setting — a profoundly radical statement. It is the metaphorical proclamation of radical grace. God has already taken care of whatever it is that you think separates you from God. Jesus is the “once for all” sacrifice who brings an end to that whole system of sacrifice and of institutional monopoly.
Now, do I think that was the purpose of the Incarnation? No. I don’t think that God required a sacrifice. I don’t think God sent Jesus to be the sacrifice. If we understand that language parabolically, not factually, I think it works pretty well. But whenever that language is literalized, it betrays the passion for which Jesus was willing to give his life. His passion was not our forgiveness by offering himself as a sacrifice.
His passion was, once again, the kingdom of God.
Let me add one more thing. My claim is that the sacrificial interpretation of Jesus’ death is a post-Easter retrospective giving providential meaning to his death. An analogy that I would mention from the Jewish Bible is the great story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 45. It’s the reunion scene between Joseph and his brothers. In this scene, once his brothers who had sold him into slavery recognize him, they’re terrified. He now has the power of life and death over them. To reassure them, he says “Do not be afraid, for it was not you who sent me to Egypt but God who sent me to Egypt ahead of you so that I might preserve a remnant.” So “it was not you who sent me to Egypt, but God who sent me to Egypt.” He repeats it twice.
Does that mean that it was God’s will that those brothers sold Joseph into slavery. No. I don’t think that it’s ever God’s will that you sell your brother into slavery. The point that the storytellers of Genesis is making is that God even take the evil acts that we perform and turns them into providential purpose.
That’s the right way, or the most helpful way, to understand the providential interpretation of Jesus’ death. It’s the community afterward trying to see some providential purpose in this death and assigning providential meaning to the death. And that works very powerfully as metaphor.
But if we forget that it’s retrospective and begin to see this as intentional and purposeful, then it really says something horrible about God — that God demands a death — and it betrays the passion for which Jesus was willing to risk his life.
HOMILETICS: How do you respond to the criticism that many contemporary scholars are taking away so much. We’ve lost the divinity of Jesus, the inspiration of the Scriptures, no virgin birth, our understanding of the resurrection has been modified. People feel like we don’t believe anything any longer. It’s all gone.
BORG: Well, again, more than one thing to say. First, if believing in the virgin birth, believing that the tomb was really empty, that Jesus walked on the water — if that has not become a problem for you, there’s no reason for you to change your beliefs. If the Spirit of God is working through that belief system to lead you into a deeper relationship with God and growth and compassion in your life, there’s no reason to change your beliefs about that.
The second thing I want to say is, what do you say to the millions of people who can’t take the Bible literally, who can’t believe that the earth is young as a literal reading of Genesis suggests, who are skeptical that God relates to the world in the interventionist way presupposed by the plagues of the Exodus story and the splitting of the seas, who are skeptical that anyone is ever born without a human father? Do you simply say to those folks, “Sorry, you can’t be Christians, because the right way to believe is to believe all this literally.”
Now I am not suggesting that we ought to water down the Christian story to what a modern reductionistic skeptic could accept. I think a robust affirmation of the reality of God is utterly foundational to Christianity. But I think a kind of humility about whether our stories of the spectacular are factual or metaphorical is very much in order.
For Christians to say, for example, “Our stories of the spectacular are factual. The stories of the spectacular in other religions are myth or metaphorical” — to me, that makes no sense.
There’s a story of the Buddha walking on water. If someone wants to say, “I believe the Buddha could walk on water,” then I have no problem with that person saying, “And I believe Jesus walked on water.” What I think has become an intellectual obstacle for many people, including people whom we would very much like to attract into the life of the church, is the privileging of the Christian stories, so that our stories are factual, but the stories of all other traditions are not. I don’t know of many thoughtful people who can accept that claim. So insisting on the literal, factual meanings of these stories has become one of the intellectual stumbling blocks that’s also an artificial burden that’s hard to bear in our time.
HOMILETICS: Do you see signs that the branch and limbs of the mainline church are leafing out?
BORG: I’m very upbeat about what’s happening in the mainline church. I know that there are some congregations that will die because of demographics or whatever, and of course, we’ll never be as strong as we were a half-century ago. Granted, I probably see the best of the mainline churches. But I am very encouraged by what I see. I see a recovery of taking God seriously. I see a recovery of spiritual practice. I see a very large appetite for reclaiming the Bible and reclaiming Jesus. And I’ve been doing education within the church, not just within the academy, but within the church for about 40 years, and I see a much larger appetite and interest now than I have at any other time in my life, compared to 15, 20 and 25 years ago.
I also see the possibility for alliances between what’s called “emergent” Christianity in evangelical circles and much of what is going on in mainstream and mainline churches.
The other thing I wanted to comment about quickly in terms of the mainline churches is that until about 40 years ago (and one sociologist of religion I know actually says the year was 1963) there was a cultural expectation that everyone would belong to a church. So long as there was this cultural expectation in place, mainline denominations did very well because they offered a culturally respectable way of being Christian. If you were a mainline Christian no one would ask you to do anything too weird, and there was a kind of community respect in the mainline denominations.
Roughly 40 years ago that changed. So that people born after the year 1963 have grown up in a culture where that expectation has vanished. Mainline churches, as a result, have declined. Now mainline denominations today are still a mixture of people who became Christian for conventional reasons a half-century or more ago, and people who have come in later because they’re intentional about the Christian life.
Some of the people who became mainline Christians for conventional reasons have experienced a deepening of the spirit and a growth in the Christian life, and so forth, so that they’re in church for more reasons than convention. But we’re only about 20 years away from the time when the only people left in mainline churches will be those who are there with intentionality. And that’s very exciting. We’ll be smaller in numbers, but the possibility of our being a genuinely alternative community, an alternative voice in society, is much greater than in the mid-20th century when to be a respectable American and a respectable Christian went hand in hand.
So I’m already seeing signs of a greater vibrancy in mainline churches because of the fact that conventional reasons for being Christian have largely evaporated.
HOMILETICS: Were you surprised when Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy?
BORG: Ummm, mildly! [laughter]
HOMILETICS: Well, I was.
BORG: It’s too early to tell. But I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far.
HOMILETICS: Deus Caritas Est?
BORG: Not so much the particular doctrine. More a matter of style. It’s just an impression that I’ve formed from reading about him in the media. My fear when I first heard of his election was that he would be exceedingly rigid and uncompromising. He seems to be a much more gentle spirit than I had anticipated. But it’s too early to tell.
HOMILETICS: Is the word “orthodoxy” a useful word anymore?
BORG: It’s often a misused word. It’s often a fighting word.
HOMILETICS: Because it draws a line in the sand?
BORG: Yes, we’re orthodox, you’re not. When I say a “misused” word, I think many people have a mistaken understanding of what orthodoxy means. Literally it means, of course, straight teaching or straight glory. So if orthodoxy is used as a way to judge people or exclude people, I’m not that interested in it. If orthodoxy is a way of saying “There are certain foundational affirmations in Christianity without which the position isn’t Christian,” I think that’s true. I would keep those affirmations to a relative minimum and would always want to caution against too much certitude or precision.
For me the foundational affirmations are the reality of God, Jesus as the decisive revelation of God, the Bible as constitutive of Christian identity. And maybe I would be content with that much. Without those affirmations, I don’t think the position is Christian. Might be something else that’s very good, but not Christian.
HOMILETICS: If students came to you in your office at OSU and were seeking personal transformation or a connection with God, would you steer them in the direction of Christianity as opposed of some other faith expression? Why would you encourage them to become a Christian, or to self-identify as a Christian?
BORG: I would first ask the students a number of questions. Their previous Christian experience. What’s their impression of Christianity? And if their answers to those questions were pretty negative, then I would ask them if they already have at least a curiosity or interest in something else. The point of that set of questions is that if they had a very negative attitude toward Christianity, I probably wouldn’t steer them initially in a Christian direction. I might tell them that there are many forms of Christianity, but right now it sounds as if Christian vocabulary and so forth would probably get in your way. So why not consider — and then, depending on what else they had said, Buddhist practice, Sufi, Tai Chi or whatever communities I might know of that would foster the spiritual life without the student first of all having to overcome a lot of negativity.
If the student’s impression of Christianity was fairly benign or even positive, then I would steer the student in a Christian direction on the grounds that “you’re already familiar with the language, it would probably seem like home more quickly than another tradition would,” and so on. Analogy: If a child comes from an abused family, the best thing for the child is not necessarily to send the child back into that family. So that is the reason for starting with the student’s previous experience with Christianity.
HOMILETICS: Are students in the university pursuing spirituality these days?
BORG: I only have impressions and not studies. I teach in a combined department of philosophy and religious studies. The courses in religious studies are by far the highest enrolling courses in the department. And I don’t think that’s simply a function of who the teachers are. I think it’s because there’s a lot of curiosity out there among the students about religion. How much of that is because of a kind of spiritual curiosity, hunger or awakening and how much of that is because of an increased sense of the importance of religion for understanding the world — the 9/11 attacks leading people to want to know more about Islam, the role of religion in American politics making kids wanting to know more about religion? Who knows what all the factors are?
My impression is that student interest in studying religion is increasing. And I also would say that even in a secular state like Oregon, the majority of my students, or those who take my class, are there for questions of spirituality and meaning. They’re not simply interested in religion as a social phenomenon; they’re there because they’re intrigued by the subject matter. And again, the majority of my students are very interested in religion or spirituality, even as they’re also pretty negative about Christianity.
HOMILETICS: You describe your calling as not nearly as “onerous” as the calling of other Christians might be. What is it that you enjoy the most about the variety of things you do — university professor, lecturer, writer?
BORG: It’s the intimacy that I feel whether I’m in front of a classroom or an audience at a lecture series, with the people I’m talking to. It’s almost as if a cone descends around us and we’re all in that space. I imagine that it’s like what musicians might feel with their relationship with an audience, that everybody for this bit of time enters into the same space. It’s that sense of connectedness that probably is the biggest joy of my work life.
HOMILETICS: You have a book coming out with Crossan?
BORG: Yes. The Last Week. It’s a day-by-day account of the last week of Jesus’ life. It’s our hope that it can affect not only education within the church, but even the lectionary. People don’t know the Holy Week story anymore because we have now moved the Good Friday text to what used to be Palm Sunday. So if you go to church only on Sundays, you get the crucifixion, you get Easter, but nothing else really about Holy Week
So Dom and I have talked — and I know that affecting lectionaries is difficult — and we’re wondering if the primary subject of Lent should be the days of Holy Week. That would be a real preparation for Palm Sunday and Good Friday. So anyway, we’re going to give some thought to the lectionary readings we would recommend for congregations that can freely set their own readings. And I think it will be great for preachers. Brian McLaren [see The Homiletics Interview with McLaren in the September-October 2005 issue or the online archives] has given it an extraordinarily good endorsement; exceedingly enthusiastic.
HOMILETICS: What perception of the Jesus Seminar annoys you the most?
BORG: Well, “We’re out of the mainstream.” I don’t think that’s true at all. The main stream is a broad stream; it’s got a right bank and a left bank. I would put conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist scholars outside of the mainstream. I think we very much represent the mainstream as opposed to being dismissed as a small eccentric group of scholars with their own agenda. So that would be one thing: that we’re eccentric and out of the mainstream.
HOMILETICS: You are wearing red socks.
BORG: I know. The Seminar people say, “Ah that Borg is a crypto-conservative; he votes red more than we know!” [Note: This is a reference to the Seminar practice of assigning a color code to the sayings of Jesus, red meaning “highly probable,” and black meaning “extremely unlikely.”] And I probably did vote red and pink more than many.
A second perception that really bothers me is that we’re all the same, as if the Seminar is a monolithic group of skeptics. We’re a pretty broad range of scholars from a few who would vote black on everything to — well, there’s no one who would vote red on everything. But there’s a great diversity of opinion from atheists to people like Walter Wink and me and so forth.
The third one that is unfair and bothers me is putting a negative spin on our results. Like it’s often said, “The Jesus Seminar says that only 18 percent of the sayings of Jesus go back to Jesus.” In fact, the way to read that is that there is a consensus among the scholars that at least this 18 percent goes back to Jesus. That’s a pretty positive result.
Another one is the unexpressed criticism or assumption on the part of our critics that only that which is factual is true. They capitalize on that assumption by playing an alarmist game with Christians, implying that we’re saying you might as well throw away 82 percent of the gospel because only 18 percent of it is true.
But, bottom line, I would be surprised if even one person has lost his or her faith because of the Jesus Seminar. I am confident that there are at least tens of thousands of people who have come back into the church, because it has given them permission not to believe everything they’ve been taught. So for all the negativity about the Jesus Seminar, I think that it’s undeniable that it’s done far more good than harm.
HOMILETICS: Favorite Bible story?
BORG: These days I love telling the Palm Sunday story because it’s so surprising. What most people are unaware of is that there was another procession entering Jerusalem that day as well, namely a Roman imperial procession entering the city from the west side, Pilate at the head of imperial military reinforcements for the garrison at Jerusalem; Pilate entering the city from the west, Jesus entering the city from the east, Jesus’ entry clearly being a pre-planned, counter-procession to the imperial procession. Jesus’ procession symbolized a kingdom of peace, the Roman procession, of course, a manifestation of imperial power, oppression and violence. And that’s the central conflict that sets up Holy Week.