Fish Wrapper Continues Taking Shots At Christianity With Profiles Of Liberals

And still the fawning profiles of liberals keep on coming. Once again, it's time to add another entry to the Profiles category of the site. This time, the subject is Marcus Borg, who is retiring as a religion professor from Oregon State University.

As usual, the profile starts out trying to paint Borg as just an ordinary person.

Oregon's leading theologian walks his dog up and down the trendy streets of the Pearl District. His neighbors know Henry, the shaggy gray Glen of Imaal terrier, whose short legs set the pace. But few recognize Marcus J. Borg, the graying guy in the wool cap, as the spokesman for a different approach to Jesus Christ.

At 64, Borg is a public theologian and a private mystic. He writes theological books, several of which have made best-seller lists, and he reads murder mysteries. He was trained at Oxford University, and he teaches at Oregon State. He lives in a neighborhood overflowing with espresso, and he drinks Taster's Choice instant decaf.

But then we get to the thrust of the article; Borg's belief (or rather, disbelief) about the historical Jesus, and who he "really" was.

But mostly, his is a polite and progressive voice in an often-intense conversation about who Jesus was and what his life may mean to his modern followers.

Borg talks, primarily, to three decidedly different groups: his students, who are mostly undergraduates; his readers, who are mostly Christians who question long-held beliefs about Jesus; and his critics, who are mostly evangelical or orthodox Christians, who confess their beliefs in familiar terms. Jesus was, the last say, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, suffered for human sins, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and will come again.

Borg sees Jesus differently. As a historian and a biblical scholar, Borg was a member of the Jesus Seminar, a scholarly group that spent years evaluating the historical evidence of Jesus' life and sayings. Borg emerged from the process with deeper faith in Jesus and a different understanding of Scripture.

Ah yes, the Jesus Seminar. a group of theologians that decided the historical Jesus didn't fit their way of thinking, and decided to "redisdover who he really was." But more on them later.

Borg interprets the Bible and its descriptions of Jesus as a mixture of memory and metaphor, better suited to preserving meaning than as a list of beliefs fashioned by Jesus' followers into a list that Christians must believe.

"For me, to believe a set of statements is impossible," Borg says. What is possible, he argues, is to "belove" Jesus and walk in his path.

"For the past 300 years," Borg says, "faith was a matter of believing a list of beliefs about Jesus. The list varied among Christians -- that Jesus was the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that the tomb was empty on Easter morning.

"But in the pre-modern world, before about 1600, the object of belief was never a statement," he says. "It was always a person. To believe meant to belove a person.

"To belove Jesus means more than simply loving Jesus. It means to love what Jesus loved. That is at the heart of Christianity."

Faith, Borg says, is a matter of living in relationship with Jesus and working politically, first for justice and then for peace.

Nothing like a little historical revisionism to make you feel good about your beliefs, right? The list of beliefs did not vary and have not varied since the first century. Those three beliefs are the central tenets of Christianity, and to say that they have varied displays a great ignorance - willful or not - of church history.

And next, the obligatory fawning of all of Borg's fans.

"He seems more interested in hearing from the students than he does in lecturing," says Lisa Sottile, an older student who enrolled in one of his classes because Borg has a reputation as "an academic rock star."

His fans, the ones who read his books and fill church halls as he travels the country talking about Jesus, express their admiration with a sense of humor. They wear T-shirts proclaiming themselves "Borg Again Christians" and, borrowing from "Star Wars," "May the 'phors (as in "metaphors") be with you." Once they filled the first row for a lecture and all crossed their legs to show off their red socks, one of Borg's hallmarks since his wife gave him a pair 20 years ago.

"Marcus turned on some switches for me," says the Rev. George Hofmann of Vancouver, a retired Lutheran minister. His work in hospice settings and as a hospital chaplain had sparked a search for deeper meaning, he said. After reading Borg's books, he has let go of some conservative beliefs.

The Rev. Tom Tate agrees. "There is a hunger for something other than a fundamentalist, literal understanding of the Bible," says the pastor of Rose City Park United Methodist Church. Tate says he doesn't always "buy" the traditional viewpoint. "Borg has given me the courage to come out and say certain things."

Once again, it's those old conservative beliefs that just hold people back, and people need to let go of them to really be free and understand the Bible. I'm starting to wonder if all of the people who write profiles for the Fish Wrapper get together to make sure that every profile that has anything to do with conservative Christianity discusses it in terms of something that hold you back or impedes you in life, because they sure are consistent with that theme.

Haught does offer one opponent of Borg:

Paul Metzger, a theology professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, is very clear about where he disagrees with Borg.

"Marcus Borg believes that Jesus of Nazareth was a man whom God enlightened, or filled, to impact the world in a profound way," Metzger says. "In contrast, the historic confession of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches has been that God became human as Jesus of Nazareth.

"I appreciate Professor Borg's emphasis on Jesus having been crucified for his identification with the poor and oppressed, a point often lost on many conservatives," Metzger says. "But there is more: Jesus' suffering was part and parcel of his dying for the sins of the world. Jesus was also raised bodily from the dead to bring new life."

But, before she allows it to get too far out of hand, she makes sure to end the article by showing how Metzger agrees with Borg.

That said, Metzger appreciates the serious and civil debate that Borg encourages. The alternatives are dangerous, he says.

"If people don't dialogue because they think that only their ideas matter, or if we put all the ideas to the side and just go for some neutral frame of reference, neither is meaningful."

We wouldn't want to let disagreement with a liberal be too strong now, would we?

To understand where Borg is coming from, you need to understand the Jesus Seminar. Dr. Mark Roberts, a pastor and professor with a Ph.D from Harvard in New Testament and Christian Origins (so he knows what he's talking about) has done a series of articles on the Jesus Seminar called "Unmasking The Jesus Seminar."

One of the first things to note is the makeup of the Seminar. It was loaded with people who Robert Funk, the founder, knew would agree with him.

Funk's most successful creation was the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars and others (including film director Paul Verhoeven, who made such religious classics as Basic Instinct and Showgirls) who took it upon themselves to decide what Jesus really said and did. They made presentations and voted by use of different colored beads. This enterprise, though apparently objective, was in fact a stacked deck from the beginning. After all, Robert Funk himself determined who was in the Seminar and who wasn't. If you knew anything about New Testament scholarship, you could see from the configuration of Jesus Seminar fellows that they were going to end up with a very minimal Jesus at best. (In fact seven of the fellows were colleagues of mine in grad school at Harvard.)

It was obvious from the beginning that Funk's agenda for The Jesus Seminar was not consistent with classical Christianity. He said so himself in the very first meeting of the Seminar:

Those of us who work with that hypothetical middle [between creation and the end of all things] —Jesus of Nazareth—are hard pressed to concoct any form of coherence that will unite beginning, middle, and end in some grand new fiction that will meet all the requirements of narrative. To put the matter bluntly, we are having as much trouble with the middle—the messiah—as we are with the terminal points. What we need is a new fiction that takes as its starting point the central event in the Judeo-Christian drama and reconciles that middle with a new story that reaches beyond old beginnings and endings. In sum, we need a new narrative of Jesus, a new gospel, if you will, that places Jesus differently in the grand scheme, the epic story. (italics mine)

When somebody asks for a new gospel, implying that the classic Christian gospel is insufficient, you know you've left orthodoxy far beyond. In Funk's new gospel, Jesus doesn't fare so well. At another time Robert Funk said this about Jesus:

We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of Jesus as divine. Jesus' divinity goes together with the old theistic way of thinking about God.

The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus.

So, though the Jesus Seminar gathered a number of scholars, and though some of its methods were the stuff of critical scholarship, and though some of the fellows are fine biblical scholars, the Seminar itself was not a truly academic exercise. It was, in fact, a carefully-contrived effort to erode classic Christian faith.

A second point about the Seminar was how they came to their decisions about what the "real" truth was.

When I first heard of the Jesus Seminar, I envisioned scholars laboring over ancient tomes in library carrels, then presenting their findings to their colleagues in roundtable discussions, then debating the minute details of each proposal, and trying to come to a consensus, though I doubted that a consensus was likely, or even possible when it came to the question of what Jesus actually said. I knew that New Testament scholars held a wide range of views on this matter, and that their conclusions often reflected widely different starting points.

What I did not picture was a roomful of academics secretly dropping colored beads into boxes as a way of voting on what Jesus said or not. But that's exactly what happened in the Jesus Seminar. After relatively brief presentations on passages from the gospels, and minimal debate, the Seminar Fellows voted in secret by using red, pink, gray, and black beads. This was something I had never imagined, and it seemed more like a glass bead game than a serious academic exercise.

For one thing, the very notion of a secret vote impressed me as contrary to the spirit and commitment of academia. If scholars are known for anything positive, it's for publicly displaying their conclusions and their arguments so that they be supported or critiqued by others. A secret ballot contradicts this principle of openness and accountability. (I wonder if the secrecy was meant to mask the fact that the results of each vote were almost always predetermined by the makeup of the Seminar itself. Why else vote in secret?)

They even make the claim on their web site:

The Seminar's research is measured by democratic rather than elitist methods. All of Seminar's Fellows are scholars with advanced degrees that attest to their qualification to interpret primary source materials about Jesus & Christian origins. But equally qualified scholars often come to different conclusions. The Seminar provides a forum to debate & evaluate these conflicting insights & interpretations. Debate on any item is closed by a ballot to test the degree of group consensus about the relative value of that item as historical evidence. The weighted average of the votes determines what items are accepted as the Seminar's data base of verifiable information about Jesus himself. Therefore, the Seminar's reports meticulously represent the balanced cumulative judgment of the group rather than the opinion of any individual.

So in other words, consensus is what is important, not truth (sound like global warming hype, anyone?). Who cares about historical verification by extra-Biblical sources when it gets in the way of what you want to believe? As my high school biology teacher taught, just because everyone believes something doesn't make it a fact. As a reminder, the "consensus" used to be that eugenics was good, too.

And Mr. Borg was in the middle of all this. As Dr. Roberts notes:

For the most part, the Jesus Seminar is old news these days. It no longer makes headlines because, frankly, it ran out of sayings and actions of Jesus to debunk. Once it showed that Jesus didn't say much of what was attributed to him in the gospels, and that He didn't do much of what was attributed to him in the gospels, there wasn't much left for the Seminar itself to say or do.

Nevertheless, it seemed good to me to engage the Jesus Seminar on a critical basis. I wrote the Unmasking series, partly because some of the Fellows from the Jesus Seminar, like John Shelby Spong or Marcus Borg, continue to pass on the sins of the fathers to the children through their writings.

But does it surprise anyone that the Fish Wrapper would choose to profile someone like this? Let me just put it this way; the day I see a positive profile of a conservative Christian, I will look out my window and see pigs with wings and know that Satan is ice skating in his front yard.


Interesting that the

Interesting that the reporter thinks it cool that a theologian who believes Jesus was crucified because of his identification with the poor and oppressed lives in the trendy (not to mention wealthy) Pearl district.

Talk about loving the things Jesus loved and identifying with the poor and oppressed!

User login


Syndicate content