Marcus Borg and the Language of the Bible
By Eric Mader
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time:
Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally
by Marcus J. Borg
Harper Collins, 321 pp.
New Testament scholar Marcus Borg is a religious thinker who thinks in stages. A period characterized by certain convictions finally proves inadequate to knowledge or experience and must give way to a new set of convictions. Unlike many modern scholars, however, Borg realizes that these new convictions need not be anti-religious. In an autobiographical essay, one reads of his personal religious development as a progress through stages: he presents the na•ve belief of his youth, followed by a period of troubled atheism, developing in university into a quest to understand Jesus in relation to the political and social problems of his day. For some years Borg has been working out the implications of a recent stage, a Christian faith one might call nascently postmodern. Is the stage he is now pursuing prelude to a new, more spiritually attuned Christianity--as he and likeminded liberal Christians believe--or is it herald rather to the demise of Christianity? One may rightly ask this question.
My focus here will not so much be such general questions as the question of how Borg reads the Bible. I approach Borg's methods of biblical interpretation by considering his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, where he offers readings of important biblical texts, including Genesis, the prophets, Job and Ecclesiastes, the gospels, Paul's letters and Revelation. For my concerns, the most interesting sections of the book come before the specific readings, so I will mainly take up his first chapters, in which he addresses the more general questions of biblical interpretation, i.e.: What kind of book is the Bible? How are we to interpret biblical texts?
One can't deny that Borg makes persuasive arguments against the fundamentalists, those who call themselves "Bible-believing" Christians and who define their belief via the insistence that everything narrated in the Bible is literally, factually, historically true. Fundamentalists believe their argument for the inerrancy of the Bible is in line with traditional Christianity. Borg demonstrates that it is not:
They typically see themselves as affirming "the old-time religion"--that is, Christianity as it was before the modern period. In fact, however, as we shall see, their approach itself is modern, largely the product of a particular form of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestant theology. (5)
As Borg explains it, Bible literalists, unbeknownst to themselves, have been made pawns of the very Enlightenment culture they struggle against. How could this be? It is a result of the pervasiveness of Enlightenment views of reality and how we ground our knowledge of reality.
All of us raised and educated in modern Western societies have, whether we like it or not, been indoctrinated with generally Enlightenment views. As Borg likes to put it, we are "fact fundamentalists." We learn early on that statements of truth must be factually verifiable: any statement that doesn't correspond to "the facts" cannot be true. Not factually true, it is false, or, worse, simply nonsense. Our culture's deeply ingrained respect for facts is a result of the success of Enlightenment science, which we credit with all the technological breakthroughs of the modern world. As Borg would point out, however, the pervasiveness of science in our world has made us deaf to other sorts of truth than the merely factual or material. Specifically, we've lost the ability to understand broadly metaphorical truths. As "fact fundamentalists," we assume that anyone intending to say something important will use a fact-based manner of presentation. This, after all, is how scientists and researchers state the truth, so it must be the way to state the truth.
According to Borg, religious fundamentalists, who also live in the modern world, anachronistically impose this Enlightenment perspective on the Bible. They mistakenly assume the writers of biblical times shared our fact-based understanding of how to communicate truth. Fundamentalists are thus led to insist on the factual "inerrancy" of the Bible because, as moderns, they tacitly believe anything not grounded in historical fact will lose its authority. Indeed, given their narrowly modern perspective, they assume it could never have had any authority to begin with. In this way Borg shows that fundamentalists are duped by the very modernity they struggle against: insisting on the "literal truth" of the Bible, they risk shrinking the Bible down to the size of a high school science textbook. The problem is very clear: the Bible's manner of conveying truth is not and never was that of a textbook. Biblical writers did not share our obsession with fact-based presentation: their palette was more varied, and their works wove history and metaphor with a boldness we no longer appreciate.
Though Borg doubtless somewhat overstates his case, he is here generally persuasive. He shows throughout how biblical texts often contain internal cues as to their metaphorical intent. And he stresses that a literal reading was not necessarily the "normal" way of approaching the Bible even in the early centuries of Church history. Consider the following quote on the Genesis narratives:
What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first day, then a second and third day, evening and morning, without the sun, the moon, and the stars? [Sun, moon, and stars are created on the fourth day.] And that the first day--if it makes sense to call it such--existed even without a sky? [The sky is created on the second day.] Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human gardener, God planted a garden in Eden in the East and placed in it a tree of life, visible and physical, so that by biting into its fruit one would obtain life? And that by eating from another tree, one would come to know good and evil? And when it is said that God walked in the garden in the evening and that Adam hid himself behind a tree, I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings by using a historical narrative which did not literally happen. (70-1)
These words do not come from a modern liberal Christian seeking to water down the Bible's authority, but from the distinguished 3rd century Church father Origen. To men and women who lived before modernity, a story didn't necessarily have to be factual to merit reverence. They recognized other modes of truth. Though Origen affirmed that he saw much of the Bible as historical, he also insisted many things "were recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place," and that even "the gospels themselves are filled with the same kind of narratives."
Such statements may seem odd coming from one of the greatest of ancient Christian writers. But, according to Borg, it is we moderns who have become odd. He writes:
The modern preoccupation with factuality has had a pervasive and distorting effect on how we see the Bible and Christianity. . . . Christianity in the modern period became preoccupied with the dynamic of believing or not believing. For many people, believing "iffy" claims to be true became the central meaning of Christian faith. It is an odd notion--as if what God most wants from us is believing highly problematic statements to be factually true. And if one can't believe them, then one doesn't have faith and isn't a Christian. (16)
For Borg the Bible is neither infallible nor somehow a transcription, written down by dictation, of the words of God. Rather it records the experiences of God of the ancient Israelites and the early Christian movement. The Bible is thus a record made by human beings, a "human product," but one that nevertheless communicates "a reality." According to Borg, God is not a fiction or a lie but a real presence known in human experience:
To see the Bible as a human product does not in any way deny the reality of God. Indeed, one of the central premises of this book is that God is real and can be experienced. I have put that as simply as I know how. At the risk of repetition, I mean that God (or "the sacred" or "Spirit," terms that I use synonymously) is a reality known in human experience, and not simply a human creation or projection.
That "God is real," however, does not mean that there can be any perfect human explanation of God or God's will. And this includes the Bible.
Of course, whatever we say about the sacred is a human creation. We cannot talk about God (or anything else) except with the words, symbols, stories, concepts, and categories known to us, for they are the only language we have. Nevertheless, we also have experiences of "the holy," "the numinous," "the sacred." These experiences go beyond language, shatter it, relativize it. (22)
For Borg, the sacred is mainly to be found in these experiences of God. If any scripture results from such experiences, that is necessarily a secondary phenomenon. If the Bible is sacred, then, it not because it is "the Word of God" in the sense of a Word that came directly from God, but rather because it is recognized as sacred by the community of Christian believers. The sacred character of the Bible is grounded in its status as record of the ancient experiences of God most valued by the Christian community. The Christian community, in turn, is constituted by the Bible through constant dialogue with its texts, which dialogue Borg understands as one of the central sacraments of Christian faith. To put all this another way, one might say that the Bible is not sacred in origin (it is not a direct product of divine composition) but only in status (it is a crucial ground of Christian experience of the sacred). Borg writes:
The older, conventional way of seeing the Bible grounded scripture's authority in its origin: the Bible was sacred because it came from God. The result was a monarchical model of biblical authority. Like an ancient monarch, the Bible stands over us, telling us what to believe and do. But seeing the Bible as sacred in its status leads to a different model of biblical authority. . . .
The result: the monarchical model of biblical authority is replaced by a dialogical model of biblical authority. In other words, the biblical canon names the primary collection of ancient documents with which Christians are to be in continuing dialogue. This continuing conversation is definitive and constitutive of Christian identity. . . .
Yet because the Bible is a human product as well as sacred scripture, the continuing dialogue needs to be a critical conversation. There are parts of the Bible that we will decide need not or should not be honored, either because we discern that they were relevant to ancient times but not to our own, or because we discern that they were never the will of God.
. . . .
To be Christian means to live within the world created by the Bible.
Borg elaborates on what such living entails in his discussion of the Bible as a sacrament: "a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced." (30-1)
Borg's arguments are powerful and well thought out, particularly as regards the blindess induced in modern Christians by our "fact-obsessed" modernity. Though there are directions in which I wouldn't follow Borg, I agree with him on much. Still, I believe in this work he has not adequately addressed the issue of language and the divine. For Borg--it is a point to which he returns repeatedly--the language of the Bible is human: both its glories and limitations come from its being a human product. As educated Christians, we admire the brilliance of biblical writers even as we recognize their (sometimes obsolete) culturally determined prejudices. According to Borg, humanity most quintessentially encounters the divine in "experiences of God," which are understood to be somehow separate from the language in which they are (later?) recorded. Thus the biblical writers' strictly human language is placed on one side as an instrument used to record what is seen, on the other, as the more essential experience.
There are various problems raised by this model. One is that it simplifies how biblical texts came to be written. For instance, we cannot really say that the writer of the Gospel of John "experienced" the content of his gospel one day and then wrote it down the next, as if taking belated notes on a meeting he'd had earlier. I would argue instead that the interplay between experience and language is much more complex--even that language itself is in many cases a bridge to experience. Borg's model underestimates both the power and centrality of language: he puts language too exclusively on the human side of a divide between God and humanity. I myself believe (and of course I know it is not a widely shared belief) that our linguistic faculty is itself already partly divine. Through language, and particularly at certain privileged moments, the divine speaks in us. This is how the biblical prophets experienced language, and it explains, in my own understanding, a crucial part of the meaning of Christ as "the Word made Flesh." The Bible is not entirely a human product; to some degree, the language of the Bible came about across a bridge between God and ourselves.
Though sharing much with other species, we human beings are endowed, very mysteriously, with the power of language. Neither does any other species have anything approaching the complexity and power of human language, nor does any human community have a language that is less than fully developed: i.e., there is no such thing as a human group with a simple or "primitive language." Language, in all its complexity, is part of the human makeup. And with the power of language come other characteristics unique to our species, such as self-consciousness, reasoning ability, and religious sense. But where did our linguistic faculty itself come from, or, in evolutionary terms, how did it develop? Linguists, anthropologists, geneticists and brain scientists have struggled to answer this question, but a satisfying answer remains elusive. I would insist that this extraordinary faculty is the sign of some fundamental difference between us and other species, and that it is in this faculty, more than in our apelike shape, that we should see the meaning of the line in Genesis: "So God created man in his image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (Gen. 1:27) For me, to be created in the image of God is to be created as linguistic, thinking beings. (NB: Although I use the language of creation here, I do not reject the theory of evolution. On the contrary, evolution is the most compelling explanation of the physical origin of species, including our own. But evolution is not necessarily the most compelling explanation of everything that concerns the universe and life. Creation in my thinking was an oblique event: we are the species evolved to a point at which the linguistic and spiritual bridge to God opens. That this opening may be in part the result of a multitude of chance mutations does not mean there is no God or no creation; it only means that the material universe was set to throwing the dice until such an opening should be made. After which. . . .)
Our religious tradition, its understanding of God, forefronts language like no other. According to the first chapters of Genesis, creation itself was effected through language: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Gen. 1:3) The God who created through language is subsequently shown ordering the human world through it. The first human beings were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ignored God's express verbal command (and it was the verbal wiles of the serpent that undid them); the Tower of Babel story shows human pride defeated through a newly instituted multiplicity of languages; the patriarch Abraham is not given a kingdom or some special power but is rather made party to a covenant (a verbal agreement); both Mosaic law and the prophets are a matter of getting the correct verbal expressions of God's will for humanity. In the New Testament, Jesus comes teaching like the prophets, and is called "the Word made Flesh." His common refrain is: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
At one point in his presentation, Borg argues against seeing the Bible as a part-human, part-divine product:
[A]ffirming that the Bible is both divine and human leads to the attempt to separate the divine parts from the human parts--as if some of it comes from God and some is a human product. The parts that come from God are then given authority, and the others are not. But the parts that we think come from God are normally the parts we see as important, and thus we simply confer divine authority on what matters to us, whether we be conservatives or liberals. (27)
I agree that this will happen. Nonetheless the Bible is certainly such a divine/human product: the text is both shot through with divine formulations--expressions the Spirit forged in the crucible of the human mind--and inflected throughout by the dross of human mania and error. There is doubtless no single section of the Bible that is not in this way an admixture of the divine and human. Yet though we recognize the Bible is such a work, we will still be forever unable to separate out what comes from God and what is merely our own prejudice about God. This, however, is an attendant part of the human condition: we see "though a glass darkly."
The closest Borg comes to my own view of biblical language is in a discussion of the Bible as "the World of God," where he writes:
"Word" is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense. As with metaphors generally, this one resonates with more than one nuance of meaning. A word is a means of communication, involving both speaking and hearing. A word is a means of disclosure; we disclose or reveal ourselves through words. Words bridge the distance between ourselves and others: we commune and become intimate through words.
. . . . The Bible is a means of divine self-disclosure. (33-4)
By evoking speaking, hearing and a distance to be bridged, Borg is getting close to contradicting himself. According to his repeatedly stated principle, it is not God we hear in the Bible, but men speaking of God. How then is the Bible a means of "divine self-disclosure"?
Though I find Borg's solution to the problem of the origin of the Bible to be unsatisfactory, his chapter on basic reading approaches, in which he explains the "historical-metaphorical" method, is excellent. Many of his points here have long been understood by readers, going back even to ancient times, but in our world of atheist materialists on the one hand and biblical literalists on the other, such ideas need the kind of clear presentation Borg gives. He concludes the chapter by presenting three stages Bible readers may go through: precritical naivete; critical thinking; postcritical naivete. I believe his stages are roughly right for many modern Christians, but think he'd be better served calling the third stage postcritical belief. Perhaps he doesn't because of his stress on the experiential and sacramental over the, for him, more fraught term belief. In any case, for me a postcritical belief would imply a belief in the sacred character and central importance of the Bible, not a belief that all its narratives were factually true. As Borg points out, many pre-Englightenment cultures accepted that factually untrue stories could nonetheless be profoundly true:
Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.
This way of hearing sacred stories is widespread in premodern cultures. In Arabia, traditional storytellers begin their stories with "This was, and this was not." . . . A favorite of mine is the way a Native American storyteller begins telling his tribe's story of creation: "Now I don't know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true." If you can get your mind around that statement, then you know what postcritical naivete is. (50)
There are many aspects of Borg's book I haven't addressed. Most obviously, I haven't referred to any of his readings of biblical texts. As stated above, the bulk of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is given to explicating important biblical books in terms of his historical-metaphorical method. Much of it is well worth reading, especially the chapters on the Pentateuch, the gospels, and his well-balanced poetic defense of Revelation.
In an epilogue, Borg writes:
[This] book reflects my personal perceptions. I do not have an objective vantage point outside of my own history. . . . For me, this book comes down to what I have been able to see thus far about how to read the Bible. (297)
Such disarming statements are ultimately true, of course, but they are also somewhat belied by the amount of scholarship behind Borg's readings. After all, he has decades of study shaping his perceptions of the Bible; his "personal" interpretations are, to no small degree, a matter of what modern scholarship has allowed him to see. Borg struggles to be responsible both to his Christian faith and to what modernity has revealed to him. Whether he has been successful in this double allegiance is up to the reader to decide. Borg himself might argue, of course, that it is not a double allegiance and that it is not up to the reader to decide in any case. He might insist that success or failure here is a matter to be worked out in his personal relationship with God, in his own experience of the Christian tradition as a multifaceted sacrament. According to such a vision of the Christian life, this--and not forced adherence to any creed--would be the truth of Christianity for the (post)modern faithful. Many discard the lot of Borg's perceptions, some embrace him as a brother in the Spirit; others, like myself, toss back some of Borg's catch, but keep a few fine fish.
NB: An excellent book for further pursuing Borg's thinking--and in which one can read some
very pointed criticism of that thinking--is The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. Borg co-authors the
book with N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham for the Church of England and a leading "conservative"
Jesus scholar. The "liberal" Borg and the "conservative" Wright take turns penning chapters on
crucial elements of the biblical Jesus traditions from the messianic vocation to the resurrection.
Both are cutting-edge scholars, and each, in my judgment, wins certain parts of their extended debate.
For newcomers to these two writers, I'd recommend first taking up Reading the Bible
Again for the First Time, then going on to The Meaning of Jesus.
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