I received a copy of Marcus Borg's latest book " Putting Away Childish Things " last Thursday from Harper One to read and review. I finished it last evening. This is Marcus Borg's first novel, a work of fiction, but, something he calls " didactic " novel. I love the subtitle, " A TALE OF MODERN FAITH ", because I think it captures the essence of the book. The story, it's characters are fictional, yet Borg weaves reference material through out its pages.
My sincere hope is that many people will not dismiss this book because of Marcus Borgs controversial background. We was a fellow of the mid-eighties " Jesus Seminar ", and still one of the most influential voices in " Progressive Christianity ", which characterized by willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity with a strong emphasis on social justice or care for the poor and the oppressed and environmental stewardship of the Earth. Progressive Christians have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to " love one another" (John 15:17) within the teaching of Jesus . This leads to a focus on compassion, promoting justice and mercy, tolerance, and working towards solving the societal problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental issues.
So it is important to understand that this novel flows out of Marcus Borg's life engaged in that contest of living out his faith. This book is extremely important because Christianity is becoming more polarized between the voices of conservatism, liberalism and left and right. As numbers, and churches decline in North America a survival mode mentality becomes the driving force where fundamentalism focuses in on belief more than faithful living.
It will take a special voice, and a different way of writing to engage a polarized faith, to provide a space where we can talk. It will take a story teller. This is a story in which I believe we can all see ourselves, and also the sacred cows that we are unwilling to let roam free.
The story's main character Kate Riley is a popular religious studies professor in a small mid-western liberal arts college. Through the story, and its characters Marcus Borg weaves in the important issues that are dividing and polarizing the Christian faith today. The reader becomes engaged in the deep questions of what does the Bible really teach? Who is Jesus, the historical pre-easter version, and the post-easter Christ version? And, what is the nature of faith today?
One of the dominant strands that weaves its way through the story is " truth ", the postmodern view as truth being relative, shifting sand rubbing against the conservative literal view etched in granite. It is the polarization of truth...factuality is the evidence, verifying something as " true." Or, if evidence can not be excavated like an archaeologist, then truth becomes belief...something different than faith.
In a radio interview Kate is questioned around the gospel stories of Jesus birth, where she claims truth and factuality are not the same thing.
The host spoke again. " So, with these differences --- and some sounding like contradictions---are you saying that these stories aren't historically factual? I think most Christians believe they are---that these things did happen. But if they didn't happen this way, why should people take them seriously?"
" Well," Kate answered, " that depends upon how we see these stories. If we see their purpose as historical reporting, to tell us what happened, then the matter of factuality matters a great deal. People often get fixated on factuality: either things happened this way, or these stories aren't true. ( page 25 )
Through Kate, Borg introduces many of the gospel stories are overtures or parables. Like an overture to a symphony typically introduces the central themes of the symphony as a whole, the birth stories in the gospels are an overture to the grand themes of the good news and Kingdom that follow.
" Parables are about meaning, not factuality. And the truth of a parable is its meaning. Parables can be truthful, truth-filled, even while not being historically factual. And I apply this to the birth stories: we best understand them when we see them as parables and overtures, and when we don't argue about whether they're factual." ( page 26 )
In Marcus Borg's book he engages us in the current conversation of religion and politics. Kate believes the separation of religion and politics is un biblical. Reading the gospel stories one can not miss the clash of Roman Empire theology, and that of Jesus Kingdom. This is the reality that made the Jesus so subversive. The Kingdom was a threat to the empire. Jesus death was political as much as it was spiritual. The book draws into the conversation where we must honestly face politics and faith together not as separate entities. The faith of Jesus confronted the politics of the day..." Putting Away Childish things " reminds us, we need do the same.
As I found myself coming to the closing pages of the book, something profound percolated to surface of my mind...what makes a Christian. In our current landscape, it is all over the map...everyone fighting for territory. Stake our claim, and then fight to try and dominate and expand our borders.
In the closing chapters is a seminary in a quandary, about to receive a generous endowment for a chair in evangelical thought. The faculty meets but before they can pursue potential applicants there is great discussion on how the label is applied.
“It seems to me that there isn’t a general sense of agreement about what makes an evangelical… Would it be enough if those under consideration identify themselves as evangelicals? Or does it mean that they have to meet certain standards, such as professing a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, confessing Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation, having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or counting the Bible as the ultimate basis for their beliefs rather than experience or tradition?” (149)
Some may be mystified by Marcus Borg's change of direction to a fictional novel. But, sometimes you need a story teller to help you see a new way. I highly recommend this book. It is my hope it will draw us all to a place of humble hospitality where grace abounds. To a place where there is always an open table an empty chair to accommodate everyone. We need more than ever to rediscover the faith that Jesus lived and spoke, Putting Away Childish Things brings us to place to talk about what that is.