The Common Good

Speaking Christian with Marcus Borg

[Editors' note: As part of Sojourners' commitment to bring you into discussion with a broad range of theological perspectives, writer Becky Garrison offers this interview with Marcus Borg.]

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While I was in Portland, I got a chance to connect for coffee with Marcus Borg, Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007. For a full listing of his many books and other accomplishments check out his website.

Your book Putting Away Childish Things marks your first foray into fiction (Harper One, April, 2010). How does fiction allow you to explore theological themes in a way that you can't with nonfiction?

In fiction, the exposition of the theological themes has to be much more compact. Also, I get to put my characters in dialogue about these issues. It's really awkward to do that in non-fiction. If I'm writing nonfiction, I can't have a voice come out of the sky and say "What are you thinking?" or "What do you mean?" Fiction is also a way of getting the ideas that really matter to me out into a broader reading public or at least into a different form.

As we approach the 25th Anniversary of the Jesus Seminar, what are some of your reflections looking back on this project?

I was involved with the Jesus Seminar for the first ten years of its work along with Walter Wink, John Dominic Crossan, and others who were instrumental in its early work. It was the richest, most exciting, and most generative intellectual experience of my life. After we finished our two projects in 1995, I have not gone to meetings unless I'm invited to give a keynote or something, though I've kept up my membership by paying my annual dues. It's primary function now is [to educate] the larger public about the nature of the gospels.

How would you asses the state of American religious scholarship today?

What N.T. Wright, John Dominic Crossan, Joan Chittister, Karen Armstrong, and so forth are doing is primarily adult theological re-education. I stress re-education because I think we're living in a time of transition within Christianity that's been going on for half a century -- maybe more -- where what I call the common Christianity that most Christians over the age of 40 took for granted is no longer persuasive and compelling. I see my generation of public theologians as helping church people move into a form of Christianity that is non literalistic, non exclusivistic, deeply in touch with tradition, but with a historical [and] metaphorical way of understanding tradition and so forth. I think that task will be important for at least another 20-years. Then I'm hoping that the public theologians of 20-years out won't have to deal with those same issues.

Even though N.T. Wright and you approach the New Testament from very different perspectives, you're able to agree to disagree while remaining cordial.

Our book (The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions) came out of a friendship that was marked by both affection and debate from the very beginning. That also means that through knowing each other in that, it's clear to both of us that we're both Christians. Also, on the practical level of what it means to be Christian, we're very similar. It's about being informed by a community, it's a life of prayer, economic justice, and peace in the world.

What do you say to those who claim the United States is a "Christian" nation?

The negative side of the ambiguity of faith is that religions have often endorsed extraordinary cruelty and violence. For example, when cultural conventions said slavery was OK, Christians accepted slavery. You can make your own list -- segregation, wars, heterosexism, patriarchy, vast differences between rich and poor, and so forth. On the positive side, Christianity and other religions have also been protests against the way things are and [have affirmed] another possibility. The United States is statistically the most Christian country in the world in terms of [the] percentage of the population who will identify as Christian and in absolute numbers. Yet, the church is the only large institution in the United States where hate speech is still OK. This hate speech is directed mostly against LGBT people, but also against other religions, especially Islam. Can you imagine any corporation allowing its leaders to make statements about gay and lesbian people that are routinely said within the church?

How then does one live as a Christian in an increasingly global world?

One of my definitions of what it means to be Christian is, "a Christian is someone who lives their life with God within the framework of the Christian tradition." A Jew is one who does so within the Jewish tradition. And you can start to fill in the blanks for the other enduring faith traditions. And by enduring, I mean those religions that have stood the test of time. For me, it's not about one of the enduring religions of the world, namely our own, being the best one. Rather, to say that a Christian [is someone] who lives out their life within the framework of the Christian tradition is about difference and identity, not about superiority. I really like the analogy of religions, in an important respect, being like languages. To be Christian, means [to speak] Christian, to be Jewish means [to speak] Jewish, and so forth. Obviously, I'm not talking about speaking the ancient languages of the tradition but knowing and understanding the stories and vocabulary of your tradition. So being a Christian in a pluralized society, means to live deeply within the Christian tradition while being able to recognize the riches and saints of other traditions.

Marcus Borg's next book, Speaking Christian, will be published in 2011 by HarperOne. Follow Becky's travels on twitter @JesusDied4This.

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