Friday, October 5, 2012

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: Marcus Borg Images Jesus


Two Episcopalians whom I respect told me I should read this book. Both said that it frames Jesus in a way that makes sense to them. It does not make sense to me.

The non-sense begins with the whole notion of needing to frame Jesus to make him palatable for our liberal, postmodern, science-driven culture. Which is what Lutheran theologian Marcus Borg does in this popular book whose cover claims "Over 250,000 Sold!"

Borg says that we need to look at our images of Jesus, and if we don't like them, come up with our own. Better yet, adopt Borg's images, for which he provides up-to-the-minute scholarly reasons. He is the Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion at Oregon State University.

Borg doesn't buy the image of Jesus as divine savior. So out it goes. He doesn't particularly like the image of Jesus as a teacher either, because it leads, he claims, to a moralistic image of the Christian life.

Instead, he asks us to "image" Jesus as a spirit person. (Why does "image" have to be a verb? For that matter, who made "narratival" an adjective?)

What, you ask, is a "spirit person"? It is Borg's gender-inclusive term for what used to be known, in the dark ages, as a holy man. Spirit, of course, is that shapeless something so many of us take for granted, the noun form of the comfy, empty, all-embracing adjective "spiritual." Heaven forbid that anyone should be "religious"! But at least we've learned something earthshaking: Jesus was a holy man! Except that we shouldn’t refer to him as a man.

Next, Borg asks us to "image" Jesus as compassionate. What a breakthrough idea! This leads to a discussion of the Jewish "purity system" and how Jesus broke down this system, which of course suggests that we, in our compassion, should break down any and all cultural norms. 

Yet the idea of "compassion" overturning cultural norms involves Borg in a circular logic he doesn't admit. If you overturn the old norms for new ones, shouldn't the new ones become new targets of our "compassion"? But he is so determined to make Jesus politically correct that logic goes out the window.

Here's another revolutionary image of Jesus we are asked to embrace: He was a sage! He was a "teacher of wisdom"! This leads to a long disquisition on the Greek word for wisdom, Sophia, and the fact that it is a feminine noun. Soon enough we are asked to envision God as feminine and "womb-like." Borg retranslates passages from the Book of Wisdom, substituting Sophia. The amusing results speak for themselves:

"Sophia cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance tot he city gates she speaks . . . " And so on. Pretty soon, we are asked to consider Jesus Christ's feminine qualities:

"In what sense is Christ the wisdom of (and from) God? In particular, are we to understand 'wisdom of God' in these verses [from St. Paul] as resonating with the nuances of divine Sophia? It is possible, and if so, it means that Paul spoke of Jesus as the Sophia of and from God."

Later: "For Paul, Jesus is the embodiment of Sophia." So the Lord is actually a woman in a man's body? Isn't that what's meant by transgendered? Wow, I never thought of Jesus that way!

Borg ends this flight of theological fancy by analyzing the three "Macro-Stories of Scripture." (For Borg, everything is narratival!) Two macro-stories are acceptable to him: the Exodus narrative and the story of exile and return surrounding the Babylonian captivity. The third is not so acceptable, however: the "priestly story," the whole idea that "the priest is the one who makes us right with God by offering sacrifice on our behalf." To take this story seriously means taking sin seriously, and guilt, and forgiveness. Let Borg speak for himself:

"This story is very hard to believe. The notion that God's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without that having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible. Taken metaphorically, this story can be very powerful. But taken literally, it is a profound obstacle to accepting the Christian message. To many people, it simply makes no sense, and I think we need to be straightforward about that."

The author throws out so much of the baby Jesus with the bathwater that there's very little left of Him. Arguing against the "purity system," Borg ends with a Jesus who has been air-brushed clean of any possibly offensive qualities, like his manhood, for example. Though Borg says he is searching for the historical Jesus, he ends with nothing but images, thinking apparently that only a politically correct, sanitized, insubstantial Jesus can bring skeptics back to church.

Which of course is why the mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking every week. There's no there there, and nothing left of Jesus, man or God.

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