Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time - Marcus J. Borg

My church is watching an interesting set of videos collectively called "Living the Questions," which is largely put together by the United Church of Christ as a study guide. I've been enjoying it immensely, because of the depth of honesty of the people speaking, and the frank moments when they look into the camera and say, "I don't know. I believe X and Y, but that's just me." One of the people who has interested me most is Marcus Borg, who is a rather progressive Christian (some would say that he steps well outside the bounds of Christianity in his beliefs, although I am not one of those). After I expressed my interest, our pastor gave me this book to read by Borg, and I must admit, I found it entirely fascinating!

It is not a long book, being only 140 pages in the copy which I have. However, those pages are jam packed with information. The first chapter gets right to the point, no holds barred. He talks about how as children we have a very beautiful vision of Jesus, but that there comes a time when that childish vision no longer suits us. We become questioners, which is appropriate, and as we seek out the answers to our questions we discover that the Bible is not quite the inerrant document some would like us to think it is. It has some things which are contradictory, some of the stories in the gospels are in different orders, and other issues. As young adults, the answers to those early questions are important, because if they don't feed our soul then there is a large chance we're going to walk away dissatisfied.

Borg delves into the idea of the "pre-Easter Jesus" and the "post-Easter Jesus" and how the way we imagine Jesus changes depending on where in the story line we're seeing him. He touches on the knowledge that Jesus was NOT a Christian, but a deeply religious Jew, one who knew the Pentateuch inside and out. He was a spiritual person, a mystic, and also a rabble-rouser. He often referred to himself as if he were an authority equal to God, which isn't always obvious unless you really read the texts in question. Jesus has a tendancy to say things like, "God said do X, but *I* say, do Y!"

The emphasis Borg puts on the New Testament is of Jesus teaching his disciples that God is compassionate, rather than what they grew up with, the Jewish image of God the punisher, God the judge. Jesus does things that no other religious Jew would have done: talking to Samaritans, dining with the impure and unclean, touching the dead, working healings on the Sabbath, and many other stories that are probably at least passingly familiar to any religious scholar. Jesus, Borg says, has no interest in the laws created by the Jews to keep themselves in line with God. Instead, Jesus wants people to "love each other as God loves them." It's a radical idea for that era. Borg writes,
Whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes. For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion. (pp 58)
 Jesus was disowned by just about everyone because of that radical notion that everyone could be included at his table. The Jews hated it because it went contrary to the very rules that bound their daily lives, and the Romans and Greeks hated it because it messed with their clean dividing lines.

The most fascinating part, for me, was in the fifth chapter where Borg begins explaining the divine feminine and how it is a part of early Christianity via the character of Sophia, or divine wisdom. As he puts it, if the world Jesus had grown up in were matriarchal instead of patriarchal, we likely would have seen a holy trinity of Father, Mother and Son.

That is one of his main points, in fact: that the culture of Jesus' time is highly reflected in what is written about him by his followers, both his early disciples and those who came later. They had grown up in patriarchal systems, and knew nothing else. They were, as we are, products of their time. In order to truly understand the radical notions Jesus was selling back then, one has to place it in its era. Then the extreme nature of his message becomes a bit more clear.

Borg has included extensive endnotes and a long and healthy bibliography. He's fond of citing historical works, and isn't afraid to share where he found his information. He has a compelling and easily readable style, one which draws you in and keeps you reading.

I highly recommend this for anyone who is studying interfaith relations, because Borg's Jesus (regardless of whether Jesus actually was like this) is very much the interfaith herald.
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