Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning & Power and How They Can Be Restored, Marcus Borg (HarperOne) $25.99
Marcus Borg, scholar and leader in progressive Christian thought, takes on the language of faith in his recent publication, Speaking Christian. He declares in the outset that the purpose of this book is to ‘redeem and reclaim Christian language,’ to help us ‘read, hear and inwardly digest Christian language without preconceived understandings getting in the way.’ But the articulated purpose that most resonates with this reviewer is his objective to ‘exposit an alternative understanding’ of the Biblical text and Christian tradition. In this endeavor Borg achieves his goal of illuminating the language we have inherited, both from text and tradition, within an alternative framework that pulses with life and possibility.
Early into the work, Borg notes the two greatest obstacles to rightly understanding the Christian language; one is a matter of narrative and another the literalism with which so many read and hear the text. The former is one that I have witnessed from my time in both North America and across east and southern Africa – what Borg calls the ‘heaven-and-hell framework.’ The four pillars of this framework, as he sees it, are the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus dying for our sins and believing. The way one understands this narrative, believing that Jesus died for our sins so we can be forgiven and enter heaven, shapes how these words and many others are understood. One observation he notes first is that framing the story this way makes the death of Jesus the most important thing about Him. This comment alone made me feel like I was not amiss in my own stance, having long thought most Christians care more about the death of Jesus than the life He lived. But the truth is that this framework has far-reaching affects for how we understand much of our Christian vocabulary, often in distorted ways. This is the case Borg makes throughout the book: we need to change our frame!
The pivotal word Borg redefines is salvation. This word has obvious connections to the heaven-and-hell framework, and we can readily see how that narrative shapes our understanding of this word. If we see salvation through such a lens, as many do, we think salvation is about the afterlife, about attaining heaven someday. As my husband says, such an understanding makes salvation nothing more than an evacuation plan. Borg offers a more thoughtful commentary, but to the same end. He unpacks the Biblical context surrounding salvation and reveals it to have connotations of deliverance, rescue, enlightenment, peace and even justice. The word is so much richer…and seldom about the afterlife according to the Bible! Borg defines salvation as personal transformation and the transformation of this world (which he says is God’s true passion). He insists that salvation is both personal and political in its transformative mission.
Since God’s passion is for transformation, this casts fresh light and new contours on many terms from our vocabulary such as forgiveness, repentance, Jesus, faith and mercy. Another phrase that Borg seems to resurrect is ‘the way of the Lord’ as a potent Biblical metaphor. There is not a chapter titled as such, but this phrase is woven throughout his exposition, pointing to the deep intention of Scripture, to illumine this ‘way of the Lord’ that is, after all, about transformation. This phrase is also reveals the author’s heart – a man hungry to walk the way of the Lord and redeem the language we speak as we go. It is tender and intimate, like a faint heartbeat felt from chapter to chapter, word to word.
Those with evangelical sensibilities will no doubt be challenged by Borg’s stance on some fundamental words like Bible, Death of Jesus, Rapture, The Only Way. His honesty about Heaven, stating, “I do not know what happens after death…and I am aware that I cannot resolve my uncertainty by deciding to believe something in particular,” will startle some. But I found it refreshing to have someone admit what he does not know as much as sharing all he has clearly learned over years of academic study and personal discipleship. He challenges much of what we have grown up with in Sunday School, yet within the trusting frame of the text and a narrative that rings true to God’s passion for transformation.
This book offers much to those who struggle with the language of faith, yet yearn to delve deeper in their own discipleship to Jesus. The words will be washed, and you will see them shine again in a Biblical landscape that proclaims justice, goodness, love and engagement in both personal and social ways. The book is written with astute scholarship, yet in such an approachable vocabulary that will welcome all into the conversation. This is a book for anyone – accessible, readable and enjoyable.
I hope you will cheer as the shackles fall from some of these words, as I certainly did. I hope you will let out a gasp from time to time, as you catch the wonder imbedded in these words so oft spoken but misunderstood. I hope you will embrace the words with rekindled enthusiasm, as I now do. I hope we will move forward with a rich vocabulary as we walk in the way of the Lord, Speaking Christian as we go!
Kelley Johnson Nikondeha is co-director of Amahoro Africa and international staff member of Community of Faith with her husband Claude. She’s a thinker, connector, advocate, avid reader and mother of two beautiful children. Kelley lives between Arizona and Burundi. She is a regular contributor to SheLoves Magazine as well as a lover of hand-written letters, home-made pesto and anything written by Walter Brueggemann.