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Life Arts    H3'ed 6/3/14

Marcus J. Borg calls on Christians to embrace social transformation (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 3, 2014: Progressives and liberals no doubt are familiar with the Christian Right. But, hark, a new Christian voice cries out in the American wilderness -- "Make way for social transformation!" In short, he wants to recruit American Christians to be social and political progressives and liberals -- and fight the good fight against inequality.

The biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg is a convicted convict in the prison of the Christian thought world. In his new book CONVICTIONS: HOW I LEARNED WHAT MATTERS MOST (HarperOne, 2014), Borg wrestles with his Christian convictions -- as Jacob wrestled with the angel of God. In this well-informed and admirably accessible book, Borg invites us to wrestle along with him about the range of topics and issues that he addresses.

Me, I'm an ex-con, so to speak. Let me explain what I mean. Christianity is a thought prison. Christians live in a portable prison-cage constructed of their religious convictions about the supposed divine nature of the supposed Christ. People who hold such specifically Christian religious convictions are convicted Christians -- Christian convicts living with their portable prison-cages -- their Christian convictions about the supposed Christ and his supposed divinity.

As I say, I am an ex-con. But Borg does not consider trying to extricate himself from the prison of the Christian thought-world.

DIGRESSION: I borrow the expression "portable prison-cage" from Walter J. Ong's essay "St. Ignatius' Prison-Cage and the Existentialist Situation" in the Jesuit-sponsored journal THEOLOGICAL STUDIES, volume 15, number 1 (March 1954): pages 34-51. St. Ignatius Loyola was the founder of the Jesuit order. Ong was himself a Jesuit. Ong reprinted this essay in his book THE BARBARIAN WITHIN: AND OTHER FUGITIVE ESSAYS AND STUDIES (Macmillan, 1962, pages 242-259). END OF DIGRESSION.

Borg just cannot bring himself to jump off the Christ bandwagon and embrace the historical Jesus as extraordinary human person -- but not a composite of a supposed divine nature with his human nature.

Basically, Borg presents himself as an American Christian writer writing for other American Christians -- a liberal and progressive Christian writer writing primarily for liberal and progressives Christian readers, or at least for Christian readers who might be willing to consider becoming liberal and progressive Christians. He wants American Christians to understand the biblical call for social transformation as he understands it.

To be sure, Borg draws on the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos and on other aspects of the Hebrew Bible to flesh out his understanding of the biblical call for social transformation.

Borg himself characterizes his wrestling with the scriptures in the Christian Bible and with Christian traditions as carrying on a conversation: "To be Christian means being in an unending conversation with this collection of documents [in the anthology of the Christian Bible]. If that conversation becomes sporadic or ceases, then we cease to be Christian" (page 97).

Borg points out that many Americans today are at least nominally Christian: "[S]tatistically, we are the most Christian country in the world. About 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, and that means there are more Christians in the United States than in any other country" (page 190).

As Borg also points out, "Our armed forces are as powerful [as] those of the next dozen countries combined" (page 189).

Question: Would the United States start spending less on military might if more Americans stopped being Christians?

But Borg does not undertake to explore this possibility.

But Borg would have Christians oriented toward social transformation. Even though he does not happen to advert to it, his entire interpretation of scriptures fits within the larger historical movement known as the social gospel.

Before I retired, I for years taught Edward Bellamy's novel LOOKING BACKWARD 2000-1887 (originally published in 1888), the futuristic and utopian novel that contributed to the rise of the social gospel movement in the United States.

No doubt we need social reform movements in American culture such as the black civil rights movement in the 1950s and the 1960, which was an expression of the social gospel movement.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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