LTRP Note: While reading this book review on Marcus Borg’s new book, please bear in mind two things: one, that Borg rejects essential tenets of the biblical Christian faith (such as that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he was born of a virgin, and that He was God), and two, that numerous emerging “progressive” church leaders have at various times shown admiration for Borg and his writings (these would include Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Calvin Miller (included Borg in his book, The Book of Jesus), Walter Brueggeman (helped write Richard Foster’s “Bible”) and at least on one occasion, Leonard Sweet). After you read this book review, you may better understand why Lighthouse Trails is so concerned about the “new” spirituality that has entered the Christian church and been embraced by so many of its leaders and pastors.
BOOK REVIEW: Putting Away Childish Things, a Tale of Modern Faith by Marcus J. Borg
By Ted Kyle
Putting Away Childish Things, a Tale of Modern Faithby Marcus J. Borg, published by Harper One, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, 342 pages, $25.99.
Learning to Doubt 101
Marcus J. Borg is a veteran of the Christianity wars, having been at one time a member of The Jesus Seminar, a humanist circle of liberal theologians who set themselves the task of voting Bible passes “in” or “out,” depending upon their supposed collective wisdom. Borg is also professor emeritus in the philosophy department at Oregon State University, and the author of the New York Times best-selling Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity, The Last Week, and Jesus (from the dust cover).
Borg’s latest book, Putting Away Childish Things, is a novel. It is his first work of fiction, but he uses this vehicle knowledgeably to make his points. His protagonist is Kate Riley, an assistant professor in the department of religious studies at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Kate is serious about her religion and thinks of herself as a Christian—though her concept of what that means would not agree with a conservative’s definition: she has had a lover (from whom she distanced herself when she decided he was not marriage-material), as well as other sexual encounters, and would not mind another liaison, though the only man she likes in her surroundings is gay. He is, accordingly, her best friend but not her lover. The thought that extra-marital sex is sinful adultery does not enter the picture—it is no doubt one of the strictures that liberals have written out of their workaday Bibles. Sin and the need for forgiveness receive no honored place at the table in this book.
As a story, this is not an easy read, being burdened with its load of liberal doctrine. But as a literary device to lead the unwary into swallowing that doctrine, along with the vulnerable student, Erin, it may succeed very well. Readers should be aware that this is an agenda-driven book. Virtually everything in it is there for a purpose.
The author’s most important point is championing the Age of Enlightenment’s attack on the inerrancy of the Bible. It is a theme he introduces early and often throughout the book, as the following dialog illustrates:
Fiona, a member of Kate’s class, Religion and the Enlightenment, spoke up in an early class discussion: “I’ve had a couple of courses from Kate—I mean, Professor Riley—before and one of the things I’ve learned is that we need to set aside our worldview if we’re going to understand other worldviews…I ‘m not sure where that leads—I just know that there are a lot of different ways of seeing.”
Another student (Andrew, the class skeptic): “But you must know that our way of seeing things is just one among many. How do we know it’s any better?…. There’s no one true way of seeing—there are only ways of seeing…. And if you take that seriously, it means we can’t really know anything for sure” (p. 101).
Another student (Erin) protests: “I belong to a Christian group… We think there are some absolutes, that there have to be. Otherwise, anything goes.”
Andrew: “And where do you get your absolutes?
Erin: “Well, we—the group I’m part of—get them from the Bible. We—at least most of us—think the Bible is infallible, because it’s inspired by the Holy Spirit. And we think that if you don’t think that way, then the Bible is just another book, and you get to pick and choose what you like and don’t like in it. That’s called cafeteria Christianity.”
Andrew: “So, in a sea of relativity, the Bible is an absolute? The Bible is the exception?”
Kate, the professor, interrupted the silence which followed to say that the discussion is about “the central question of the course: What happens to the Bible and Christianity within the framework of modern thought?… What has happened to the notion of sacred scriptures and sacred traditions over the past three centuries because of the encounter with the Enlightenment?”
It is a thought-provoking session, well-designed to crack open old belief-positions absorbed without much thought as children. For many, it opens the floodgates of questions and doubts. Others have already passed that stage and now are convinced that the opening chapters of Genesis, the miracles in both Testaments, and much else in the Bible are not true. In Kate’s class they will be exposed to philosophical arguments to strengthens this disbelief.
THINGS TO LOOK FOR IN THE BOOK
1. The Two Narratives of Jesus’ Birth
One of the major plot twists comes in the form of reaction to a newly-published book by Kate: Two Stories, One Birth. In the book, she sharply distinguishes between the “stories” of our Lord’s birth in Matthew and Luke, instead of fitting them together to give a fuller picture of the occasion, as is normally done. Matthew’s account, she wrote, is dark and threatening, being dominated by Herod’s plot to kill the infant Jesus. Luke, however, “is basically joyful. There’s no plot by Herod to Kill Jesus; instead, there are hymns filled with joy” (page 24). Additionally, her book concludes that in Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem, in contrast to Luke’s account of the lengthy trip to Bethlehem from Nazareth. She comes to this astounding conclusion simply because “Matthew’s narrative makes no mention of the couple traveling there, leading us to assume that Bethlehem is their home” (page 31).
All this sets the stage for Kate to make her case during radio interviews that the stories of Jesus’ birth in both Gospels are parables—and “parables are about meaning, not factuality. And the truth of a parable is its meaning. Parables can be truthful, truth-filled, even while not being historically factual” (page 26). The interviewer responds with a leading question: “As I understand your book, you’re saying that it doesn’t matter whether there was a star of Bethlehem or wise men bringing gifts, or whether Jesus was born at home or in a stable, or whether angels sang to shepherds…. Would you extend this to the virgin birth as well—that it doesn’t matter whether it happened?” (page 27).
Kate ducks the question: “Well, my emphasis as a historian is on the meaning of a story of a divine conception in the context of the first century, not on whether it happened.” Much more is to come in Kate’s class sessions, where students are subtly led to question the Genesis account of Creation, including the creation of our first parents, Adam and Eve, miracles in both Testaments, and much else which is abhorrent to liberal thinking.
[Reviewer’s note: This retreat into theological gobbledygook is standard procedure throughout the book, in which pregnant suggestions and hanging questions are used to plant doubts, rather than making direct assertions regarding the unreliability of the Bible.]
2. Setting Us Straight on Homosexuality—and This Is a Biggie!
Erin, the student who has been part of the campus conservative club, The Way, has begun to question many things she had formerly taken for granted, such as the inerrancy of the Bible. Then, over the Christmas break, she learned that her younger brother is gay, and she is caught between her feelings for her brother and what the Bible says about homosexuality. Before she goes to Kate for guidance, she reads two books she finds in the college library (Dirt, Greed and Sex, by William Countryman and The New Testament and Homosexualityby Robin Scroggs) and in them, she tells Kate, she finds that “homosexuality is an abomination is in a context in Leviticus that also forbids lots of things that almost all Christians think are fine. Like planting two kinds o seed in the same field or wearing garments made of two kinds of cloth—I mean that would rule out blends. We set those laws aside and say they don’t apply to our time—so why should we think the verse about homosexuality applies to all times? And what they say about two of the three verses in the New Testament about homosexuality makes sense to me—that they probably refer to an older man having sex with a young boy… But the part of the New Testament that I still have trouble with is that passage from Paul in Romans….” She then reads Romans 1:26-27 aloud. “That’s really strong,” she says to Kate. “…That’s the passage I stumble over.”
Kate has her read the next verse. Erin reads verse 28, supposedly from her NIV Student Bible: “Furthermore, since they [the Gentiles] did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done” (page 207).
[Reviewer’s note: The words, “the Gentiles,” are not in the original Greek, nor are they in any Bible I have ever seen, specifically including the NIV Student Bible. The parenthetical words were doubtless added by Borg or an editor to buttress the professor’s argument that Paul is simply repeating “standard Jewish synagogue rhetoric about what Gentiles are like” (page 207). Erin, who wants to avoid having to regard her brother as under God’s condemnation, is convinced. And so might be readers of the book who fail to compare the quotation before them with their own Bibles—for the words appear to be part of the sacred text, despite being placed in a parenthesis.]
[It seems to this reviewer that Borg has crossed a very hazardous boundary indeed, for the Bible contains stern warnings about adding to or taking away from God’s Word (Deuteronomy 4:2 and Revelation 22:18-19, which includes a dire warning for tampering with God’s Word).]
[While the addition of these words may appeal to those who try to abrogate the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, it cannot be shaken. And Paul’s whole argument in Romans chapter 1 applies to every individual of whatever persuasion or religion—against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who; hold the truth in unrighteousness” (vs. 18).]
Things then get worse in the counseling session: While Erin is absorbing the impact of Kate’s suggestion that Paul didn’t really mean to call homosexuality an abomination, Kate goes on to suggest that even if Paul did mean exactly what he said, he could very well have been mistaken—implying that there is no Holy Spirit inspiration involved (page 209).Truly, wickedness is at work in this book.
3. Positing Two Jesuses
In a class discussion about the effect of the Enlightenment on the Church’s understanding of Jesus’ intentions and accomplishments, Kate states in a hand-out that “Jesus as a historical figure was not the same as the gospels portray him. This especially the case in John’s gospel”—which, she writes, “is a very developed layer of the tradition.” In other words, liberal scholars, including The Jesus Seminar, do not believe Jesus regarded Himself as the Son of God, or Messiah, or the Bread of Life, etc. Nor do they believe Jesus came to Earth to die as the Lamb of God. All these things, they insist, were claimed for Him, after His death, by His followers (pages 238-239). These theologians deny especially the factuality of John’s Gospel, including our Lord’s assertion that “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
4. Tie-ins with New Age and Emergent Church Thought
Martin, a minor figure in the book, who is Kate’s one-time (and possibly future) lover, outlines a lecture he will give about mysticism. He jots down: “Would affect our sense of what the word ‘God’ points to: a reality that can be known and that is ‘all around us’—not a person-like being ‘out there,’ separate from the universe, a super-powerful authority figure whose existence can be argued about” (page 133). Later we learn that Kate shares this belief with Martin (page 276).
Additionally, in perhaps the only inclusion of real persons in the book, Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis are recommended by a faculty member of the seminary that is inviting Kate to fill a temporary position. He says: “I would love to have either of them on our faculty, though I don’t imagine they’d be interested. Both are committed evangelicals” (page 149).
5. A Horrifying Glimpse into Liberal Academia
The seminary which has invited Kate for a one-year visiting professorship has, in Martin’s words: “We have so many specialized points of view here—Asian, African, feminist, womanist, gay, lesbian, plus, of course, older white male.” He goes on to say: “Don’t get me wrong—I’ve learned a lot from feminist theology and African theology and Asian theology and gay theology, and I’m grateful” (page 269).
Conclusion: While I can only conclude that this book will lead readers away from truth (and from the Gospel) rather than to it, one poem quoted in the book, “Dover Beach” written by British poet Matthew Arnold in 1870, moved me. Arnold was attempting to describe how people’s faith in God was being shattered by overtly unbiblical challenges.
The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d,
But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The third stanza may seem to tell the tale of the Church’s defensive battle against the attacks of the Enlightenment—a tale of retreat and gathering impotence in the face of worldly knowledge. Yet the tale is true only on the surface, for God, who cannot lie, has sworn that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His church. Our Lord has also sworn that His Gospel “shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matt. 24:14).
Though the church in our land is beleaguered, let us recall that “… They are not all Israel, which are of Israel”(Rom. 9:6), and that all this was foretold: “Now the Spirit
speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1).
The Church in America, as in Europe in general, has forgotten that “…strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:14). We are called to live as pilgrims and sojourners in a strange land, for this land is not our true home: we seek another!
Meanwhile, let us soldier on for our Captain, holding His banner high, knowing that our work is not in vain—for our Father declared, “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).
Praise His Name!
P.S.: If you wonder about Borg’s title, as I did, I have to tell you that he never mentions it in the book. But it dawned on me eventually that he is describing Erin, the girl who came to college clinging to her childhood faith, and lost it in the blaze of the Enlightenment. He’d like to be describing real persons—people like you and me. But personally, I’d much rather have the child-like faith that our Lord had in mind when He said: “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein” (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17).