Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Borg: Proclamation is Futile

Fr. Greg Jones is rector of St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He's also the author of the book Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004) and an important voice for those interested in a Via Media Church - as his blog "The Anglican Centrist" demonstrates.

Below is an essay that originally appeared at the "Anglican Centrist" that takes on the tendency in some Episcopal Churches to privilege particular left-wing takes on Christianity to the exclusion of other voices.


The Borg: Proclamation is Futile

by Fr. Greg Jones

"The Anglican Centrist"

There is an odd tendency in today's Episcopal churches - particularly in urbane settings - to focus on the writings of four people:

* Marcus Borg

* John Dominic Crossan

* John Shelby Spong

* Elaine Pagels

Here’s why they’re of dubious value to the transformation of disciples of Jesus Christ in the Episcopal Church. Here's why I wish my colleagues would show some imagination and find some solid theological food for their flocks to consume - and not the semi-gnostic theological pop tarts these folks are cooking up.

Marcus Borg (HarperSanFrancisco) is clearly the best of this bunch, but he is ultimately still living on the same kerygmatically weak street as the rest. Notably, as a member of the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg belonged to an supposedly scholarly association with a reputation for questionable methods and sensationalistic tendencies. I have read his fairly recent book, The Heart of Christianity, and it's basically o.k. – but I don’t trust him as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ -- and that's quite a big stumbling block for me.

Marcus Borg has said, “The truth of Easter really has nothing to do with whether the tomb was empty on a particular morning 2,000 years ago or whether anything happened to the corpse of Jesus. I see the truth of Easter as grounded in the Christian experience of Jesus as a living spiritual reality of the present.” The problem with this statement is that goes against everything the disciples of Jesus Christ have said since that particular morning 2,000 years ago. What they said then – and the earliest accounts in the New Testament witness to it – “he rose.” The letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark (written between 49-62) attest very coherently to this core proclamation -- Jesus' dead body was placed in the tomb – then the tomb was empty – then many of us experienced him as a living spiritual and physical reality subsequently." It may be that these early disciples and witness of the resurrection were wrong – but what they said was, “We saw the Lord – as a living, spiritual and physical reality.” Anybody so willing to deny this key witness should not be a major influence in our church.

My godfather returned from a conference at the National Cathedral the other day at which Marcus Borg spoke. My godfather is a social justice-progressive-liberal when it comes to the inclusion of gay people into the life of the Church -- very passionately so. Even so -- his review of Borg's recent remarks at the National Cathedral sum up what I'm saying --He writes:

I just got back from a conference at the National Cathedral (“The Church in the 21st Century”) at which Marcus Borg was one of the featured speakers. I’ve seen Prof. Borg countless times on television – he shows up as one of the talking heads on virtually every program about Christianity – and I was looking forward to hearing him speak at sufficient length to develop his thoughts. Frankly, I was disappointed.

Borg’s subject was “A Tale of Two Christianities Today”, which sought to contrast “An Earlier Paradigm: Belief-Centered Christianity” with “An Emerging Paradigm: Transformation-Centered Christianity.” He is a good speaker, in the way that an experienced college professor teaching a survey course primarily to freshmen and sophomores is good: facile, fast, funny — and superficial. I was disappointed that there was so little substance. I didn’t expect to agree with him, but I did expect to be impressed, and I wasn’t.

The second “Christianity” he discussed, the “Transformation-Centered” kind, was pretty clearly intended to include “all us good liberals”, but it was defined broadly enough that even an Anglican Centrist might feel comfortable there, at least at first.

The other one, though, the “Belief-Centered” kind of Christianity, was a hodge-podge. Borg wanted it to include both the Main Line Protestant churches of the previous generation, the church I grew up in during the ’50’s, and the fundamentalist/evangelical/Christian Right of today. In fact, he argued, the dichotomy between these two Christianities really goes back 300 years, to differing reactions to the Enlightenment. This makes the “Belief-Centered” category too broad to be very useful – unless your only point is to say that “we” are correct, and “they” are not.

Besides, the idea that you can have a Christianity that is not “belief-centered” is counterintuitive, and Borg never explained how or why the new paradigm can avoid the issue of belief. He called his new paradigm “a way, a path”, which is great as far as it goes—the early church is called “the Way” in Acts – but a path is supposed to take you somewhere, isn’t it? He says the new paradigm is based on “transformation”, but what transforms you if you have no belief?

In the Q&A session, a questioner took issue with Borg’s claim that “Belief-Centered” Christianity is a phenomenon of the post-Enlightenment era, pointing out that the early church adopted “creeds”, a word based on Latin for “I believe”. Borg’s response was to launch into a discussion of the fact that we often use the word “believe” today in contradistinction to “know”, i.e., to mean that we aren’t sure, but that’s beside the point. He then proceeded to give an entomology of the Latin word credo, claiming that it means “I hold [a person] in my heart”. But anyone who knows anything about the early church knows that they battled over creeds and systems of theology because they thought that it was very important to get your beliefs right — in fact, that starts as early as Paul. Christianity was belief-centered from the outset. If “us liberals” want to jettison belief, we ought to understand that we’re doing something new.

Another questioner asked Borg point-blank if he “thought the tomb was empty”. After a little waffling, Borg said that he didn’t know, but if he had to bet, he’d bet that “it was empty, or that there was no tomb.” My impression was that, even to a pretty liberal audience, this didn’t go over well. (In fact, later in the conference a speaker made a point of saying that he did believe that the tomb was empty, and drew applause.)

The belief in the empty tomb, in the Resurrection, has been central to the Christian church from its beginning. I can understand someone not believing that the Resurrection happened, but what I can’t understand is how a paradigm in which it doesn’t matter whether or not the tomb was empty can be called any kind of Christianity.

I suppose I could read one of Borg’s many books to see how he tries to justify that position. But I have only so much time for reading, and I think I could spend it better....

John Dominic Crossan (also on HarperSanFrancisco) is a founding member of the Jesus Seminar – and continues to hold no recognizably Christian theology of the incarnation, cross or resurrection. Sorry folks – the manger, cross and empty tomb are the framework of the Gospel – and if they were not real in the way you and I are real – there is no Gospel. According to Crossan, Jesus’ body was dumped and eaten by wild animals.

John Shelby Spong (HarperSanFrancisco) has written a lot of books. But, like many who have gotten a good start in the high-dollar publishing world, he will continue to publish books. He got a pretty good start several decades ago as the smart young rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. His book This Hebrew Lord wasn’t really too bad. But as the Bishop of Newark (New Jersey) he continued to put out books which got increasingly worse. His niche was “the skeptical bishop willing to question the basics of the Christian faith for intelligent readers of today.” It is notable that as his sales got bigger – for asking the bad-boy semi-agnostic questions typical to reasonably smart 10th graders in religion class – his diocese shrank. The diocese he oversaw shrank by more than a third in his tenure as a bishop. This alone renders him a dubious authority in my mind – but mainly what drives me nuts is his radically ‘modernist’ worldview. He is fond of describing the biblical and traditional Christian worldview as ‘pre-Copernican.’ As such, like many tired old Enlightenment-era modernists, Spong rejects things mysterious, miraculous, ethereal, or beyond human scientific comprehension. No wonder his diocese shrank like crazy (despite growth in the population it was located within.) Spong doesn’t believe in God in any way close to the traditional Christian faith.

Elaine Pagels (Random House) has, like Jack Spong, had a long and productive publishing career. But, though he is not a scholar and is considered rather a joke to scholars, Pagels is a college professor – at Princeton. However, they are alike in another way. Just as one would expect a Bishop to believe and love every word of the Nicene Creed fully and completely – one would expect a professor at Princeton to be a competent scholar with a good reputation among her colleagues. Not so much. Apart from publishing a lot of popular books about gnosticism – she appears to have little of a truly scholarly nature in her canon of work. What’s worse, other scholars have pointed out a great many errors of fact in her popular work – which over time seem to represent her as a highly questionable authority.

I myself, first hand, found a glaring and misleading factual error in her book, The Gnostic Gospels. In that book, she quotes a passage from the gnostic Gospel of Philip as saying, “the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth].”

The actual quotation from that text is – “the companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [...].”

I had long supposed Elaine Pagels herself inserted the word ‘mouth’ where a hole in the original text had always been -- an egregious act if true. It appears that in fact she quotes from the rare early edition of the Nag Hammadi Library -- in which many more speculative interpolations were to be found. It seems likely, therefore, that instead of herself violating the text by a specious insertion -- she quoted somebody else who had done this for her. The point is, however, the specious insertion of the word 'mouth' is not accidental -- whoever did it -- but the intentional work of somebody with a fairly radical agenda to push.

Other scholars have pointed out a consistent tendency on Pagels’ part to play fast and loose with ancient texts to make her points.

And there are so many better authorities!

Friends – please – there are lots of people out there better in every way than these guys. If you only want to hear from a truly 'liberal' perspective – try Stanley Hauerwas, William Stringfellow, Jim Wallis, Justo Gonzalez, or Deirdre Good. Hauerwas is very challenging -- as is Stringfellow -- not because they seem so 'liberal' but because they are so obviously rooted in a rigorous and utterly faithful passion for the Word of God in the Bible. Stringfellow's dead -- but Dr. Hauerwas is a passionate speaker, and he takes his show on the road often.

If you think you want somebody post-modern – try Brian McLaren. If you want intellectual giants who are universally respected for their scholarship (if not every little thing they say and do in the midst of the culture wars) look at: Hans Frei, N.T. Wright, Peter Ochs (Jewish text critic), Jurgen Moltmann, etc.

Sure -- some of these folks are dead -- but their books are much alive.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, and a host of others offer very solid mainstream and mainline perspectives on the Bible – in a very generously orthodox way – while preserving deep intellectual and scholarly integrity.

The Renovaré group -- Dallas Willard, John Ortberg -- are intellectually solid and spiritually uplifting.

Philip Yancey is a truly terrific writer who can bring essential Christian issues to a popular audience. His books What's So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew are terrific.

We just don’t need to hear from Crossan, Pagels and Spong – we continue to see their books in print -- not because of their intrinsic scholarly or Christian value -- but because they're sensationalistic and the publishers know they sell to a Da Vinci Code-raddled culture. And I would also say the same of Marcus Borg -- who while at least respectable as a scholar and speaker -- is no great shakes in the academy, and his Gospel is lukewarm. The fact that these folks keep showing up in Episcopal Church after Episcopal Church makes feel like there's either an utter lack of imagination -- or theological training among the clergy who bring them in.

We can do better – and still fulfill our sense wanting an open-minded, inclusive, progressive and tolerant intellectual community.