How to talk like Christians (and why we should)

“Can we be Christian without using the language of Christianity?” This question provides the focus of Marcus Borg’s new book Speaking Christian, with its explanatory subtitle “Why Christian words have lost their meaning and power—and how they can be restored.” His answer: “If this book’s premise that religions are like languages is correct, the answer is no. Being Christian includes ‘speaking Christian.’”

The problem for some people in churches today is that many of the words and phrases central to the Christian story pose serious theological and ethical challenges. Among them: sin and salvation, God as Father, the death of Jesus, the cross and its place in the Christian way of life, born again, heaven and hell, the creeds and the Trinity.

One way to resolve the problem is to stop using the words that bother people. The result is that the heart of Christianity collapses and worship becomes increasingly bland.

Borg believes that religious language, including the most challenging elements, can be reclaimed. Furthermore, he is convinced that the vitality of Christian faith and life depends upon this reclamation. The purpose of this book is to do some of this reconstruction.

First, Borg contrasts two visions of Christianity. Heaven and hell Christianity emphasizes “the next world and what we must do to get there.” The other vision emphasizes “God’s passion for the transformation of this world.” Both visions use “the same language and share the same sacred scripture, the same Bible.” These two ways of understanding and expounding Christianity develop theological story lines that contrast sharply. Each perspective claims to be the right way to understand the Christian faith.

Second, Borg shows that much of the discontent with the traditional language of Christianity is caused by the way that it is used in the heaven and hell scenario. Conversely, he shows that when Christians think and speak from the transformational perspective, these same terms recover meanings that are faithful to their original intentions and at the same time can be constructive factors in contemporary faith and practice.

Third, he calls attention of the limitations of “literalism,” especially as this mindset operates within heaven and hell Christianity. He acknowledges that Christians in transformational Christianity, often trapped by their own tendencies toward literalism of religious language, fail to understand how central metaphorical uses are to all of the language of faith, including the basic story of God’s revelatory and redeeming work in Jesus.

Fourth, Borg discusses a long list of these words and phrases, showing how they have been distorted by heaven and hell Christianity and literalism, and then offering what in his mind is the more biblical and authentic way of understanding them. In many cases, his discussion of salvation being a good example, he shows that when we understand the word correctly we can use it freely with a clean conscience and mind. Here, the practical challenge for the church is to teach the better meaning of these terms. And then to use them.

Fifth, Borg offers a brief discussion for some of the terms, offering a meager basis for reclaiming the language, and then leaves the reader dangling, with little help in developing a constructive course of action. His chapter on the Lord’s Supper is an example. Clearly, Borg is content to participate in worship in the Episcopal Church where his Christian life is centered. Many Christians whom I know to have serious problems with classical eucharistic language, however, will need more help in dealing with liturgical language than Borg offers in this book.

Sixth, there are a few places where Borg offers a more detailed proposal for guiding churches leaders. His discussion of the classical creeds includes the explanation of what the language intends to say and how it continues to function as poetic metaphor rather than as hard statements of literal fact. He shows how these metaphorical statements can be used today. He also proposes (contrary to what his Episcopal Prayer Book tradition would allow) that the classical creeds be used less frequently and that other statements of faith also be used in the regular worship of churches.

I like this book despite a considerable degree of disappointment. It is serving me well as devotional reading day by day. I will be recommending it for use in classes for teens and adults. It can be handed to people interested in learning more about the Christian faith.

I earnestly desire that pastors and worship committees will read this book before they take a machete to the language of worship, especially the language around the Lord’s Table.

9 Responses to How to talk like Christians (and why we should)

  1. Marvin Eckfeldt says:

    Well said Keith. I heard Borg a week ago in Seattle tell about why he wrote the book. It is a a great read. I recommend along with “Speaking Christian”, folk read Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” to blow open the dualistic heaven/hell, good/bad, in/out judgementalism which we have infected ourselves so much with! Thanks again for a good read.

  2. Bob Cornwall says:

    Thanks Keith — You have put your finger on the primary issues of our day and how Borg points us in a new direction. However, I guess you’ll have to write the book to flesh out the question of Eucharistic language!!

    • Bob, a book on the subject is brewing, but whether it will ever come to a boil is not clear. A while back I developed a 65-page manuscript with the title “Patterns of Faith in a Table-Centered Church,” and I look at it again every now and then. More recently, I have been revisiting the form and language of the eucharistic prayer, with two issues in mind: the irregularities of Disciples practice and the challenges posed by literal-minded progressives. As I listen to some of the conversation, I am beginning to think that some people in progressive churches–lay and clergy–will face one or the other of two courses of action: abandon eucharistic worship or convert it into a meal ceremony of togetherness, to become Word-centered Protestants or Unitarians along the lines that some of students used to describe.

      • Bob Cornwall says:

        Abandoning our Eucharistic Practice would mean losing something extremely important, I think! The togetherness aspect is important, but it’s not sufficient to sustain the practice. Might as well just move on to Coffee hour!

  3. Jeff says:

    Keith, is the eucharistic element’s absence the bulk of the “considerable degree of disappointment” you reference there at the end of the piece, or what else left you feeling shortchanged in Marcus’ book? Just curious.

    • Jeff, to be sure that I’m not misunderstood, I want to reaffirm that I agree with Borg’s approach and find his expositions of authentic meanings helpful and persuasive. Some parts of the book provide all that needs to be said on the topic (for me, at least). Some parts, however, and the eucharistic discussion in particular, stop too soon. It seems clear to me that Borg believes that when the theological interpretation of these terms is done well, regulars in worship understand them and can use them. Some ideas and some liturgical texts, however, hymns especially (and I would say the soteriology that is deeply embedded in earlier Lutheran and Episcopal eucharistic prayers), is difficult to reclaim. Most pastors would be helped by suggestions for dealing creatively with these matters, both in their preaching-teaching ministry and in their preparation and leading of worship. There is also the problem of novices in worship who have not yet had time to learn the authentic understandings that Borg represents. The Willow Creek model is that all such language is stripped away from the weekend events, which are designed to appeal to seekers rather than to satisfy believers. Believers have to come back, say on Wednesday night, when the liturgy can use explicitly Christian language without “offending” seekers. Most pastors, including some in the mega-church movement, are unwilling to define Sundays by the seeker model. These are the pastors who are looking for ways to reclaim the language that can be reclaimed and to develop alternatives for the language that is so problematic that it seems unusable.
      Back to the eucharist: Although the Words of Institution appear four times in the NT, only Matthew’s version includes the reference to the forgiveness of sins. Yet, most eucharistic liturgies include a comprehensive version of the Words, that includes Matthew’s addition. Some stay with Matthew’s plural–sins–but others convert it to the singular–sin. While I am willing to go with singular or plural, I find it easier to discuss sin as the state in which we all live than sins, the specific examples of that state in our lives. One contemporary liturgy that does not include the Matthew interpretation is UCC Service I, Option A (Book of Worship, p. 47). By adopting that version of the Words, one of the problematic portions of the text would be set aside.

  4. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Thanks, Keith, for your reflection on Borg’s most recent book “Speaking Christian”. I picked up a copy at Powell’s City of Books shortly after being published but only started reading it yesterday after your & my weekly Friday breakfast with the Pdx 1st Xian Friendly Old Fellows gathering. Thus I’m not yet in a position to offer an evaluation of his effort.

    Suspect I am one of your alluded to Christian friends who has some difficulty with much of Christian language in general, and in particular, “problems with classical eucharistic language”, as commonly understood by, I suspect, most of the laity & perhaps by even a significant portion of the clergy in the typical local congregation. So based on your review, I might indeed “need more help in dealing with liturgical language than Borg offers in this book.” But will say it is an easy & stimulating read thus far. Also, BTW, one of the reading groups in which I participate, last night decided to take up “Speaking Christian” as our next book to read & discuss.

    One memory I might have shared already with you. Not all that long after J.Irwin Miller (industrialist & Disciple layperson) became the first lay president of the National Coucil of Churches (1960-63), I remember reading excerpts of a speech he gave (the occasion escapes my memory) printed in the Sacremento Bee newspaper, while visiting my parents on leave during my two year draft obligation in the U.S. military (’61 & ’62) after spending some time on Prospect Hill in New Haven, CT, at Yale. I never have forgotten Mr. Miller suggesting that the Christian faith community needed to *both* reclaim the vitality & breadth of biblical & postbiblical Christian language, *and* perhaps *also* explore new exciting ways to *expand the language of Christian faith*. This expansive observation by layperson Miller in the early ’60s fully resonated with me then, and *still* resonates with me today.

    Possibly the alternatives are more than Borg offers on page 17 & following, to *either* “Redeem” *or* “Replace”. On a wide view of human experience, I’m more of an advocate of “Both – And” that Miller suggested than of “Either – Or” that Borg seems to suggest early on in the book (with much for me to yet read). Or, to put it another way, I suspect that the language of worship, including “language around the Lord’s Table” can be made more relevant to human experience in the 21st century, without on the one hand using “a machete to the language of worship”, or on the other hand using language in which “the heart of Christianity collapses and worship becomes increasingly bland.”

    Keith, I have lost track over my life journey of the number of thoughtful disciples (& Disciples) of Christ who more or less have disengaged from the church, at least in part, because the language commonly used in worship *and* as commonly understood by most sharing in the same worship, placed them in a virtual different space.

    *Life* is continually evolving and dynamic. The language we use to communicate the deepest meanings we experience in our existence, in my view, also needs to continually evolve and be *dynamic* & existential, rather than be fixed and grounded in the past.

    When Dr. Borg asserts on page 18 that “being Christian means speaking Christian. To cease to speak Christian would mean no long being Christian…Speaking Christian is essential to being Christian”, he projects an impression that he *knows* how I need to talk about my deepest spiritual yearnings & experiences, in order to be considered Christian. He exhibits far more confidence on this matter of how to *talk* Christian than I.

    • Rod, thank you for your comments here and our continuing conversation in other venues. Your positive comments to some things I have said under the title of “Fluid Retraditioning” lead me to think that we agree much more than we disagree and that we both are reaching out for strong theological instruction and thoughtful, progressive liturgical language and practice. Your last paragraph rests on the idea that the adjective “Christian” is broad enough to include a wide spectrum of belief, practice, and “spiritual yearnings & experiences.” I agree, but my question is this: Is Jesus necessary to the broad definition? Or is “Christian” now to be understood as deep spiritual yearning and experience regardless of the content? If the former, then Borg’s point (although in a very limited way) is made. There is at least one word-Jesus-that we have to be able to speak in order to be called Christian. Without that word, we may be spiritual in a deep way, but some other title has to be assigned.

  5. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Keith, I fully concur — from our many conversations over the years since you moved from Arizona back to the beautiful Pacific Northwest of your youth — that “we agree *much more* than we disagree and that we both are reaching out for strong theological instruction and thoughtful, progressive liturgical language and practice.”

    My Christian *theocentric* faith in response to your specific question, is communicated effectively many times over the years by Marcus Borg in his many books (I’ve 12 or more of them, all devoured & mutilated with marginal comments) and in numerous of his lectures and seminars I’ve participated over the years, at both Oregon State University and at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, where he presently is the resident Canon Theologian.

    Two examples where Marcus Borg & I are on the same page (many more could be cited), are:

    1) “I do have convictions. And they’re both relative and absolute. I know that anything I say about them, what I can put into words, is relative — we are products of our time and place, and we can only see as much as we’ve seen. In another sense, they’re absolute. For example, I can’t imagine being shaken from my conviction that ‘the way,’ the way to live, is to center in God — and for me as a Christian that means *to center in God as known especially in Jesus*. So that’s my conviction — even as I know that there are only culturally specific ways of talking about that.” (page 265, “Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith”, Marcus Borg, HarperOne, 2011)

    2) “In the Bible and premodern Christianity, faith and believing are not about affirming the truth of statements (about God, Jesus, and the Bible). Rather, they are about commitment, loyalty, and allegiance, and not to a set of statements, *but to God as known especially in Jesus*. Perhaps the best single synonym for *to believe* is *to belove*.” (page 16, “Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power — AND HOW THEY CAN BE RESTORED, Marcus Borg, HarperOne, 2011).

    I personally, since a philosophy major at Chapman University in the ’50s, have found it unhelpful non-integrative cognitive *and* faith dissonance, to be asked to repeat week after week during public Celebration of Christian Communion: “This cup is the new covenant of my blood which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin. Drink ye all of this.”

    Borg can talk until *the cows come home* about the power of *metaphor.* I’m somewhat steeped over a lifetime in the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, Joseph Campbell, Karl Jaspers, Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Black Elk (about by others), and to various extent, they all, as I recall, speak of the power of myth, metaphor & symbols, *and* that some metaphors, et al, are less nurturing and integrative than others. For me personally, some of the myth/metaphor poetic language used in the Words of Institution for the Celebration of Christian Communion, is not integrative with my *Christian* world & life view. Granted, I no doubt represent a distinctive minority view, among those who remain active in the institutional church.

    I have yet to get far into Borg’s “Speaking Christian”, but I suspect from reading your review, that his treatment of classical Christian eucharistic language, will be less helpful than I anticipated. But then I’ve grown to expect to receive a lot of nurture from his books. For 20 or so years I have considered Borg our most articulate Christian *public* theologian, in the integration of heart and mind. A couple of friends, have even called me a Borg *aficionado*. 🙂

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