“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.