Monday, November 04, 2013

BookPastor >> "Speaking Christian" (Marcus J. Borg)

TITLE: Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power - And How They Can Be Restored
AUTHOR: Marcus J. Borg
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011, (256 pages).

Have you ever heard of "Christian Talk?" It is a kind of language that uses familiar Christian words marinated in Christian Church culture. Some people call it "Christian Speak"or "Churchy" language. Instead of letting words communicate what they mean, Christian Talk communicates a particular culture, that often distorts what the words actually mean. This book aims to bring back the true meaning of the words so often misused and even abused. According to Marcus Borg, Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland as well as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Oregon State University, there are two reasons why the words have been misused.

First, the words have often come under the interpretive umbrella of "heaven and hell," which becomes the proverbial hammer of use that sees everything as needing salvation. As a result, Christians have unwittingly reduced the gospel to mere salvation. The four main elements of a "heaven-and-hell framework" are:
  1. Afterlife: Instead of becoming a Christian in order to be reconciled with God, Christians see the reason for being Christian is to go to heaven.
  2. Sin and Forgiveness: Many see these two like a sickness and medicine arrangement. The sin of sickness need to be medicated with the pill of forgiveness. This is contrary to seeking purity and forgiveness from God for the sake of honouring God.
  3. Jesus Dying for our sins: People see Jesus dying as the purpose of him coming, forgetting that Jesus is first and foremost, doing God's will. It is Jesus' obedience to God that is key, not man's wish to be saved.
  4. Believing: Core emphasis here is that people must have faith before they can go to heaven. 
All of these four elements tilt the understanding of words such as 'salvation,' 'saved,' 'saviour,' 'sacrifice,' 'mercy,' 'repentance,' and others, to drive home the erroneous point that the main purpose of Christianity is to avoid hell and to go the heaven.

Second, the emphasis on literalization of language which locks one's understanding of the words to modern minds instead of appreciating the ancient or original use of the words. This means people understand the biblical words not from the original perspective, but from a 21st Century perspective. In doing so, biblical cultural nuances are forgotten. Arguing that the concept of 'inerrancy' and 'literalism' is more modern than ancient, Borg argues that our modern understanding of these words is due to a reaction against the waves of the Enlightenment. That is why modern minds reading parts of the Old Testament such as the Garden of Eden, words from the Prophets, salvation of Israel, and other biblical stories will find them quite "incredible." Borg urges a return to historical appreciation, to see such truths not in absolute terms in the modern mind, but "relative" to the original contexts. This does not mean "everything is relative," but simply points to the need for more accurate contextual reading of the Bible. Understand whether the Bible is written metaphorically or literally. Are the images symbolic or parabolic (story led)?

The bulk of the book is devoted toward word redemption. Here is a list of some of them:
  • Salvation: Modern minds think "going to heaven." Biblically, it means "liberation from bondage" of all kinds; transformation of people and the world; bringing justice.
  • The Bible: The Greek root for Bible means 'little books.' Modern minds have used the phrase "Word of God" to be equated with infallibility, with absolute word-perfect status, and even as one big book called the canon. Historically, the Bible is a canon of sacred writings. Biblically, the Word of God is used less as a literal device, but more toward the Person of Christ. The Bible is not simply a document but a "manger in which we can find Christ."
  • God: Sometimes the way we refer to God is not as reverent or reflective of who He actually is. We like to say God is here or God is over there, as if God is some object within some human understanding of space-time continuum. Remember that in Christ all things hold together? Just think about God's existence as the pivotal truth of our own existence. We are totally dependent on God, and recognize that God is beyond our definitions of human descriptions.
  • God's Character: God is not Someone indifferent nor threatening and harsh. God is loving and life-giving.
  • Jesus: Instead of referring to Jesus as historical or the Christ of faith, Borg urges for the use of "Post-Easter" and "Pre-Easter" Jesus. Whatever the title, Jesus is and always is Lord.
  • Easter: Many see Easter as simply a fact-based literal event. Instead, the biblical understanding of Easter is about Who Christ is. Focus not on events but the person. Focus not on the facts but the Truth of life.
  • Believe and Faith: Pre-modern meanings of believe is about faith in a person. Modern understanding tends to be statements
  • ...

The author initially wanted to call his book, "Redeeming Christian Language," only to realize that the word "redeeming" also needs to be redeemed. Borg also applies this corrective frame of thought toward the doctrines and creeds of the Church used through the years. Focussing on the Nicene Creed as an example, Borg tries to help readers deal with some of the objections surrounding the profession of the creed as an absolute statement of faith. He points out that the Nicene Creed is historically a "subversive act" that tries to dethrone all other gods except Jesus. Instead of treating every word in the Creed literally as absolute representations, Borg asserts that the creed is a "language of poetry, not the language of literal factuality." Believing essentially means giving our hearts to. Rather than "believing" with our heads, it is more accurate to recognize the creeds as something we "belove" with our hearts. No human creeds are absolute. Only God is absolute, and our expressions of faith in God will reflect the cultural and contextual sensitivity people live in. Borg also tries to reform the understanding of rituals like the Lord's Supper. He makes a valid point that controversies over the understanding of transubstantiation (literal change of elements); consubstantiation (physical presence with the elements); and other disputes are 15th to 16th Century happenings. The words spoken by Jesus when celebrating the Supper happens under the context of a shared meal, symbolic, metaphorical, and participation.

So What?

I appreciate the contributions by Borg to re-examine some of the common words that Christians have sometimes taken for granted. Some of the other worthy take-aways include:
  • Christianity is not about mere ticket to heaven, but includes living a transformed life on earth;
  • How we use Christian terms and vocabulary matters because they are essential expressions of the faith. Misusing it can affect the way we live out our Christian lives
  • The words used can help us fuse our emotions and mental understanding of Christ
  • We need to reclaim the proper use of the "Christian words" that they do not get cheapened
  • Using words well demonstrate a healthy respect for the words used, and to appropriately reflect our faith.
It is a reminder that using "Christian words" do not necessarily make one more Christian. Neither is the failure to use "Christian words" make us any less Christian.



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