Thursday, August 05, 2010
Review of Marcus Borg's "Putting Away Childish Things"
When I received a offer from Harper One to review a free copy of Marcus Borg's new novel, Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, I was intrigued.* I have never actually read anything by Borg before, but I've heard a lot about him. Mainly I've heard that he is an almost stereotypical theological liberal - a member of the Jesus Seminar that questions the historical authenticity of the gospels, the physical resurrection of Jesus, and probably his divinity as well. On the other hand, I also knew that he was friends with NT Wright, a more conservative scholar whom I very much respect, and so I figured that if the two of them could get along, Borg probably wasn't such a bad guy, regardless of whether or not one agreed with his theology.

And to be honest, while I have been "emerging" out of conservative evangelical theology myself for the past decade or so, in many ways I'm still very "conservative" in my theology (perhaps "historically orthodox" would be a better term). All that to say that while I am sympathetic to the kinds of questions Borg raises, and while I have moved away from the kind of Christianity that he likewise rejects, I can't say that I'm exactly on the same page with him either. It's just that the answers I've found in asking the questions are different than the answers he's arrived at.

The difference, in my opinion, at least based what I can tell from this novelized form of his ideas, is modernity. Borg still seems to be swimming in the Enlightenment stream, with all of it's assumptions about how humanity has simply "outgrown" certain kinds of beliefs (e.g. miracles, a personal God, divinely inspired scripture, etc.). For instance, at one point in the book, the main character, a Religion professor at a small Midwestern liberal arts college, tells an evangelical student who is struggling with her faith that Christianity is "not very much about believing things that are hard to believe," that it's more about simply "centering more and more deeply in God."

While I agree that Christianity isn't primarily about believing in the right doctrines, and that centering in God is a very good thing, on the other hand, I don't see why the "difficulty" of certain beliefs are necessarily reasons to chuck them either. Furthermore, in this book at least, Borg never really gives an argument about why certain beliefs are necessarily more "difficult" anyway. In the story, he has the professor teaching a class entitled "Religion and the Enlightment," where she touches on the way the Enlightenment brought into question assumptions about the Bible, about Jesus, and about the meaning of faith itself (a few whole chapters are more or less transcripts of the professor's lecture during these class sessions). But she never really says why we should prefer the Enlightenment view to other views. Borg just seems to assume that modern is better.

The thing its, I, and many other emergents that I know, consider ourselves post-modern - that is, we question the universal validity of the Enlightenment worldview as well. Sure, we'll entertain the questions that an Enlightenment worldview raises against certain Christian beliefs, but we're not so quick to assume that the Enlightenment thinkers must be right and traditional views must be wrong. (C.S. Lewis, whom Borg apparently thinks very highly of, called that "chronological snobbery.") On the other hand, we're not going to automatically privilege tradition either (which is where I get into trouble with my more conservative friends - and even some of my more creedal mainliner friends). In fact we're often more likely to land on a "both/and" than one or the other.

For instance, at one point in the novel a couple of Borg's characters get into a discussion about Jesus' miracles, specifically the feeding of the multitudes. Citing 19th century German theologian David Strauss who first put forth these arguments, Borg's characters suggest that when we stop to imagine how the miracle could have actually happened (i.e. what would we have observed if we were actually there?) anything we could come up with is patently absurd and "impossible to imagine as actual events." Thus, argues Strauss, we ought not bother with the question of whether or not such miracles actually happened. Whether one thinks they did or not, the question misses the point. The point, for Strauss (and also for Borg), is the symbolic meaning of the stories - what deeper truths they tell us beyond a mere historical record of events.

And I agree with Borg - the important thing in the biblical stories are these deeper meanings - and yet I still don't see a good reason to necessarily reject their historical factuality. Perhaps I'm simply not "modern" enough, but trying to imagine the miracle happening doesn't actually strike me as inherently absurd or impossible. I guess what I'm saying is that I just don't seem to resonate with the concerns Borg raises. I don't see why a biblical story can't be a historical event AND have a deeper meaning. I'm not saying that every biblical story has to be a historical event to be meaningful, but neither do I see why some of them couldn't be historical as well. Nor do I think that the question of historicity is entirely irrelevant. At times, the "deeper meaning" of a story may in fact change depending on whether or not it actually happened at some point. History and historical events are themselves meaningful. A completely ahistorical Christianity (which I don't think is what Borg is arguing for) is a very different religion from one that is embedded within the historical record and portrays faith as something intrinsically bound up with the movements of history. And indeed, in the end, Borg's definition of faith was a bit too overly-individualized to me (again, a common trait of modern religion, of both the liberal and conservative varieties) - focused mainly on personal religious experiences, but without a clear sense of how God is, and has been, and continues to be working for justice and peace and the ultimate reconciliation of all things in and through human history as well. (Something I didn't find much of in my conservative upbringing either to be honest.)

But to be fair, I should repeat that this is the first book of Borg's I have read, so I can't say that he never addresses those aspects of faith - just that they didn't seem to be strong themes in this book.

At any rate, as a story, the novel was engaging enough, though I'm probably personally biased by the fact that I am myself an aspiring professor of religion - I want to be the characters in this book someday! That being the case, I really enjoyed this inside look at what the life of a religion professor can be like. However, I'm not sure how interesting this will be to folks who don't resonate quite so strongly with the main characters. The whole book is essentially about the main character's decision whether or not to accept a position at a different school - about her struggles back and forth, and all the complicating factors that get thrown into the mix. Beyond that, the book doesn't really go anywhere. In fact, it ends once she makes the decision. Borg uses the character's dilemma to illustrate what he understands "having faith" to be all about. At the risk of potentially giving away the ending, I'll just say that he distinguishes between faith as assensus, fidelitas, and fiducia, and clearly prefers the latter to the other two - another either/or where I'd prefer to have a both/and.

Besides' the main character, Kate Riley's, class sessions and conversations, Borg also uses a series of conversations among several other secondary characters (some other professors, some students at the college) to lay out his other ideas, and this is where the book becomes quite didactic (which Borg fully admits and makes no apologies for in the introduction to the book). In fact, the best comparison to this novel is Brian McLaren's New Kind of Christian series - a fictional story whose main purpose is to raise questions and communicate ideas. The plot, and in Borg's case, realistic dialogue, are entirely secondary. At times I really felt like I was reading Borg's own lecture notes. Not that I really minded. As long as you go in knowing that about the book, and not expecting great literature instead, it's no big deal. Like I said, I still enjoyed the book and felt engaged with the story right up through the end.

Bottom line is that this book is a worthwhile read if you happen to be struggling with some of the same kind of "Religion vs. Enlightenment" questions that Borg's characters are, or if you'd like to see a "real life" example of how his own approach to faith would get played out in a person's life. Some of the questions he raises and the experiences he describes will definitely resonate with many emergent folks like myself, and others as well I'm sure, whether or not they ultimately find Borg's answers satisfying. About the best thing I can say about this book, however, is that it has intrigued me to read more of Borg's other, non-fiction, stuff. Now that I've gotten the "light" version, I'd like to dig in a little more and see if my impression that he is still too wedded to an Enlightenment mindset is actually the case. After all, in a novel like this it is sometimes hard to tell what is the author's actual opinion and what belongs solely to his characters.

If I've intrigued you enough to read it now yourself, you can order your own copy of Borg's book here.

* While this book was a freebie, I should give disclaimer that that fact in no way affects my judgment or review of the book. As I've said before, if you honestly think I would sell out my convictions and integrity for a $26 book, then why are you even reading this blog in the first place?

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posted by Mike Clawson at 9:23 PM | Permalink |


At 8/07/2010 10:56:00 AM, Anonymous Jonathan Brink

Nice review Mike. I was asked to review the book too and declined. From reading yours I think I would have come to the same conclusions.

A friend of mine suggested that one of the fundamental frameworks of the Jesus Seminary is the idea that nothing can break natural laws, which excludes miracles, virgin birth, etc. This idea struck me as interesting but ultimately wanting. But it did help me understand where Borg and Crosson are coming from.


At 8/30/2010 10:25:00 AM, Anonymous Nate


I wanted to comment on this earlier, but I enjoyed your review, and I resonated with your frustration in the face of shibboleth-questions from rationalists and from fundamentalists. Although I've not yet hit the point where I'd say such things out loud, I often find myself wondering in exasperation how such things as denying the possibility of strange phenomena became so damn important to some people.

Anyway, I do enjoy when you get a chance to post, so keep writing, man!


At 8/31/2010 05:25:00 PM, Anonymous jamie

You might check with Dr Borg, but my suspicion is that he would disagree with very little of what you have written.


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At 1/25/2011 08:18:00 PM, Blogger tmamone

I thought "Putting Away Childish Things" was pretty boring. "Reading the Bible Again For the First Time" is better, although I don't agree with everything Borg says (mainly the Resurrection).


At 7/05/2011 10:51:00 AM, Anonymous kvinnor

Thanks for such an informative article, it's been very useful.


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