Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Review

Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally Synopsis: Churches argue about stuff.  Sometimes they argue about the Bible.  This is a book about that.

Most Christians who have been in conservative circles for any amount of time are aware of arguments in Biblical interpretation (i.e. differing opinions of how to read Genesis 1, views on predestination, Calvinism, the role of women, etc.). These “in-house” discussions tend to dominate the horizon in many conservative communities.  Sharing a set of presuppositions – the inerrency of Scripture, the Divinity of Jesus, etc. – the conversation tends to stay within these boundaries.

But while plenty of congregants have spent time thinking about what the Bible says, many have not engaged in the wider discussion about what the Bible is.  Marcus Borg, in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, wants to push the discussion away from Biblical minutiae, and talk about the wider topic of how we see our Scripture. What, fundamentally, is the Bible?  And how should we read it?

Borg spends significant time framing this debate (especially explaining the difference between a Conservative view and a Liberal view), and then expands on each portion of Scripture, articulating how to read each section from his (Liberal) point of view.

Conservatives will hate him, Liberals will (sometimes uncritically) rally around him.  I like to come up with nicknames for him and his followers … How about “The Borg Collective” (for all you Star Trek fans)?  Let’s get into the book…

Overview: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is broken down into 3 “Parts.”  In Part I : Foundations, Borg lays out the Conservative / Liberal divide and argues for the Liberal view on how to look at Scripture.  In Part II : The Hebrew Bible, he takes a close look at Israel’s Creation narratives, the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and Israel’s Wisdom.  Finally, in Part III : The New Testament, Borg looks at the Gospels, Paul, and Revelation.  The heart of this book is in Part I.  If you don’t buy into Borg’s “lens” for reading the Bible, you won’t really care what he has to say when he talks about individual portions of Scripture.  I’ll give an overview of Part I, and then you can go read Parts II and III yourself:)  I also have a pretty in depth look at Part I of this book on the “Contrasting Paradigms” section of the site.

Part I: Foundations

The first part of Borg’s work is further broken down into 3 Chapters, I’ll summarize the first two.

Chapter I: Reading Lenses

In the first chapter, Borg contrasts two different ways (or different “lenses) of looking at the Bible, expounds on what the “old” or “traditional” way looks like, and then lists several reasons why he thinks this way of viewing Scripture won’t work in today’s age.

For Borg, the traditional lens for understanding Scripture can be understood by looking at 3 aspects of the view.  He summarizes the traditional lens as follows:

1. Origin – The Bible is a divine product.  Such is the natural or immediate meaning of how the Bible has been spoken about by Christians throughout the centuries.  The Bible is the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit; it is sacred scripture.  The Bible is thus not a human product, but comes from God in a way no other book does.

2. Authority – The Bible is therefore true and authoritative.  The truth and authority of the Bible are grounded in its origin.  As a divine product, it has a divine guarantee to be true and must be taken seriously as the ultimate authority about what to believe and how to live.

3. Interpretation – The Bible is historically and factually true.  In a state of natural literalism, it is taken for granted that what the Bible says really happened.  The only exceptions are manifestly metaphorical language, such as “mountains clapping their hands with joy.”  Natural literalists can recognize and appreciate metaphor.   But when the Bible seems to be reporting something that happened, it happened.  Moreover, believing in the factuality of the Bible takes no effort; in a state of natural literalism, there is no reason to believe otherwise.

This model for understanding what the Bible is has led to a Christianity that is: (1) literalistic, (2) doctrinal – being a Christian means believing the “right doctrine,” (3) moralistic – especially with a focus on original sin and how sinful each person is deep down, (4) patriarchal, and (5) exclusivistic – Christianity is seen as the only true way and, for some, those outside the church will end up in hell unless they convert.

Although Borg realizes that not every Evangelical or “Traditional” Christian would agree with all of these points, and recognizes that there are nuances to these beliefs for each Christian and each congregation, he believes that these points fairly summarize the traditional lens … it is a familiar scheme of seeing the Bible for most.

For Borg, this paradigm won’t do.

Because of our cultural context, we need a new way of looking at Scripture.  In today’s society, we are: (1) uniquely aware of religious pluralism, (2) aware of historical and cultural relativity, (3) “modern”, shaped by the Enlightenment and scientific discovery, and (4) on the verge of postmodernity, and see that even modernity is culturally conditioned – thus we turn to “experience.”  These facts have made living with the traditional understandings of the Bible and the kind of Christianity that it creates, impossible for many North American Christians, including Borg himself.

Chapter II: The Bible and God

In Chapter Two, Borg lays out a new (most would say “Liberal”) model for understanding the Bible and contrasts it with the Traditional lens.

1.  While the Traditional understanding sees the Bible as a Divine Product, a Liberal model sees Scripture as a human response to God, a totally human product.

The alternative, of course, is to see the Bible as a human product – the product of two ancient communities.  The Hebrew Bible is the product of ancient Israel.  The New Testament is the product of the early Christian movement.  What the Bible says are the words of those communities, not God’s words.  To see the Bible as a human product does not in any way deny the reality of God.  Indeed, one of the central premises of this book is that God is real and can be experienced…

I see the Bible as a human response to God.  Rather than seeing God as scripture’s ultimate author, I see the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to their experience of God.  As such, it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves.  As the product of these two communities, the Bible thus tells us about how they saw things, not about how God sees things.

2. While the Traditional model sees the Bible as totally Authoritative due to its divine origin (what Borg calls a monarchical model of biblical authority), a Liberal model sees the Bible as Authoritative in the sense that it is the continuing dialogue partner of the Christian community (what Borg calls a dialogical model of biblical authority).  It is a common set of books, decided on by a given community, and therefore the shaper of that community.

To be Christian means to live within the world created by the Bible.  We are to listen to it well and let its central stories shape our vision of God, our identity, and our sense of what faithfulness to God means.  It is to shape our imagination, that part of our psyches in which our foundational images of reality and life reside.  We are to be a community shaped by scripture.  The purpose of our continuing dialogue with the Bible as sacred scripture is nothing less than that.

3. While the Traditional model interprets Scripture more or less literally and looks at Scripture as the holder of factual truths, a Liberal model interprets Scripture more figuratively and looks at the Bible as a sacrament.

The word “sacrament” also has a broader meaning.  In the study of religion, a sacrament is commonly defined as a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced…

The goal is not to systematize and find right doctrine, the goal of reading Scripture is to experience God and “hear what the Spirit is saying” through the words of our spiritual ancestors.

In Chapter III, Borg goes on explain how to read the Bible with a “Historical-Metaphorical approach.”  In the rest of the book, he expounds on sections of the Christian Scriptures using this approach.

Personal Takeaways:  The strongest part of this book is the breakdown between two models of understanding what the Bible is, and the different “Christianities” (liberal and conservative) that stem from each.  Borg’s thoughts in this area really helped me understand what I could do with Scripture after the Traditional model became unconvincing.  The idea of Scripture as a Sacrament has been very helpful for devotional purposes.

Ultimately this is one of the books, and Borg is one of the authors, that former Evangelicals can turn to to make some sense out of faith if their original paradigm has fallen apart.  In my opinion, this is by far Borg’s best work (as I find his historical Jesus research unconvincing).

Final Thoughts:  Hardly a better place to understand the differences between “Mainline” or Liberal Christianity and Conservative Christianity.  How you see what the Bible is, and how you therefore read it, will determine what you think the Christian faith is all about.  I don’t necessarily recommend all of Borg, but most definitely do recommend this one.

For a sympathetic liberal review, check out Anthony David.  For a more conservative perspective on Borg, check out the series by Carl at TheologicalPursuit (link goes to his criticisms, but he also summarized various chapters in previous posts).  I’ve also got a great video of Borg on religious pluralism posted here.