Christmas is coming and, with it, the annual complaints about our need to recapture the Christian story that once was at the heart of what has become a mostly secular season in the U.S.
This year, popular Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg plan to help Americans do just that with “The First Christmas,“ a nine-chapter exploration of “What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth.” After the popular success of their earlier book for the Lenten season, “The Last Week,” which was picked up by preachers and discussion groups nationwide, itâs certain that their new book will be widely used as well.
We are already aware of two large United Methodist churches that will make some use of the book later this year: St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan. If you live in those regions, watch their web sites for schedules of programs and discussion groups.
(AND PLEASE, if you’re aware of any programs involving this new book across the U.S., Email Me with the information so we can share it with our readers. Later this year, we will have a more convenient place in our Web site to list regional book-discussion groups. But, if you know of an event: a series of sermons, a discussion group, a special program about this book – or other books we are covering -- PLEASE let us know.)
Well, the holiday is coming fast so, without further delay, here is the first part of our Conversation With Marcus Borg:
DAVID: I read a pre-publication manuscript for “The First Christmas,” which Amazon starts shipping this week, and it’s a perfect follow-up for all those readers who journeyed with you through the Bible passages about Jesus’s “Last Week.”
MARCUS: I’m happy to spend this time talking with you about the book, because you know I travel a lot and speak in many places, mainly churches these days, and I haven’t started giving talks on this book yet. Talking with you today is a good opportunity for me to sort out what I want to say to people about this book.
DAVID: First, there may be some people who still associate your name with the era 15 or 20 years ago when you were mainly in the media as a member of the Jesus Seminar. I reported on your work back then for the Detroit Free Press, and my stories were picked up around the United States, sometimes drawing some strong criticism.
But I know that you were a group of Bible scholars trying to bridge the gap between the scholarly world and the assumptions about the Bible out there in the public media. You weren’t trying to undermine people’s faith. A lot of people praise your work. Last week we featured an interview with Frederick Buechner, who said you were his favorite author on the Bible these days. And younger writers like Rob Bell praise your work, too.
But I think a lot of people were so jolted by some of the things the Seminar reported that some of them still associate your name with a sense of feeling threatened in their Christian faith.
Actually, I think this new book may surprise a lot of readers with the strongly inspirational tone in many of the chapters. This is a pastoral book.
MARCUS: Yes, I think it is going to be helpful to a lot of people in churches. I just spoke at St. Andrew United Methodist in a suburb of Denver, a church of about 3,000 members. They had 500 people in small groups read my book, “The Heart of Christianity,” several years ago. They just had me visit to talk to them.
They told me they’re going to be using “The First Christmas” as an Advent program and will be having hundreds of people read that book.
CRUMM: I have introduced you at a couple of your lectures at churches and I’m always amazed to see the almost palpable sense of hope that you draw out in your readers. They come in large numbers to hear you and what you talk about is a faith that’s deeply a part of your life and has a bright future.
There may be some people who tended to write off your books back in the 1980s and early 1990s who may want to take a fresh look at what you’re really saying.
MARCUS: Yes, I think some people may be confused about my message. But I do see more continuity than discontinuity between what I’m writing and saying now and the earlier stages in my writing and scholarly life.
I was trained basically as a historical-Jesus scholar some 40 years ago, not that I was done with my training back then. We continue to study. But I was in a training program where the focus was on the historical Jesus.
The very nature of that work compels us to look at the distinction between what is historically factual vs. what portions of the Bible are really later testimony of the early church writing about Jesus. Those distinctions sometimes are difficult for people to think about.
But my interest in the historical Jesus was always part of my larger interest in finding out what it means to be Christian. I am a historian with a strong contemporary theological interest. It’s never been foreign to me to talk about what Jesus meant for his followers, even though my focus in my early academic work was on exploring what we could say historically that Jesus himself said and what Jesus himself did.
CRUMM: So, as you sorted out these issues – trying to examine which portions of the Bible accounts were historical fact and which portions were statements of faith about Jesus — you began to attract this very large and very loyal audience.
Tell me what you know about your audience. Who follows your work, as far as you can tell?
MARCUS: My primary audience for quite a number of years now has really been Christians and those interested in Christianity. I would say 90 percent of my trips as a lecturer are to church audiences and clergy conferences. Only 10 percent of my trips are to talk to academic settings, anymore.
I like that proportion. I am much more interested now in talking about what all of this scholarship means for Christians than I was, say, 25 years ago when I was still trying to establish myself in the academic world – everything from getting tenure to being recognized as a scholar by my peers. The focus then was on historical scholarship without much emphasis on its possible contemporary meaning for Christians.
CRUMM: That’s the gap you were trying to close back in the early 1990s with the Jesus Seminar.
MARCUS: Well, if you’re in a seminary, you can write with an emphasis on what this all means for contemporary Christians. But, if you’re in an academic setting in a university or a major graduate school, you don’t write books for the church unless you’re already an established scholar.
CRUMM: This distinction you make is an important one. Not every Christian sees it this way, but I want to explain it so that readers understand it. That is, you say that some details in the gospel stories, especially in the Christmas stories, may not be historically factual. But you say these are, nevertheless, sacred stories from the early church about the way they thought of Jesus and his life.
MARCUS: Yes. If we say that something in the gospels is not historically a quotation from Jesus – that it is probably the voice of the early church in the story – then I still believe that this is equally of importance to us, because it tells us what Jesus had become in the early church. This is important testimony about Jesus and what he represents to the church.
We’re not trying to throw away material.
DAVID: In writing about the stories surrounding Jesus’s birth, I appreciate the way that you and Dom Crossan try to blow away all of the holiday pixie dust that seems to have been sprinkled across Christmas. You lead people through a careful look at some of those passages that I’ll bet a lot of readers completely overlook — for example, those subversive passages in which Mary talks about things like God “bringing down the powerful from their thrones” and “He has lifted up the lowly.”
MARCUS: This was strong stuff at that time. Most people today are familiar with some of the lines, for example, when the angel comes to the shepherds and says, “For unto you this day in the City of David is born the savior who is Christ the Lord.”
But people don’t realize that 2,000 years ago, people heard words like these and they knew that this kind of language about “Savior” and “Lord” and “one who has brought peace upon the Earth” — these words were all part of Roman imperial theology. These very phrases, these very words, are used to describe the Roman emperors.
Those messages, like the one from the angel, were directly countering the dominant religious and political ideology of that time. When people said Jesus was the son of God through divine conception, people knew that also was a story told about Caesar Augustus, as a son of god by divine conception.
So, point after point, these birth stories challenge head on the imperial theology of the day.
DAVID: It might be like calling Jesus our Commander in Chief today, perhaps, or using other language and imagery taken from our political system to jolt people’s thinking about their faith.
MARCUS: Yes, that’s a fair way to describe it. But the Christian message was pointing toward the nonviolent power of God and they were contrasting that with the violence of empire. That is an important part of what is going on in these stories.
It’s a contrast between the Roman imperial program and what you could call the program of Jesus and the kingdom of God. The Roman imperial program is peace through victory — and the program of the kingdom of God, or the program of Jesus and of early Christianity, was peace through justice.
DAVID: And now we’re seeing some of the obvious parallels between these messages in the nativity stories and our world today. This contrast between a peaceful pursuit of justice and a more military pursuit of victory — that’s still with us.
MARCUS: There’s still a stunning contrast between the two programs.
I always say that we’re not interested in partisan politics in our books. Let’s imagine we elect a Democrat in 2008. If we do, this whole set of issues we’re talking about here will not have suddenly gone away. These issues about the perils and pitfalls of empire will be part of the next administration as well, whether it is Democratic or Republican.
What we know from history about what happens to empires is obvious: All the empires of the past are gone. There’s still an England by the British Empire is gone. There’s still a Russia but the Soviet empire is gone. And what is it that leads to the fall of empires? Pretty consistently, you can say, they overstretch themselves out of that wonderful Greek word Hubris — puffing yourself up to inordinate size.
What I’m saying is not about any single president. This isn’t George Bush bashing.
But the Christmas stories raise these themes.
DAVID: The Christmas stories wrestle with these ideas in such rich language. There’s that wonderful line in Mary’s song where she explains that the Earth’s powerful rulers almost are unable to help themselves in their overreaching. She sings, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” as if they’re so caught up in their own dreams of power, they cannot see clearly, anymore.
MARCUS: I love that line, too. It can be “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” or the “imaginings of their hearts.” In the ancient Greek it means that they’re so puffed up that they can’t imagine they would ever be overturned. They can’t imagine that any power could defeat them.
To be puffed up in the imaginings of our hearts is to imagine that we are in control, we are invulnerable. I’m not talking about the United States specifically here, but this lesson applies to many of the powerful.
DAVID: I have to salute you, as well, for actually – maybe for the first time – getting me fascinated about the genealogies included in the gospel stories. I’ll confess, I usually skip over those.
MARCUS: Yes, the title of our chapter is “Genealogy as Destiny.” Of course, the real punch in those genealogies is the way people could compare these extraordinary genealogies to the genealogy associated especially with Caesar Augustus. Listing a genealogy like that suggests that it builds a certain destiny into the very DNA of a person.
I remember a passage with which Stephen Ambrose begins his book, “Undaunted Courage,” about Meriwether Lewis. He says he was born in this cabin in eastern Tennessee with a window facing west. That’s not genealogy, but it’s an overture like these overtures about Jesus’s birth. You read that and you know something great is going to happen.
And with that, we’ll take a break in this Conversation With Marcus Borg. In the final portion of our talk, Borg turned to one of the other loves of his life: Murder Mysteries! So, COME BACK tomorrow for an unsual look at why so many religious leaders and scholars seem to enjoy settling back with a great detective yarn!
COME BACK on Friday, as well, for readers’ views on our recent coverage of spiritual movies. Lots of readers have added nominations to our growing list of thoughtful films.
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