Interview with Marcus Borg on ‘Speaking Christian’

Marcus Borg’s latest book ranks with his earlier volumes, The Heart of Christianity and Embracing an Adult Faith, as inspirational efforts to renew and rebuild Christianity by healing long-standing wounds and welcoming millions of alienated men and women. The new book has a long title: Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored.

Want a quick overview of the new book? On Monday, we published an excerpt so you can read Marcus’ own words describing his purpose. Today, we welcome Marcus back to the pages of ReadTheSpirit to talk with us directly about the challenges of Speaking Christian, today.


DAVID: Sometimes words in the Bible are—wrong. That’s a dangerous thing for clergy to stand up and say in American churches, yet that’s one of the main messages of your work, these days, in trying to revive the church and bring millions of alienated people back to the richness of Christianity. So, let’s start with that basic line: Sometimes the Bible is wrong.

MARCUS: I would love it if every clergyperson would stand up and say to their congregations: “Sometimes the Bible is wrong.” There is a taken-for-grantedness in conservative American Christian culture—and it’s true, I think, in much of mainline Christianity today as well—that understanding the Bible is simple. And, if the Bible says something is wrong, then that pretty much settles it. There are very few Christians who are willing to stand up and say: Sometimes the Bible is wrong. Yet, I think that’s really important for Christians to say occasionally.

DAVID: Now, before some of our readers start throwing things at their computer screens, let’s remind them that what you’re saying actually makes a lot of common sense—if we stop to think about the whole scope of the Bible.

MARCUS: Obvious examples are passages in the Bible that say slavery is OK. And, there are some passages in the Bible that absolutely prohibit divorce. In Mark 10:9, it’s complete. Matthew has an exception clause: except for reasons of adultery.  Then, there are clearly passages in the New Testament that expect Jesus to come again very soon from their point in time. Now, 2,000 years have passed. There are so many more examples where in plain terms we need to say: Sometimes the Bible is wrong.

DAVID: If people stop and think about this, down through history, they may recall examples in which people have done this. There were famous abolitionists who literally cut out the pro-slavery passages in their Bibles. Then, there was Thomas Jefferson who took a razor to his Bible and cut out passages that didn’t make logical sense to him. In the fall of 2011, the Smithsonian is going to publish a new edition of The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. If we remember earlier examples like these, then we begin to realize that there’s quite a tradition of admitting: Some passages in the Bible are wrong.

MARCUS: I think it’s vitally important for people to talk about this in churches but it’s so difficult for clergy to do. And, in fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches that affirm the sole authority of the Bible, that is very difficult for anyone to admit. It would startle most conservative congregations: What do you mean the Bible is sometimes wrong? Where will our authority go if we start saying that?

There’s also a second problem preventing people from talking honestly about things that are wrong in the Bible. That’s the taken-for-grantedness in which the church says: If something has been this way for centuries, then on what basis can we change this centuries-long ethos. Not too many years ago, it was all about: How can we possibly ordain women?

DAVID: You and your wife are Episcopalian, part of the Anglican communion, but we should remember that more than half of Christendom still won’t ordain women. Add a billion Catholics with half a billion Orthodox and it’s true: Most Christians still can’t get past the centuries-long ban on interpreting the Bible as preventing the ordination of women.

MARCUS: I think it’s also reinforced by the way the Bible is read each Sunday morning. Almost all of the lectors who get up and read from the Bible end by saying: “The Word of the Lord.” Then, the congregation usually responds: “Thanks be to God.” But, that exchange is confusing to people. It underlines the idea that we have just heard divine authority. And I don’t have any problem with affirming “the Word of the Lord,” as long as Word is capital-W singular. In the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer they say: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” That’s somewhat better in clearing up this common misunderstanding.


DAVID: And that leads us right into Speaking Christian, your new guidebook to dozens of words and phrases that are so frequently misunderstood that you argue Christianity is becoming a faith divided by a common language—with a salute to George Bernard Shaw for adapting his original line on the British and Americans, two people divided by a common language.

MARCUS: Let me echo the words of Paul, who says we have this treasure in earthen vessels. I think the NRSV translates it as we have this treasure in clay pots. I see the words of the Bible as the earthen vessel. The words are a human product, made of the earth, and yet within this earthen vessel we have this treasure of divine wisdom, this treasure of our spiritual ancestors, the stories and experiences and insights that mattered to them—as well as the limited understanding and sometimes even blindness of our spiritual ancestors.

DAVID: We just published an interview with Richard Rohr, who talks about how he started life almost as a fundamentalist, then he went through all the complex intellectual responses to scripture that come with a seminary education and he became something of a skeptic. But now he likes to talk about how he finds a story like the Genesis creation story profoundly true, but on “about 10 different levels” that he wouldn’t have understood as a youth.

MARCUS: I am very happy to say it this way: The Genesis stories of creation are profoundly true, but they didn’t happen the way they are described in Genesis. I think that’s what Richard Rohr is saying, too. These stories are true on levels other than literal readings. That’s one thing.

But there’s another thing I’m talking about: There also are some passages in the Bible that, even when we understand them perfectly—they are wrong. Just to pull out one example: In 1 Samuel 14, God commands Saul to kill all the men, women and children of the Amalekites, a neighboring people with whom they are at war. Now, I can’t believe that God ever commanded anyone to go do that. Kill all the babies? I don’t think there’s any point in trying to explain away that passage and say that somehow God isn’t commanding actual death. No, the verse is perfectly clear. It says God commanded Saul to go kill all the people, including the babies. And I think we must say: That’s plain wrong. God never commanded Saul to go kill infants.


DAVID: What I find fascinating about your new book—and I think will spark a lot of discussion in Bible-study classes—is that in many cases you’re arguing against beliefs that sprang up long after the Bible. As you’re trying to reclaim the spiritual power of this sacred language, you’re saying that a lot of the distortions came much later. And one of those big distortions you write about is the “heaven and hell framework.” We just published a series of stories about this red-hot issue that’s swirling around Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins and Lisa Miller’s book on Heaven.

MARCUS: Yes, I’m convinced that the primary culprit distorting Christian language in our culture is this heaven and hell framework—even moreso than the problem of literalizing scripture. Heaven and hell Christianity has an even greater distorting effect.

In reading about the controversy over Rob Bell’s book, we are seeing that his critics really understand the word “salvation” to mean one thing: getting to heaven. Thus, the whole charge that arises against him from these critics is that he believes in universal salvation. These critics are accusing Rob Bell of saying that everybody gets to go to heaven—regardless.

What I’m really struck by in all of this controversy is the identification of the word “salvation” as referring to something that happens after death. That’s one of the central themes I write about in my book. An emphasis on the afterlife has been a part of popular Christianity in this country for centuries. That strong emphasis has distorted the original meaning of salvation. Now, the word means just going to heaven. In the Bible, the word salvation hardly ever means that. The controversy over Rob Bell’s book is an emphatic underlining of this distortion that has taken place in Christianity.

If you look at what critics are saying about Rob Bell, you’ll find that one of the common complaints is: Unless there is a hell, then there’s no reason to be a Christian. The whole point of Christianity, these critics say, is determining where we’ll go to spend eternity. When I read that, I think: Oh, my God! Think how deeply engrained this distortion is in so many people’s minds. These days, Christianity is regularly described as a religion of the afterlife.

Now, I’m not denying the afterlife. I say that clearly in my book. But I am saying that this overemphasis on the afterlife as the sole purpose of Christianity is a distortion.

DAVID: Readers will need to get your book to read your whole analysis about how this problem distorts our richest spiritual language. But give them just a little sense of what salvation really means in the Bible—and in Jesus’ teaching as well.

MARCUS: I want us to reclaim this word: salvation. The word has extraordinarily rich meanings: liberation from bondage, homecoming, life rather than death, sight to the blind, healing of the wounds of existence—and there are more.

DAVID: Why have so many evangelists, including some of Rob’s critics, jumped so strongly on this need for heaven and hell preaching to continue?

MARCUS: A lot of popular Christianity, these days, is fear-based religion. And it relates to a lot of American politics that is fear-based politics. I would wager that half of our population, or maybe more, lives in bondage to fear: financial fear, fear of terrorism, fear of the rest of the world, so many fears. Jesus taught that salvation means being liberated from fear. We don’t help anyone by pushing forms of Christianity that brandish the fear of hell over people’s heads.

DAVID: When you describe the rich meanings of salvation, you’re talking here about far more than a line or two from Jesus’ preaching. These powerful meanings of salvation run through the whole Bible.

MARCUS: Yes, it’s deeply rooted throughout the whole Bible. Salvation as liberation from bondage comes straight out of the story of the Exodus and the Exodus is the most formative event in ancient Israel’s history. Then, probably the second event that most shaped the Jewish bible was the experience of exile in Babylon. That story of exile creates an understanding of salvation as return, reconnection and homecoming. Also scattered throughout the Bible, you have images of salvation as having one’s eyes opened. Jesus talks about this. There are other forms of salvation, too. In Psalms, salvation is primarily about deliverance from our enemies or deliverance from serious illness or from other threats like this. You know, the idea of salvation as just an afterlife, this heaven and hell framework, doesn’t even appear in the Old Testament.

And, when we do get to the New Testament, salvation sometimes does mean an afterlife, but most of the time the word has these other meanings that run throughout the Bible.

DAVID: This is a tough struggle. And it takes a lot of talented and courageous clergy and lay leaders and Bible-study teachers.

MARCUS: It does. But, I don’t want to see us give up this language that is so important to the meaning of Christianity and its message for our world. I want to help people reclaim it. When we truly understand some of these words I am describing in this book, it can bring us great joy and, with it, we find release from our fear and anxiety.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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