The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
--Psalm 27:1 NRSV
I was raised with one understanding of Christianity, a conservative Evangelical view. To be Christian meant “to be saved” from Hell and to have eternal life in heaven. I was “saved” by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus died for my sins and everyone’s sins, because God was above all just. The penalty for our sins (which meant individual actions contrary to God’s will) was death. God loved us, so God’s son Jesus was sent to die in our place. This was a free gift of God, but I had to accept Jesus Christ as my “personal savior” to escape Hell Any form of so-called Christianity that did not teach the faith this way was not “true” Christianity. Needless to say, any other religion was also “false.” Our job as “true Christians” was to convince others they were wrong, so they wouldn’t go to Hell.
Along my faith journey, much has changed in my understanding of Christianity. The biggest change of all, probably, is my understanding that the Evangelical Christianity I was raised in is largely a modern invention having been created in the last several centuries. A Christianity concerned chiefly with individuals and their individual choices leading to an eternity in heaven was not the primary concern found in scripture.
I came to this broader understanding of Christianity through being a religion major in college, attending seminary and spending several years in a New Testament Ph.D. program before I turned to local church ministry. A common refrain among clergy is that this broader understanding of Christianity is taught in most non-evangelical seminaries but never makes it to church pews. I believe the Evangelical worldview is deeply embedded in American Protestant Christianity, and most clergy value job security over doing the difficult work of teaching and leading their congregations to consider a different way. Also, tools for Christian education from a non-evangelical perspective have largely ceased to exist—Bible study guides, Sunday School literature, and individual devotional guides have largely become the province of Evangelical Christianity alone.
As a minister to congregations who are theologically middle of the road to progressive, I have struggled to find resources for church members who essentially have a reactionary faith. By reactionary faith, I mean they know what they do not believe (Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity), but they are hard pressed to articulate their faith in terms of what they do believe. It turns out, there are a multitude of ways to articulate Christianity in terms that are not the same words as the Religious Right, but unfortunately, you have to work hard to discover them.
This week in my emails to PHCC, I am going to share ideas from one resource for Christians looking to articulate their faith in new ways: Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their meaning and Power—and How They can Be Restored by Marcus Borg. This is one of Borg’s books aimed toward a popular, rather than academic, audience. It’s accessible and I think it’s solid, unlike much of Borg’s more scholarly work.
Borg would summarily be declared a heretic by Evangelicals, and truth be told, I’m not a fan of much of his academic writings. Borg, who died in 2015, was a part of The Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars active in the early nineties who sought to discover the “Jesus of history” rather than the “Christ of faith.” The problems with this effort are too many to list here, but I’d simply say it is fraught with logical inconsistencies and a general lack of self-awareness. I wouldn’t recommend any of Borg’s stuff on the so-called “historical Jesus” (e.g. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary)
Yet, later in Borg’s career, he became a popular writer and speaker who did a very good job of articulating a form of Christianity that I believe is more faithful to scripture and Christian tradition than most of what is preached and taught in American Protestant churches today (e.g. The Heart of Christianity and Speaking Christian). In these later works, I read a pastoral sensitivity and desire to redeem Christianity from its current American form rather than merely deconstructing it.
In Speaking Christian, Borg notes the crisis in contemporary American Christianity and says its causes are two-fold. The first cause is illiteracy, or a lack of knowledge about basic symbols, language and scripture. The second cause is a form of literalism that distorts Christianity by narrowing down the possible understandings to a select few. The result is an exclusive faith focused on individuals getting eternity in heaven rather than a communal faith focused on transformation of the world here and now. The former version, the version taught by Evangelical Christianity, is being rejected by younger generations at a dramatic rate, and because those younger generations do not know there are alternative forms of Christianity to choose from, they are thus rejecting Christianity altogether.
An example of the alternatives Borg describes comes in his chapter on “salvation.” Borg notes that “salvation” expressed as only eternity in heaven comes with a negative flipside, the majority of humanity spending eternity in Hell. Even in churches that downplay this side of “salvation,” many who are taught it experience anxiety, fear and in some cases spiritual abuse due to feeling responsible for getting “saved” and making sure their loved ones are “saved” too. This limited view of “salvation” is being roundly rejected, and I would argue rightly so.
Instead, Borg argues we should look to scripture where “salvation” is primarily described not in heavenly terms but in down-to-earth and here-and-now terms. Borg lists the following dominant understandings of “salvation” in the Bible.
Unfortunately, holding to these broader and immediate understandings of “salvation” will result in any who accept them being branded ‘liberal” or “politically correct.” I would argue, however, that taking back the word “salvation” from the Religious Right is actually a more conservative position, if one understands “conservative” as meaning faithful to tradition and scripture. Of course there is the very real danger of Christians reading contemporary movements into ancient traditions and texts, but I feel the greater danger is a Christianity that is largely irrelevant to the social, political, economic and environmental crises of our day. Worse still is an exclusive Christianity unconcerned with the problems of real people that contributes to today’s problems of oppression and injustice.
The choice between the Christianity of the Religious Right and no Christianity at all is a false choice. The well of Christian tradition and scripture is deep and offers room for many different perspectives that have everything to do with the problems we struggle with as individuals and societies.
Grace and Peace,
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