Marcus Borg's latest book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power-And How They Can Be Restored ranks with his earlier volumes, The Heart of Christianity and Embracing an Adult Faith, as efforts to renew and rebuild Christianity by healing long-standing wounds and welcoming millions of alienated men and women. David Crumm spoke to Borg about the challenges of "speaking Christian" and reviving the church.
"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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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.
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.