Saturday, August 21, 2004

Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, 2003.

It’s taken me too long to sit down and write this review. In part, that’s because I went away for a bit, on a canoe trip, and was busy beforehand organizing details & then busy afterward getting used to work again. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m ambivalent about this book: only the deadline of the book being due back at the library today has forced me to sit down for a few minutes.

I was introduced to Borg’s book back in February; the Archdeacon Bob Grigg spoke about it for his talk during our parish’s Lenten book study. At the time, I thought that, while the book sounded interesting enough, it didn’t rate rushing out to add it to my collection—principally because of how it seemed to be summarizing a number of ideas that I know fairly well. So I reserved it from the library, and just a few weeks ago, changed my hold status to active, and picked it up.

It summarizes a persuasive liberal reading of the Bible and of faith fairly well. The book doesn’t really build substantively on anything, or offer any new insights, though. My impression is that Borg has written a book that serves as an introduction, or as a starting point, for discussions/Christian Education sessions in parishes.

Borg’s essential argument is that Christianity today exists in two paradigms, with adherents falling into one or the other. There is the traditional paradigm—which he identifies with a literal reading of the bible, the school of the Left Behind novels, to which he refers so derisively and far too often—and the emerging paradigm that is more liberal and willing to accept metaphor as a basic tool for reading the Bible. He then elucidates what it means to be a Christian of the emerging paradigm.

My first major issue is with the idea that the traditional paradigm is in any way traditional, and not an approach to Christianity that started to gain its force within the last two hundred years; similarly, the emerging paradigm is hardly new—look at the authors of Essays and Reviews, the higher criticism, or, I don’t know, say, St. Augustine’s four-fold levels of exegesis (literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical)?

Borg doesn’t even contrast the two views especially well: the book is a defence of the emerging paradigm, and snide asides and attacks on the traditional method without ever acknowledging limitations in the emerging paradigm concern me: while I’m pretty much right there agreeing with him, I reject the idea that other approaches to faith have nothing to offer the growth of my own faith.

What he does, in the end, is to offer an explication for his own personal faith, and supports and defends most of his own positions relatively well—certainly well enough for an introductory text, if these ideas are new to a discussion/class-group.

My other major issue is with the writing; it feels sloppy throughout. There are a number of issues that better copy-reading and editing should have addressed, but most of my issues are with the never-ending stream of colloquialisms and just plain wacky constructions. While I understand the desire to write a readable and readily-accessible text that sounds much like conversation, such a text can be achieved without these distressing features.

So. Having written far more for this entry than I meant to, my summary? Read three books by Northrop Frye, and you’ll be in far, far better shape (and know far, far more than Borg will teach you): The Great Code, Words with Power, and The Double Vision. If you’re looking for a book to teach from, they’d still be better, but this is decent for a church setting.