Marcus Borg….I actually think I cursed Him and asked God to strike down satan’s work when I first heard him interviewed with Dominic Crossan on NBC in 2006. They were talking about Jesus final week and Dom Crossan said Jesus’ body was probably thrown in a shallow grave and eaten by dogs…implication— the resurrection did not happen. You could see why as a young (22 years) hot-blooded cuban charismatic I called down imprecations.
What I did for the next 5 years was I naively lumped, Borg, Crossan, and all the other Jesus Seminar fellows into the demonic category, and relegated them to the dustbin when it came to my own thinking on Jesus. My simple thought was “These demonized guys had nothing to offer us in the church.”
It was my time at Western Seminary, combined with being on the mission of Jesus to high school students in Portland (who embrace conspiracy theories), that made me realize the importance of historical Jesus studies, and even most of the work that Borg and Crossan had done in their research and writing.
As I would simply share the message of Jesus with students, and other co-workers, I started realizing that most people on the ground in Portland are more skeptical about the Jesus tradition than Borg and Crossan. This was rather alarming! Yes, as I sought to engage people with this man from Nazareth, the conversation could quickly tailspin into religious pluralism, the Da Vinci Code, ethical hot button issues, politics, mayan prophecies, or aliens! At least Borg and Crossan could say things like, ‘Jesus was a man of the Spirit who opposed the corrupt temple establishment’ (Borg) or ‘It is bedrock that Jesus was crucified King of the Jews’ (Crossan). I found that common people, even the college educated, even public school history teachers, did not have much of anything to say when it came to Jesus of Nazareth. Why was this? How had the most towering figure in civilization been forgotten by the people of Portland?
As these frustrations ruminated in my mind I was working through a reading list on historical Jesus studies. One book I was reading edited by Dunn and Mcknight contained an article by Borg on Jesus and the Spirit. After reading the article I decided to digress from my reading list to dig a bit more on Borg. I picked up Borg’s doctoral dissertation from Oxford ‘Conflict, Politics, and Holiness in the teachings of Jesus’. After reading the work I was impressed by the rigorous social, political, and historical effort Borg had put into his reconstruction of Jesus’ life. I actually found myself saying at several points, “This is very helpful”. I then read Jesus; A new Vision and Jesus; two visions which I thought were both very helpful at many points.
From my reading, a basic outline of Borg’s thought on Jesus is:
- Jesus was a man of the Spirit (like Honi or Hanina Ben Dosa).
- Jesus vision at His baptism was a powerful experience.
- Jesus was a very successful exorcist.
- Jesus taught using parables and aphorisms.
- Jesus broke all the purity regulations disrupting the boundaries set up by the aristocracy.
- Jesus ministry was a petition against the temple elite, the power brokers.
- Jesus was crucified for His perceived revolutionary activity.
- Jesus tomb was probably not empty, but the community proclaimed him raised.
It is this basic historical sketch, that I find many people on the streets of Portland are not aware of. Evangelicals would nuance some of this basic outline, and disagree with some of the points, especially the empty tomb. By and large however, I came to discover that there is an agreed upon consensus even among ‘mainstream’ liberal, and conservative scholars on the outline of Jesus’ life.
After all this reading, I made an appointment to sit down for coffee with Marcus in the pearl (a trendy part of downtown Portland where Marcus lives). My conversation with him was chill. I simply asked questions to figure out what this man thought of Jesus. He had much evangelical bashing to do (and I almost wonder if he did this to test how I would react….pretty offensive stuff), but as we kept on the topic of Jesus life, and ministry, I found myself learning from most of what He said. Marcus and I have maintained email contact, and I enjoyed sitting with Him at ETS NW, as he scratched out his notes for how to respond to Craig Blomberg, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of how this man thought.
Since I have listened to Marcus first hand I now know the points at which we have similarities and differences.
Strong points of Disagreement:
1. Empty Tomb
2. His definition of religion as “a linguistic cultural phenomenon”
Strong points of agreement:
1. Jesus was a successful exorcist
2. Jesus broke all the purity regulations disrupting the boundaries set up by the aristocracy
3. Jesus ministry was a petition against the temple elite, the power brokers.
4. Jesus was crucified for His perceived revolutionary activities
Be sure to read first hand accounts of people you disagree with when you can make the time. You will learn!! Obviously no one has time to read stuff from everyone they disagree with on every issue (too many people, and too many issues).
Liberal Historical Jesus Scholarship can help us steer popular ‘conspiracy theorists’ back towards a more chastened historical approach to Jesus. An approach that agrees with much of the biblical portrait, even if it disregards inerrancy and inspiration. In this sense, liberal historical Jesus scholarship can aid in evangelism to a bewildered generation of people who can remember Dan Brown and Zeitgeist, but not Jesus of Nazareth.
I hate small talk. Prattling inanely with someone you barely know about things you find only marginally interesting, just doesn’t rank very high on my list of things to do. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a good conversation. On the contrary, give me a meaningful conversation, some significant dialog, or even a lively debate anytime. But, stick me in a room thick with the stench of small-talkiness, and I’m looking for the nearest exit.
Unfortunately, there’s a theological equivalent of small talk, and I think I saw it on full display just yesterday.
Let me explain. A really meaningful conversation requires at least four things.
- Unique identities. For a meaningful conversation to take place, you and I need to be different enough to create a “space” for the conversation. I don’t really need to dialog with someone who agrees with me. I already know what I think. At the same time, those involved in the conversation need to recognize the uniqueness of everyone else. In a good conversation, I’m not simply try to replicate myself by turning you into a (less adequate) clone of me. Instead, in a good conversation, everyone sees the other as valuable and as contributing something meaningful to the process.
- Owned perspectives. At the same time, everyone needs to have a perspective on the issue(s) and to “own” that perspective sufficiently to want to retain it. Have you ever tried to have a good conversation with someone who doesn’t care about what you’re discussing? It doesn’t work.
- Respectful pushback. The first two combine to form the third. If I respect you as a unique and valuable individual and if I respect the importance of the issue were discussing, then I need to push back if I think you’re wrong or misdirected on some point. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I have to be rude. But, it does mean that I’m not just going to let differences slide. I might do that with someone I have no interest in – the person in line behind me at the coffee shop, for example – but not someone whose unique value I claim to respect.
- Teachability. Finally, in a real conversation, all parties are looking to learn something. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re willing to jettison our own perspectives – we “own” those, remember – but it does mean that we see everyone else in the conversation as having something beneficial to contribute, to which we should all pay close attention.
If you think about the most dynamic and engaged conversations you’ve ever had, I’m guessing that you’ll see most (hopefully all) of these elements represented. At least, I hope you’ve had conversations like this. They’re fabulous experiences that should be repeated as often as possible.
Unfortunately, when Craig Blomgerg and Marcus Borg met at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was hoping for some real dialog. Instead, I think all we got was small talk.
Borg and Blomberg clearly have their own perspectives. No problem there. Indeed, they went out of their way to affirm the “other” in the conversation, and they were remarkably polite throughout. Unsurprisingly, they each “own” their perspective. They’re professional scholars who have written and debated these issues extensively. So, they clearly know what they think and hold to it with conviction.
The problem came with the lack of respectful pushback. Indeed, the problem is that there really wasn’t any. With two high-powered scholars like this, you’d expect to see a pretty dynamic give-and-take, as each takes a stand on issues that they feel strongly about. Instead, it felt more like the kind of get-to-know-you small talk that typically happens in the lobby before the session starts. They both explained what they think on a wide range of issues, and sought to clarify the positions of the other person. Indeed, Borg even said at one point that “understanding” was their real objective. Neither really stepped out and said what we all know they were both thinking, “You’re wrong.” Apparently we’re not allowed to say that anymore. And, sadly, without it, you can’t have real dialog. Understanding the “other” is fine, but by itself it is insufficient and unsatisfying.
The closest that we got to this was Blomberg making it clear that he thinks a future physical resurrection is fundamental to adequate Christian theology. Amen! For a moment I had a glimmer of hope that we’d see a real dialog take shape. Instead, he let it stand as a clarification of his own perspective. And, we lapsed back into “understanding.”
Let me be clear. I think good conversations need to be polite, but they also need to be respectful. And, those are not the same thing. Politeness says that I will not be rude and offensive in our conversation. (Yes, I realize that many historical theologians broke this rule regularly. I think they were wrong. See, I said it.) And, Brian LePort is right that everyone at the meeting was remarkably polite.
Respect is different. Respect says that I value you and this issue enough to take a stand and wrestle toward greater truth and clarity. Respect demands more than just understanding. Respect requires us to take a stand and say “no” when necessary, while still seeking to grow and learn through the interaction. If I truly see you as “other,” I respect you enough to tell you that you’re wrong.
I’d have liked to see more respect yesterday.
Indeed, I’d like to see more respect in theological dialog as a whole. What I think we often see today is politeness without respect, which is the perfect recipe for theological small talk.
At which point, I’m looking for the nearest exit.
I’m serving on the regional ETS committee for the first time this year. As a result, I will get to decide who we should invite to be the plenary speakers at next year’s NW ETS meeting. Last year we invited Nancey Murphy and John Cooper (and me) to present papers on the dualism/physicalism debate. This year, we’ll be hearing from Marcus Borg and and Craig Blomberg on the historical Jesus debate. So, we’ve been able to invite and attract some good people recently and I’d like that to continue next year.
I’d like to hear what you think. And, feel free to offer suggestions even if you don’t live in the NW and you know you won’t be attending.
So, please let me know, Who do you think I should invite to speak at ETS next year? Or, another way to approach this would be to tell me, What key issue do you think should be the focus of next year’s plenaries?
Our Northwest ETS conference will feature Marcus Borg (fellow of the Jesus Seminar, retired Professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University, and now Canon-Theologian Trinity Cathedral) and Craig Blomberg (Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary) will lead the plenary session by presenting papers followed by a dialogue on the topic of “The Search for the Historical Jesus: Two Views.” The afternoon session will have three parallel sections with papers on a variety of topics.
The conference will be held on Saturday, February 26, 2011 at Multnomah University in Travis-Lovitt Hall (Multnomah’s Seminary building). Registration will begin at 8:30 and the program will begin promptly at 9:00. $7.00 will cover registration cost. Lunch will be available at the Campus Dining Room in the Joseph Aldrich Student center. Prices for the all you can eat Brunch are $7.75.
We would like to have students contribute to evangelical scholarship in the Northwest by presenting papers in the afternoon sectional. Please submit the title of your paper along with a paragraph length abstract by email to Mike Gurney, Gerry Breshears, Marc Cortez (if you’d like informationon how to contact any of us, please leave a comment). Your paper can be on any topic of scholarly interest. For obvious reasons, it needs to be in our hands no later than February 1. We will use the abstracts to select the papers for presentation at the meeting. Include your name, institution and a telephone number and/or email address so we can contact you quickly.
As promised, Brian has posted some reflections on last night’s discussion between Marcus Borg and Paul Anderson on the subject of the origin of the Gospels. He led off with a post interacting with Borg’s tendency to claim a scholarly consensus for his positions, something Brian apparently finds a little annoying. And, he followed that up with a summary of Borg’s presentation. Brian does a nice job summarizing some things that he appreciated, while still concluding that Borg’s understanding of the historicity of the Gospels and the nature of the post-resurrection Jesus is just wrong. And, there will be a follow-up post summarizing Anderson’s counter-presentation, which emphasized particularly the historicity of the Johannine tradition.
Tonight here in Portland there will be a discussion/presentation featuring Marcus Borg and Paul Anderson. Borg is a popular historical Jesus scholar. Anderson, a professor at George Fox, is at the forefront of a movement of scholars who are revisiting the historicity of the Fourth Gospel. The subject will be the origin of the Synoptics and the Gospel of John. Both JohnDave Medina and I (who blog at Near Emmaus)will be attending so you can expect some discussion on that blog later in the week.
If anyone else in the Portland area is interested this event will take place at the Reedwood Friends Church located at 2901 SE Steele St. It is scheduled to take place from 6:30-8pm. For more information call 503.234.5017.