Marcus J. Borg : The Heart of a Christian

Marcus-Borg-3-10-2014-2ndThis past Wednesday evening, January 21,2015, my wife Janie and I along with countless others were saddened to learn of the death of noted follower of Jesus, theologian, professor, author and speaker Marcus Borg. Author of countless books on Jesus and living the Christian life, Mr. Borg has been a huge influence on my wife’s and my life. Of his many books, my favorite is The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, published in 2003. On the first pages, Marcus writes: “I write with both conviction and passion. The conviction: Christianity makes sense….The passion: to communicate this way of seeing to those for whom an earlier understanding of Christianity makes little or no sense. They number in the millions. Some have left the church, the so-called ‘church alumni association.’ …Others remain within the church but struggle with the beliefs they learned in childhood… And some,especially many under forty, have never been very involved in the church and find little in Christianity that attracts them, but often are hungry for a source of meaning and values….To use words I owe to my wife, Marianne [an episcopal priest], this is a book ‘for lovers of faith and those seeking a faith to love.’  ”  In other words , on both counts , this is a book for me, and is why I return to it over and over again.

In a heart-felt tribute to Marcus, his friend Brian McLaren speaks for many of us when he says:

it also gave me the chance to eavesdrop on what people were saying to Marcus. Person after person said almost the same words, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be a Christian today … I dropped out of church but came back after I read one of your books … I’m still a Christian because of you … I became a Christian because of your books.”

Ironically, I had been thinking a lot about Borg’s writings ever since reading a Facebook posting 10 days ago by an acquaintance of mine, celebrating his atheistic secular child raising abilities:

From an article in the L.A. Times by a professor of secular studies : “For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule. Treating other people as you would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative. And it requires no supernatural beliefs.”

And my friend’s response:

Exactly! My wife and I are raising 3 children in a secular environment. While we have many of the same struggles as any family, I believe our kids are on the path towards being good people for the sake of being good people. No promise of heavenly reward, no supernatural surveillance, no cow towing to recycled mythologies. Simply not being an asshole goes a long way.

And so this caused me to ask myself: is it good enough to be good? ; why does Jesus matter? My mind was spinning. And then I recalled just this past Wednesday morning, one of the most memorable and beautiful days of my wife Janie and our married life that occurred because of Marcus’ writings : it was a bleak, moderately cold mid-March Saturday morning  years ago here in Indiana. I had been reading The Heart of Christianity and I had just finished reading chapter 6, Born Again: A New Heart. It blew me away and so I wanted to share it with Janie. So we bundled up, wrapped ourselves in fleece blankets and sat on the back deck where I  read Marcus’ Born Again chapter to her. What a peaceful ,wonderful time , when Jesus was truly present with us.

An excerpt from a sermon that Marcus preached  in 2002 that is almost exactly chapter 6 on why we need to be “Born Again:”
The whole process of being born again is about dying to that false self and being reborn into our true self. Being born again involves dying to that [self-centered,self-absorbed] identity, dying to that way of being, and born into an identity centered in God, Christ, the Spirit. This experience can be sudden and dramatic. It is for some people. Some people can name the day or the week or the month in which they felt a radical change in their lives occur in relationship to God. But for the majority of us, I suspect, it is a more gradual and incremental process, a process that goes on throughout a lifetime–perhaps a process that occurs several times in a lifetime in periods of major transition. Indeed, it is even sometimes a daily rhythm in that daily remembering of God or reminding ourselves of the reality of God that can raise us up momentarily out of our self-preoccupation and burdensome confinement.
That day in March years ago and just this past Wednesday on the day of his own death, Marcus Borg taught me again “that God is real and a mystery. In speaking about God, its most concise crystallization is in words attributed to Paul in Acts: God ‘is not far from each one of us. For In him we live and move and have our being'(17:27-28).” And Marcus reminded me that  Jesus indeed matters, for “Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. He is the revelation, the incarnation, of God’s character and passion– of what God is like and what God is most passionate about. He shows us the heart of God.” Mr. Borg’s dear friend John Dominic Crossan says “Jesus is what God looks like in sandals.”
Returning to my friend and the Facebook post.He is a member of what is apparently the largest Christian denomination in North America: disaffected ex- Roman Catholics. Again,”No promise of heavenly reward, no supernatural surveillance, no cow towing to recycled mythologies.” My friend should re-study Marcus’ teaching. If he did he would know this vital principle: when reading the stories of scripture, one can argue about whether or not they are factually or historically true, but tell me what they mean, which is more important. Likewise both Marcus and his friend and colleague N.T.Wright would ask of my friend :  “Tell me what God you don’t believe in?” Invariably it is as Wright puts it: ” a being who lives in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally intervening to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. again I had a stock response [ and so did Marcus] for this very common ‘spy-in-the-sky’ theology: ‘Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.’ No, Marcus Borg and Tom Wright would say,’I believe in the god I see in Jesus of Nazareth.'”
But the quote from Marcus that describes this typical attitude by “atheists” expressed in this Facebook post is found in Borg’s last book, Convictions : p48-49:
But there is a third conviction:I am convinced that there are no intrinsic conflicts between the intellect and Christianity, reason and religion. When there are, they are the unnecessary product either of a misunderstanding of religion and its absolutization or of the absolutization of a nonreligious world view. Often both: most of today’s ‘new atheists’ contrast the least forms of religion with their ROBUST CONFIDENCE that contemporary science has the ultimate word on what is real . [emphasis mine]
I think that describes my friend’s remarks and attitude to a tee. Notice the same reactive, angry, fundamentalist certitude of angry atheists like Bill Mahrer. Fundamentalism and certitude is the  bane of all religions,  i.e. ” the least forms of religions ” including the religion of atheism.
To finish this blog post on a more positive note,  Janie and I had the pleasure of meeting Marcus Borg at a meeting on Progressive Spirituality in Denver in October of 2012, featuring Marcus and our friend, singer, song writer, activist and Quaker Carrie Newcomer. In the first session on Saturday morning at a old Gothic classic Presbyterian church Marcus spoke to 350 of us on the difference between so-called conservative and progressive Christianity.
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During the break he signed my well underlined copy of The Heart of Christianity.Then he stood on the steps of the nave of this magnificent old church at the start of the second session in which he talked about “the Christian left”, about politics and restorative justice.
And he began this second session with reciting , not singing,  a new song that he heard on a trip to North Carolina called “She Left Me for Jesus.”  Now picture, if you can, this distinguished scholar in this classic old church as he recited the words of this song like a poem:
We”ve been dating since high school, we never once left this town.
We use to go out on the weekends and we’d drink ’til we drowned.

But now she’s acting funny and I don’t understand. 
I think that she’s found her some other man.
Chorus:
She left me for Jesus and that just ain’t fair.
She says that He’s perfect, how could I compare?

She says I should find Him and I’ll know peace at last
. If I ever find Jesus, I’m kicking His ass.
She showed me a picture all I could do was stare
. At that freak in His sandals with His long pretty hair
.
They must think that I’m stupid or I don’t have a clue
. I’ll bet He’s a commie or ever worse yet a Jew.
She left me for Jesus and that just ain’t fair. 
She says that He’s perfect, how could I compare?

She says I should find Him and I’ll know peace at last. 
If I ever find Jesus, I’m kicking His ass.
She’s given up whiskey and ah taking up wine
.While she prays for His troubles, she’s forgot about mine
.
I’m a gonna get even, I can’t handle the shame
.Why last time we made love she even called out his name.     [Yes, Marcus even read this verse. It was hilarious]
She left me for Jesus and that just ain’t fair.
She says that He’s perfect, how could I compare?
She says I should find Him and I’ll know peace at last
.If I ever find Jesus, I’m kicking His ass.
It coulda been Carlos or even Billy Ortez
.But if I ever find Jesus
, He’s gonna wish He was dead, Amen
Then Marcus began his talk on politics and the fact that the Kingdom of God is totally different from empire and the domination systems of this world. He recited statistics about the overwhelming military might of the U.S. and the money we spend on” defense.”
The fact that the U.S. of A. claims the right to initiate premptive war; that we are the new Rome. Then I believe he took out a dollar bill and announced that it said on the piece of  U.S. currency “in God we Trust.” And then he paused for effect, and said “bull shit.” He meant, of course, that we really trust in power and money, not love, restorative and distributive justice and non-violence and love of enemy that Jesus taught, lived, and died for.
A few months ago, when I was wallowing in self pity over  my continued and ongoing pain from the last years’ surgeries and wondering again “what was in it for me ” in believing and trusting in Jesus. (It was Marcus who taught me that faith did not mean believing in a list of facts about Jesus, but about “giving my heart to”, “trusting in “, “beloving not believing”.) I came across this paragraph in Convictions and again Marcus helped me to be born again:
Imagine that Christianity is about loving God. Imagine that it’s not about the self and its concerns, about “what’s in it for me,” whether it be a blessed afterlife or prosperity in this life. Imagine that loving God is about being attentive to the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Imagine that it is about becoming more and more deeply centered in God. Imagine that it is about loving what God loves. Imagine how that would change our lives. Imagine how it would change American Christianity and its relation to American politics and economics and our relationship to the rest of the world. Imagine how it would change our vision of what this world, the humanly created world, might, could, and should be like.
I wished I could have known Mr. Borg personally, but I have been blessed to be able to read his work, watch many of his videos, hear him speak in person, and listen to his recitation of “She Left Me for Jesus”. I am sure I will return again and again to his work for guidance and inspiration. Thank you  God for the life and work of Marcus J. Borg.
I conclude with the last paragraph from the last book that Marcus wrote:
What’s it all about? What’s the Christian life all about? It’s about loving God and loving what God loves.It’s about becoming passionate about God and participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world, here and now.And the future, including what is beyond our lives? We leave that up to God.

 

 

 

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