Marcus Borg: An Intellectual Hero of the Church

I was so sorry to read that Marcus Borg died yesterday. (See: Marcus Borg, leading liberal theologian and historical Jesus expert, dies at 72) I never met him, nor did I get to hear him speak (unlike so many other friends and colleagues), but some of his works have affected my theology and work as a theological librarian quite profoundly. Part of Borg’s genius was not only in what he wrote, but in how he wrote it. While a great many theologians and other religious scholars have written wonderful books (many of which I will review here in the future) they often don’t have the wider readership they may deserve, at least in part due to language that seems inaccessible to everyday people. Not so with Marcus Borg! Part of his vocation, it seems, was to write with the whole church – and even those outside of it – in mind.

I read his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, sometime during seminary. It was a while after having experienced the first semester anger at feeling like the church had failed me on an intellectual level, particularly as I tried to sort out what it meant to be a person of faith in a technologically modern and philosophically postmodern world. Much of what I encountered in that book was, then, no big surprise, though I was relieved to see yet another professor and pastor articulate the fascinating and sometimes uneasy coexistence between biblical and historical truths. He discussed those themes in ways that gently invited them into the world of biblical scholarship, calling people to “a deepening relationship with the God to whom the Bible points, lived within the Christian tradition as a sacrament of the sacred” (Borg, 2001, p. 18).

Again, in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (which was published before Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, but which I read afterwards) Borg thoughtfully integrates solid historical Jesus scholarship with authentic Christian faith and a very readable tone. He notes that “Believing in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines about him. Rather, it means to give one’s heart, one’s self at its deepest level, to the post-Easter Jesus who is the living Lord, the side of God turned toward us, the face of God, the Lord who is also the Spirit” (Borg, 1995, p. 137).

Both of the above books speak to a very wide audience. Borg uses theological jargon sparingly and discerningly and lets his readers know that questions and doubt are part of the human faith life. His work has been part of what has inspired my vocation. From very early on in seminary, I felt like I was being let in on a great many theological secrets, akin to joining some kind of exclusive club. As time passed, I became more and more aware that I was not learning these things solely for my personal enrichment and experienced a growing call to bring these “secrets” back into church life at large. If much of religion is a search for a truth greater than ourselves, it stands to reason that religious leaders could encourage people of faith to begin begin this search within religion’s history and the long intellectual conversations that make up theology and biblical interpretation.

Marcus Borg showed me that it was possible to make serious scholarly work enjoyable for a wider audience, and that such work is necessary for the healthy intellectual lives of congregations. It is in that spirit that BiblioMinistry came into being and continues on. Thank you, Marcus Borg for your contribution to biblical and theological scholarship, and for providing a great example for all of those who endeavor to engage in solid scholarship with the church in mind and in attendance. Your death leaves a void, but your life has been such a powerful witness to an integrated Gospel of faith, intellect, and action.

Borg, M. J. (1995). Meeting Jesus again for the first time: the historical Jesus & the heart of contemporary faith (1st ed.). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Borg, M. J. (2001). Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally (1st ed.). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
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Rebecca is a theological librarian (M.Div., Eden Theological Seminary; M.A., I.S.L.T., University of Missouri - Columbia) from St. Louis, MO with an interest in the intersection of theological and religious literacies and metaliteracy in the lives of all people, especially those of faith. Some of her Big Life Questions are "How do people of faith explore their faith questions; how can I support that exploration with proven and emerging educational strategies, research processes, and quality resources; and so informed, decisively act as disciples of Jesus in the real world in which we live?"