Back a few week’s ago, I received a copy of Marcus Borg’s newest book, his first fiction novel, entitled Putting Away Childish Things. The book’s publisher, HarperOne, sent me a copy for review. Thus follows my long and thorough review.
In the preface of the book, Borg begins by telling us something important about his first novel:
I candidly acknowledge that this is a “didactic” novel, a teaching novel. It is the only kind of novel I can imagine writing. I have been a teacher all of my life. My characters wrestle with issues of religion today, and in particular with what it means to be an American Christian in a time of major conflicts, both theological and political. (vii)
It is true, this novel is didactic. It has a teaching flavour where Borg specifically lays out, through the characters, his view on Scripture, on Jesus and the Gospels, and on the issue of homosexuality. There are other issues briefly addressed, such as whether Satan is a real person or not. But, for the most part, the aforementioned ones are probably the three most important.
But what I would add is that I cannot imagine any novel not being didactic in some form or fashion. It’s not just the C.S. Lewis’s and scholarly people of today who would write with a didactic purpose in their novels. It’s true of all – from children’s books to romance novels to theologically-shaped novels.
Still, I am certain that Borg was a little more intentional and purposeful in writing a didactic novel. Maybe he thinks that the ‘popular’ crowd will be drawn more to the book than, say, his more academic works (which, unfortunately, I have not been able to read as of yet). I personally can’t see this being as popular as, say, the recent phenomenon, The Shack. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the book is somehow utilised by Borg and others to get their message across to the ‘common person’.
The Setting of the Scene
I love the opening paragraph and setting of the scene:
On a Saturday in mid-December, Kate Riley locked the door of her office at Wells College in Willow Falls, a small town in central Wisconsin. Behind her, the click of the key in the lock signaled a final good-bye to a successful fall term. She had just finished assigning course grades to the students in her religious studies classes. Before her was a three-week break until winter term began. She relished the prospect of unscheduled time. (p1)
There are three reasons why I like the opening scene:
1) I love the winter time. There isn’t much better than keeping warm on a cold winter’s night, possibly with book and cup of your favourite warm beverage in hand.
2) I love academic settings. I remember when I visited my friend who was a student of King’s College at Cambridge University. It was drawing me to study again. Or when I would visit the seminary where I completed my Master’s degree, Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis (I did the degree via long distance learning). I considered moving to St. Louis to take a more intense and rigorous degree in exegetical studies.
3) I love the idea of the end of a term or semester or season, one that has been quite busy, and you have some wonderful down-time to relax, rest and refresh.
And, while not all of those 3 factors of the setting were able to be maintained, seeing as the plot of the book pushed past both the three-week break and the deep-winter weather, I was still engaged through the academic setting of the book. Not to mention that the main character, Kate Riley, found solace by heading to her favourite, and somewhat hidden pub, Murphy’s, to have a couple of drinks, relax with a cigarette or two, and write in her journal. I love heading to the local cafe in my town of Belgium to read, write, think, and drink a lovely Belgian beer (which I am even doing now as I begin this review).
So kudos on the setting.
The Conglomeration of Characters
The main characters are as follows:
- Kate Riley: Professor in the religious studies department of Wells College, which is not a religious institute but, nevertheless, has a religious studies department.
- Geoff Cooper: Colleague and closest friend of Kate’s, who is gay. His area of expertise is Asian religions with a specialty in Buddhism.
- Frederika ‘Freddie’ Adams: Rector of St. Columba’s Episcopal church and somewhat of a spiritual adviser to Kate.
- Martin Erikson: Professor at Scudder Divinty School, the seminary which offers Kate Riley a one-year professorship in New Testament. Kate got involved in an affair with Martin while she was an undergraduate student at another college some twenty years previous.
- Erin Mattson: Typical evangelical, Bible-believing university student who is part of The Way, the evangelical university group meeting on campus. Erin finds her beliefs being challenged during a semester’s class with Kate Riley called ‘Religion and the Enlightenment’. But Erin is willing and ready to reconsider the beliefs she currently holds.
- Amy Reynolds: Pretty much similar to Erin – evangelical, part of The Way, taking the same class taught by Kate Reynolds – but not as willing to reconsider her beliefs. By the end of the book, she is willing to rethink some things, but she remains fearful of what changing her beliefs might mean.
Outside some of the theology, which I will come onto in a moment, the main problem with the book lies in the dialogue between some of the characters. I know Borg gives somewhat of a small disclaimer in the preface that he does ‘not have a novelist’s imagination or gifts.’ But some of the dialogue that takes place between characters is simply poor.
What I mean is that, Borg is trying to teach us about his more progressive (or we might say ‘liberal’) Christian view. But, unfortunately, in his attempt to do so, the language and ideas of what is mostly represented as evangelical Christianity is quite dreadful depiction. It’s extremely cheesy. Here are some examples:
“I’ve never even been in this building before,” Amy whispered. “I wasn’t sure exactly where the room was.”
“Me neither,” Erin said. “I didn’t realize you were taking this class too.”
“I decided at the last minute,” Amy said. I needed to fulfill my integrative studies requirement, and this was one of the only classes that didn’t conflict with my internship.” She glanced over at Erin, who felt the unspoken question.
“I need to fulfill that requirement too, and I guess I was interested to see what the class would be like,” Erin said. “I’ve heard Professor Riley is really good.”
“Mm-hm,” Amy shrugged. “I just hope it’s not too crazy. Like, I don’t want to have to bring my Bible and correct her.” (p44)
Of course, most of us would cringe at that last statement. Most understand that there is a more appropriate way to address certain things than bringing our Bibles to class to correct the professor.
Another example is when Kate Riley is interviewed by an evangelical radio station about her newly published book on the birth of Jesus – Two Stories, One Birth – which is based on the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s portrayals. Riley’s character sees the birth of Jesus more as mythic rather than historical fact (again, hang on, as I will come on to myth soon enough). Part of the conversation goes as follows:
Steve cut in. “I’m sorry, but there is a difference here. Jesus never presented the parables as literal truth. He made it clear that they were teaching stories. It’s not the same with Jesus’s birth. Either he was the Son of God or he wasn’t. Either he was a lunatic, or he was who he said he was.”
Kate recognized C.S. Lewis’s famous argument. Should she counter? Well, why not? She wasn’t likely to get these two on her side anyway. Might as well go all the way. “Actually, I would argue that Jesus never said he was the Son of God.”
Debra gasped. “How can you say that? Jesus repeats that statement many times in the Gospel of John.”
“John is so different from the first three gospels. I would argue that of the four gospels, it is likely the least based on historical fact, although, again, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t filled with truth. Throughout the gospels, Jesus refers to himself most often as the Son of Man, a very different term indeed.”
“For our listeners, I would just like to say here that I believe in the virgin birth, and that Jesus is the Son of God.” Debra’s voice shook with emotion.
“Yes,” Steve added, “and I think it’s also important to make it clear at this point that the views expressed on this program are not necessarily the view held by this station of the view of Debra and myself.” (p33-34)
Again, I know this kind of discourse can take place amongst some evangelical Christians. But for Borg, whom I assume engages regularly in the academic world, this is somewhat of an overdone mischaracterisation. Granted, if Borg is hoping that the ‘popular’, general evangelical world gets a hold of his book, then this kind of conversation and dialogue might be worth having in the book. But I think it fails to represent thoughtful Christians of today. Not to mention that, again, some of it is just so very cheesy, making me somewhat cringe.
The worst lingo was when the evangelical university students kept referring to liberal scholars as ‘cafeteria Christians’, meaning they pick and choose what they want to believe about the Bible:
Erin raised her hand hesitantly. She didn’t know much about the Jesus Seminar, but Peter had mentioned it more than once as a bunch of liberal scholars who had the audacity to color-code the gospels, keeping the parts they liked the best and taking out the rest. Another example of cafeteria Christianity, he had said. (p237)
Lastly, one more annoying thing is how many times the book referred to professor Kate Riley’s eyes falling on Erin during class discussions. This seemed a great attempt to point out that this girl, who is willing to change her beliefs, is the better student.
Therefore, in all, I was quite disappointed with both the character dialogue in general and the portrayal of evangelical Christians through the dialogue.
The Theological Issues
Obviously, for me, the main issues to grapple with in the book is how Borg handles Scripture, particularly the Gospels and what Jesus actually said about himself, and the issue of homosexuality. As I said, there are other issues that could be addressed. But I will stick to these three below.
1) Scripture and the Gospels
I am very aware of the discussions surrounding parts of Scripture being more mythic than historical fact. When I, and others, use the word myth, we don’t mean ‘false story’. Rather, a solid definition for the word is found in this video with N.T. Wright or these words of Peter Enns in his book Inspiration and Incarnation:
myth is an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from? (p50)
And so I understand how the early accounts of Genesis are seen as myth. The author of Genesis was quite aware of other mythical accounts of how humanities origins and how things came to be. And one can easily notice similarities with competing myths, which were even probably written before the Genesis account such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish. But Christians believe the Genesis account stands as the God-breathed, inspired account coming out of the ancient near-eastern culture.
But I am not sure how the Gospels would get so easily categorised into myth? For me, it is quite easy to recognise the mythic nature of Genesis 1-11 as it heads towards the father of the Israelite people, Abraham. But the accounts of the Gospels are very much rooted in history, as attested by real historians like Josephus and Philo. I understand plenty of evangelicals will ask me why I get to label Genesis as myth and the Gospels as actual historical fact. But, again, the events recorded in the Gospels seem much more rooted in historical reality outside of the New Testament. For me, Genesis 1-11 does not seem as much, since those who wrote it (I’m good with general Mosaic oversight) were simply not alive at the time they were writing about.
Anyways, my point is not so much to debate the reasons for belief in the Genesis account and Gospels as myth. But I am very certain that, at this point, I cannot see Jesus’ miraculous conception, his virgin birth, his miracles, etc, being metaphorical myth.
Well, the interesting thing to note is that historical orthodoxy has never centred in whether one believes in a literal reading of Genesis 1-11 or not. But it does centre in the reality that the church has consistently held to such things as Christ’s miraculous conception and the virgin birth, as noted in places like the Apostle’s Creed. And, at least for me, there seems much Christian scholarship to support the historicity of the Gospels and much scholarship to corroborate the early chapters of Genesis as literary myth.
I am not here to argue Borg’s status as a believer. But I would challenge his view that the Gospels are to be identified as myth.
2) What Jesus Really Said and His Purpose
A lot of the the conversations and class lectures that centre around this topic is connected to the discussion known as the Jesus Seminar. I must admit that my study in this area is very limited. But I will at least share some thoughts, beginning with these words found in professor Kate Riley’s class lecture notes:
The result of the application of Enlightenment historical scholarship to the gospels and the New Testament: Jesus as a historical figure was not the same as the gospels portray him. This is especially the case in John’s gospel. The gospel of John is a very developed layer of the tradition. To use the voting colors of the Jesus Seminar, John is mostly black. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are closer to historical memory than John, even though they also reflect a post-Easter perspective and contain post-Easter convictions and applications.
The difference between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the gospels is considerable. Scholars disagree about how great the difference is. At one end is skepticism about whether we can know anything about Jesus. A centrist position affirms that we can know some important things about him with a reasonable degree of probability. At the other end of the spectrum is a continuing affirmation of the essential historical factuality of the gospels. This end of the spectrum is found mainly in fundamentalist and much conservative Christian scholarship, but generally not in mainstream academic scholarship. (p238-239)
While Borg, via Kate Riley, does not give his direct position – whether he is ‘far left’ or centre (I doubt he is ‘far right’) – it seems easy to ascertain that he would challenge whether we can be certain about everything Jesus actually said about himself and taught. Instead, as the quote points out, a lot of what we have is connected to what the early disciples taught about him. He never said he was the Son of God or Messiah or Lord or Light of the World or Bread of Life (p239). Rather this is ‘exalted language’ ascribed to Jesus.
In the end, the greatest challenge from some of these scholars regards the saving significance of Jesus’ death. Again, I don’t know if Borg would challenge such, but I will at least say that this hits at a very central nerve for historical orthodox Christianity. Again, the affirmation of the importance of Christ’s death is attested in early Christian confessions and creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed.
As an answer to such questions and objections, which Erin, the evangelical student, poses, Kate Riley responds in this way:
“Let’s think back to our earlier discussions of myth and metaphor. Recall that myths and metaphors can be true even though they’re not factual. Now let’s think about how that might apply to the gospels. If Jesus didn’t say he was the Son of God or the Light of the World, does that make it any less true? And if the saving interpretations of his death are post-Easter and originate in Christian communities [rather than with Jesus himself], does that make them any less true?” Kate paused. “I don’t mean that seeing things this way settles the issue – I’m simply suggesting a connection between earlier in term and where we are now.” (p243)
For me, at least, there is a grave problem if Jesus did not come to do what he said he came to do, and what has also been affirmed by his closest friends who walked with him and received post-resurrection appearances from him. Jesus did come to proclaim the kingdom of God (p236), and many know I am a huge proponent of this. But he is the king. So for the disciples to proclaim Jesus is also about proclaiming his kingdom rule. A great connection. And to establish the kingdom rule of God in justice and peace, as usually emphasised by the progressive-liberal, it called for the sacrifice of the great Israelite Messiah. And that was exactly who Jesus was. Israel, and all of humanity, had failed and could not participate in such a redemptive-rescue mission of God without identifying with Israel’s Messiah, who was the suffering servant and resurrected Lord.
There is much more that one could go into, but suffice it to say that a lot of historical orthodox Christian faith and belief is being set aside if the sacrificial death and actual resurrection of Jesus Christ is not historical fact. Our faith does not rise and fall on whether creation was in 6 literal days or not (though some might argue otherwise). But it does centre in the reality of Christ’s saving death and especially his resurrection (see 1 Cor 15:12-19).
In p204-211, professor Riley spends time debunking many of the Old Testament passages found in places like Leviticus. Not only that, but there is an attempt to show how Paul could have gotten things wrong in Romans 1, mainly because ‘he didn’t know that homosexuality is a product of sexual orientation, not a choice that people freely make. We might say that it would be unnatural for a gay person to try to be heterosexual.’ (p210)
Rather than dealing with all of these passages, I am puzzled why Borg didn’t address Genesis 1-2 with regards to this issue. Maybe he has never come into contact with the argument. Of course, as I’ve said, I have no problem accepting the mythic view of Genesis 1-2. But I suppose that even Borg would agree that we are being taught something in the text. So, with God ordaining same-sex relations, can we imagine being able to fulfil the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28 – be fruitful and multiply….? This was the first command of God. Yes, today, with plenty of men and women, such can be continued even if some are in same-sex relationships. But are we not being taught in Genesis 1 that, to fulfil the purpose of God as expressed in the beginning, such is done through the pro-creative act of male and female together? Does not nature – human beings and animals – even teach us that we were created to be in heterosexual relationships?
I am very aware that this does not answer every question about biological sexual orientation and human choice. But I am quite disappointed that Borg did not touch on the early Genesis account with regards to this issue, as I believe it is one of the most important if not the most important passage on the topic.
Overall, I wouldn’t claim that this book was a great feat as a didactic novel nor just a regular novel. This is not simply because I disagree with much of the theological framework of the book. But also, as it should be clear from my review, because of the poor development of dialogue amongst characters. Again, this was not just about the dialogue being a poor portrayal of thoughtful Christians engaging in a modern (or postmodern) world, but because it was quite cheesy many a times. I gave a few examples. There were probably close to 50 others.
And a final word on the title of the book – Putting Away Childish Things. It seems the title of is a pun off of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 13:11. And, knowing the wider context of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 13, laying aside certain practises [of spiritual gifts] as we come into perfect knowledge in the age to come, Borg seems to utilise this phrase outside of its intended meaning. Rather, he is conveying that holding to some of the more ‘evangelical’ and ‘conservative’ views of the faith is quite childish. Therefore, as one student, Josh, exclaims, we should ‘become an adult in our thinking’, which comes through ‘epistemological anxiety’ (p242).
Of course I definitely recognise that we all rethink our views at varying times in our lives. I have done so in regards to the activity of the Holy Spirit (moving from cessationist to continuationist), eschatology (moving from a more futurist to a more partial preterist view), the role of women (moving from a more complementarian view to a more egalitarian view), Scripture (believing the word infallible better describes Scripture than inerrancy), etc. And I also suppose that, in my almost 14 years as a follower of Christ, I have move more towards maturity in him. But the maturity is connected more deeply to my character and motivations and living out life in Christ-committed love, rather than through whether or not my beliefs have changed. I might have never changes in any of those aforementioned beliefs. But I could have still moved away from a childish faith and into the maturity that will be fully realised when the perfect does come.
Therefore, I believe the title is a bit of a misnomer. I think there could have been a better title, something like An Open Door to Change. But maybe my title is just as bad. Thus, we come to the end of my long and rigorous review.