Religious Talk Tuesday: Marcus Borg

Let’s talk about discomfort.  And beliefs.  And how faith can change.

All Lutherans (at least all of the ones in the WELS and probably other synods, too), go through what is most often referred to as “Catechism class” before being confirmed in the faith and made a communicant member of a congregation.  Nowadays, there are sped up versions for adults who are interested in joining the ranks of Lutherandom, but the most common route to Communion remains two solid years (usually 7th and 8th grade) of classes.  I hated my confirmation classes.

No, you don’t understand.

"Why can't I just wait to do this until I'm fifteen?  I can do the accellerated class an evening a week.  I can handle that."  - 13 year old me

“Why can’t I just wait to do this until I’m fifteen? I can do the accellerated class an evening a week. I can handle that.” – 13 year old me

Despite all changes in educational theory, Lutherans teach faith the same way they have for many years.  And the funny part is that many actually believe this is the way Luther wanted it done.  See, Martin Luther put together a catechism of biblical teachings.  The intent of this book  was for families to learn the ideas at home.  However, that apparently hasn’t gone well for quite some time because now memorizing the actual texts, questions, and answers is commonplace.  And it’s really effing difficult.  I don’t do memorizing.  I do concepts and big pictures.  I don’t memorize well.  Never have, never will.  I’ve accepted it.

I got in trouble enough in that class, so I didn't say anything.

I got in trouble enough in that class, so I didn’t say anything.

I didn’t have the best person teaching me this stuff, either, so I kind of got a bit screwed up.  See, I tended to get mad more often than I learned anything.  One of the things he said that pissed me off most was that, when we became adults, our chief concern for where we moved should be whether or not we could easily drive to worship services at a WELS congregation.

Anyway, I called bullshit and moved on.

I moved on so far that I went to school in a place thirty miles from the nearest WELS congregation.  I didn’t own a car.  I found myself lost.  By the time I had a car, I was pretty accustomed to using my Sunday mornings for sleeping, so I usually did.  I did drive to Lexington for church from time to time, though.

In the fall of 2011, I was required to see a visiting speaker twice: once for a special meeting for the students in various sections of the class I was in, the overarching theme of which was “Understanding Christianity,” which was required for all students and once again at the convocation, which was open for the entire campus.

I was afraid to go.

Berea was hard on me in a lot of ways.  I didn’t expect my beliefs to come under fire as they had.  During my first semester, I’d fruitlessly attempted to find people who had similar beliefs.  When I couldn’t, I tried to join a Bible study group.  The people talked about things that sounded awesome, like how they were going to “be examples” and “accept others” and “be open to debate.”  And then they bullied me for pointing out that an interpretation they were making of a text had no basis in the text.  Don’t ask me what we were looking at; I just remember having a study Bible with citations on half the page and being shot all to hell (see what I did there?) by an aspiring pastor who was, apparently, learning everything by pulling it out of his butt.  Anyway, after all that, I’d tried a few churches felt horribly out of place and settled on praying, going to Lexington when I could, therapy, and good friends.  My section of “Understanding Christianity” centered on feminism.  I felt weird because it’s hard for me to be okay with saying that God could be either/both male or/and female.

I was being challenged.  And I didn’t know it then, but I was growing.  I never had physical growing pains, but Lord almighty are those emotional ones tough!

So, that September, when I was being forced to go to two talks from Marcus Borg, I was terrified.

Of what?  I was terrified of feeling pushed one way again.  I was terrified that I’d end up mad.  I was terrified I’d lose my cool.  I was terrified I’d lose sleep.  I don’t think I was terrified that the man might actually  shape me in any way.  I thought I was too strong for that.

Somewhat ironically, the smaller talk had to be held in the biggest classroom on campus, which happened to be in the science building.  This was one of my two times ever stepping into that building and I was struck by how cold it was – the linoleum, the stadium seating, the uncharacteristically large size, and the flourescent lights.  And then this unassuming older man came in and started his talk.  He smiled often, was friendly, and really wanted to discuss things.  At that time, he’d just penned Speaking Christian:  Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – and How They Can Be Restored, so he focused on that for a good portion of his time.

But what intrigued me most was his past.

When reading through the article he wrote about his journey with Jesus, my first “whoa” moment was when it said that he was raised in North Dakota in a Lutheran church.  My grandmother was born in the Dakotas as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter. Around the same time he was.  She eventually married a Lutheran pastor and became a Lutheran teacher, had four kids of her own, and then the two of them raised me as a pastor’s kid.  Reading about his early life as a Lutheran kid, receiving education according to what was commonplace, was incredibly familiar.  I attended six years of Lutheran school, myself plus two years of Catechism class.  Knowing that his roots and mine were along the same lines instantly grabbed me; it’s not easy to find a Lutheran (or even a former Lutheran) in Berea.  This one little morsel of commonality influenced the way I viewed what he said.

(From my reflection on hearing him speak, September 26, 2011)

Learning that he had been raised one way and changed, but remained part of the church – arguably more so, as a modern reformer – inspired me.  If he can, why can’t I?  In the rest of that reflection, I voiced my inner conflict, but I wasn’t conflicted about Borg.  I thought he was awesome.  Good friends of mine tried hard to shake him and he just smiled and explained that he wasn’t there to argue, but to be rational.  People protested after the convocation, handing out pamphlets about the “real” Jesus.

And I get it.  I do.

It’s controversial to say that the historical Jesus probably wasn’t the same as the Jesus we’ve read about and been told stories about a million times.  It’s hard to swallow the idea that biblical writers are fallible.  It’s difficult to understand that we don’t always have to be blind to reality to view God.

It’s not simple.

Who told you it was going to be?  They lied.

Now, I wish I could tell you that I immediately rushed out and bought ever book he wrote, devoured them with my mind, and kept notebooks filled with quotes.

Firstly, that s*** costs money.  Secondly, I wish.  Thirdly, I haven’t.

But I did follow him on Facebook and I have started reading a couple (I got to Wednesday in The Last Week last Holy Week and plan to repeat that journey – and finish it this time – this year.  I also started The Heart of Christianity a few months ago and was really enjoying it.) of his books.  I plan to use some of my monthly spending money to buy one for myself.  College book buying left me with the happy habit of scribbling in margins – the library frowns on that.  I enjoy his writing style, much like his speech.  He comes off personable, approachable, but beyond reproach.  His life’s labor was studying the Bible, gleaning truth, crafting a way of communicating the truth he found, and upending the norms of modern Christianity.

Marcus Borg died six days ago, but he is immortalized in over 21 books.

An excerpt from The Heart of Christianity.

An excerpt from The Heart of Christianity.

Marcus Borg taught me a lot.  He reminded me to question everything.  He helped me to accept my own path.  He treated me with respect.  He turned the other cheek when people badgered him.  He worked hard.  He taught me to stop caring what people think about my faith and to just embrace it.  He taught me that theological discussion need not be humorless.  And most of all, he gave me hope in a time when I felt hopeless.

I don’t care anymore about whether I fit in with the people I attend church with.  I have my own set of beliefs, but I really love the traditions with which I was raised.  Thanks, Marcus.  I back same-sex marriage and don’t feel like a hypocrite.  Thanks, Marcus.  I tell people I think “Song of Songs” and “Revelation” – and maybe others – should be tossed out of the canon.  Thanks, Marcus.  I’m married to someone who doesn’t share my religious beliefs.  Thanks, Marcus.  I believe in living like Jesus, not just going to church each week.  Thanks, Marcus.  I don’t lie about what I believe anymore.  Thanks, Marcus.  I’m okay with not always knowing what I believe.  Thanks, Marcus.

Moreover, I’m strong enough to do all of this now.  All because I found solidarity with a man my grandparents’ age.

Now I just need to figure out which book to buy.

Thanks, Marcus, for being an inspiration.  You have my undying admiration and will forever be in my heart.

I had every intention of writing something more controversial today, but I’ve been silently mourning the loss of Marcus Borg for the last six days and I felt the need to write about him today.  Regardless of your beliefs concerning his beliefs, he has shaped my life and I’m so glad for his influence.

To be clear, I’m not saying that I agree with everything Marcus Borg taught and wrote, but his thoughts have influenced me and I’m happy to announce that I’m open to influence, even if I’ve been taught to close myself off to such dangerous foes!


4 thoughts on “Religious Talk Tuesday: Marcus Borg

    • I’m interested in reading more of his work and like-minded scholars. Are there any articles or books you’d recommend? I’ll definitely be considering “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” in my list of books to buy.
      More than his death, even, I’m saddened by “Christians'” response to it. It’s shameful to pass judgement so wildly.


  1. I like this, Yvonne. I like that you take what you can from Marcus, but you more take his style of interacting with others and your own beliefs. You are cool 🙂


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