The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg

In this book Borg says there are two quite different answers to the question ‘What does it mean to be a Christian today?’  He calls them an earlier vision of Christianity, and an emerging vision.  Both are present in churches today, producing a time of conflict and change in the church.  The earlier vision (or paradigm) has been dominant in Western Christianity for the past few centuries – and still is in many churches today, especially those we would call ‘Evangelical’.  It emphasizes the literal interpretation of the Bible, and sees Christian life as believing now for the sake of salvation later, with Christianity the only true religion. 

The emerging paradigm is the product of Christianity’s encounter with the modern (and postmodern) world, including science, historical scholarship and religious diversity, with an awareness that in the past Christianity has contributed to racism, sexism, exclusivism and so on.  It has been developing for the last hundred years or so.  We might perhaps call it ‘Liberal’, though Borg claims that actually it recovers much of Christian tradition that predates the earlier paradigm, while the most distinctive features of the earlier paradigm are in fact the product of the last few centuries.  So, both are ‘modern’ ways of seeing Christianity: God himself may not change, but the cultural context in which we speak about God does change.

Borg emphasizes that the earlier paradigm has nourished the lives of millions of Christians for centuries, and still does so today.  However, he notes that for many in our time (including Borg himself) its vision has ceased to be compelling, and may actually be a stumbling block.  For these people, the emerging paradigm provides a way of taking Christianity and the Christian life seriously, and it is for them that the book has been written.

So what is the book all about?  It is subtitled ‘Rediscovering a Life of Faith’, and, following an introduction called ‘The Heart of Christianity in a Time of Change’, there are two parts:

Seeing the Christian Tradition Againdeals with Faith, the Bible, God, and Jesus from a historical, metaphorical and sacramental point of view.  For example, seeing the Bible in the context of the two communities (ancient Israel and the early Christian movement) that produced it; and understanding its more-than-literal meanings – metaphorical narratives that convey profound truths, even though they may not be literally factual.  As Borg says the Bible is true, and some of it actually happened.  Sacramentally, its words become a means by which God speaks to us. 

Seeing the Christian Life Againconcentrates on Christianity from a relational and transformational viewpoint: the Christian life is about a relationship with God that transforms life in the present.  This new relationship gives us an open heart instead of a closed one, and a share in God’s concern for compassion and justice.

 I was very impressed with this book, and when I ordered my own copy I discovered that there is a companion study guide called Living the Heart of Christianity.  This is designed to be used by groups meeting on a regular basis. 

Peter Elliott

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