Reflections on my first experience reading the works of Marcus Borg, who passed away in January 2015.
It was a hot July evening as I drove to my youth minister’s house to say goodbye.
I had received my call to ministry from the church I had attended in high school (Faith UMC, Tulsa, Oklahoma) and this youth minister was a huge part of that discernment process. Todd was leaving that church to serve in a ministry in North Carolina, and I was leaving that church soon to go study Religion at college. So we were both leaving the place where my faith was shaped.
As we talked, reminisced, and I cried a little, Todd gave me a book and said it would help me in my studies. I was half expecting a typical Dr. Seuss book Oh the Places You Will Go or some kitschy Cokesbury 12 Bible Studies for Graduates book. But this book was very plain, with ugly first-edition coloring, and a weird title.
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus J. Borg.
What? That makes no sense. How can you meet someone again for the first time? Was it about amnesia? Was it a memoir about remembering? And did I not really know Jesus–was I a bad Christian?
As I drove away, I tossed the book in the back seat and forgot about it like any non-sentimental teenager, more missing my friend and mentor than I was wanting to appreciate the gift.
It would be a few days until I found the time to open it and read the book.
I remember highlighting a lot, asking questions in the margins, doing the diligent work I was supposed to for an academic work. It was super-interesting: made claims about Jesus I had never considered, pointed out contradictions I never saw, as Borg generally (and gently) introducing me to the study of the historical Jesus.
I don’t remember being blown away by the book or having a huge epiphany. But I do remember being interested and wanting to know more. I wanted to read more on how the Jesus I sang songs about, came to gradually know as I taught Bible studies at my church, was not depicted in a consistent biography but a composite from competing sources–and how archaeology gave us new imagery and insights into the culture of the time. I felt the sensation of doubt in my knowledge, but not enough that I was ready to throw up my hands and give up my life goals.
I don’t remember feeling the prick of the needle.
I don’t remember feeling the pain.
I don’t remember noticing that I had just received an inoculation for an epidemic that would sweep through my life and that would save me months and maybe years of grief.
A month later, actually on my 19th birthday, I began my studies at Oklahoma City University, a United Methodist institution. I was studying Religion and we had a close-knit group of 15 majors who were starting out together. We would take classes on the Bible, theology, history, and ethics together (along with the upper classes and non-majors).
Over the course of the Fall (and the next Spring), I noticed something was happening to my friends that didn’t seem to be happening to me.
We studied the Bible and saw that there were two Creation stories, that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Bible, that there were contradictions in the accounts of Jesus (especially between the synoptics and John). We read our history and saw the Imperial thumb on the Ecumenical Councils, the horrors of the Inquisition, the complicity during the Holocaust. We wrestled with how to make theological statements and ethical choices that had no easy answers.
Then the late nights started.
The late nights with friends who were crying, who were having crises of faith, who left a class unsure of what to believe, who tossed and turned in their sleep without clarity or comfort. Who went home to preach and felt a disconnect between their academic studies and the church that had enthusiastically sent them to college and expected them to never change.
Offering a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on was one of my roles with my circle of classmates and friends. I didn’t have any more answers than they did (far from the best student in the class), but I was a bit more steady and less “dealing with my own issues” and able to help offer caring presence for those going through a dark night of the soul.
There was a lot of this that first year, and there would be more with lower classes in the years to come.
Building Up Immunity
Over time, I realized that I wasn’t having the same crises of faith and heartfelt concerns of my peers.
While it could be that I was not connecting my heart and mind like I should be, I think I already had a taste of the doubt that would come in deconstructing faith during college (and later, seminary). A little bit of doubt in a manageable form allowed me to see doubt and complexity as companions on my studies, not challenges to my faith or self-image. This ease of comfort with doubt would become a constant aspect of my preaching and teaching style–indeed, this blog’s focus on hacking has elements of comfort with doubt and inquiry.
And I think I will always credit Marcus Borg with giving me that inoculation shot, with building up my immunity before I confronted the faith questions in a more intensive form, and giving me the ability to welcome doubt into my life without being overcome by it. It wasn’t just the book–I know that–but it felt like the shot that I needed to wade into a difficult world and emerge on the other side intact.
For the next decade, I would read, wrestle, disagree, and be transformed by Borg, Crossan, the Jesus Seminar, and other aspects of the historical Jesus movement during college, seminary, and continued education. The Heart of Christianity is one of my favorite texts. I cannot imagine how that group of scholars feel at the loss of their friend, but I can tell you, I feel like I lost a friend today.
And that book? I don’t have it anymore. I gave it to a Freshman when I was a Senior in that college–with my highlights and notes and all–it was even signed by Marcus Borg when I attended one of his lectures. Like the book given to me, such valuable knowledge and heartfelt care that seeped through the pages must be shared. I don’t miss that book–the best parts are already written in my heart.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Rest in peace, Dr. Borg.