Monday, December 11, 2006

Three books

I wanted to share a few spontaneous and simple thoughts on three books that I recently put back on the shelf. While the level of the first two are what could be called ‘popular’, the third is in a league of its own - and in more ways than one.

The first is Peter deRosa’s The fatal flaw of Christianity with the snappy subtitle: He did not rise from the dead and the dogma of Original Sin is pure invention. I know that not everybody likes doing this, but every now and then I get the strong urge to read something that wants to tell me that all I believe and affirm is utter bollocks. Besides, I think it is wisdom to give very different opinions at least a hearing. However, while some of the arguments were insightful, this passionately written book continually sets up a ‘straw man’ Christianity (as many militant Atheists and Fundamentalist Christians do), betrays an appalling lack of balance in the treatment of the evidence, and gets numerous factual issues muddled that first year theological students could correct. Though I’m tempted to write: ‘A useful resource if you’ve run out of loo roll’, as it wasn’t all bad I’ll simply limit myself to: ‘Not the best’.

Much better was Marcus Borg’s, The Heart of Christianity in which the author presents his case for an emerging Christianity over against the traditionalist/fundamentalist vision. I have very mixed feelings about this one. One the one hand, there was much in this easy to read book that helped and inspired me. His ability to perceive truth in the Christian story at various levels beyond the literal-factual was a pleasure to follow, and his gentle and gracious tone throughout encouraged my engagement. He covers a lot of ground but I honestly didn’t ever feel like it was rushed. Always informative and insightful, he focuses upon such issues as love for justice and spirituality, pluralism, panentheism, and the historical Jesus.

Nevertheless, and on the other hand, despite the undoubted strengths of this little volume, I felt it was let down at a few crucial points. While it was all part of Borg’s deliberate argument, I was very uneasy with the relegation of Jesus to what I saw as a ‘nice spiritual metaphor’ for westerners, and was left wondering: if this is how wishy-washy we should be, then why bother. His Jesus simply doesn’t inspire me to radical faith. Arguably his commitment to the distinction between the two ways of Christianity (between the ‘emerging’ and traditional) detailed in his first chapter, has led him to over press the division such that either one is all in one model, or all in the other. Besides, I’m pretty sure many ‘emerging Christians’ I know would argue this use of ‘emerging’ language is a dubious piece of PR. I personally prefer to take some things from his own particular spin on the emerging model, and leave the rest. I don’t think that all in traditional Christianity is as desperately in need of the particular radical overhaul he proposes. Among other things, it leaves any serious kind of need or motivation for cross-cultural mission hanging in thin air. And that, for me, just isn’t acceptable. In this respect, when any book refers favourably to Paul Knitter’s No Other Name? in the footnotes, as this one does, then it quickly receives a large dose of my immediate suspicion. I think my feelings about this book are clear: I found it a real mixed bag.

The third book is the exceptional Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat. I’ll probably post on this book in more depth another time, but I will simply record now that this is one of the most challenging, inspiring and enlightening books I’ve read in a very long time. It is essentially an exercise in a particular hermeneutical reading of Colossians, one informed by a study of post-modern culture (which admittedly not all will like). The results they suggest are worthy of serious consideration, and I hope this book does provoke healthy debate, even if, in the process, some of the details of their hermeneutical approach and moral vision are Tim LaHayed (left behind). You’ll certainly never read Colossians the same way again! Click here for the table of contents and sample text (the preface and first chapter).



At 12/11/2006 3:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our congregation recently finished The Heart of Christianity and I had a similar reaction to yours. Borg is a good liberal dialogue partner, but fundamentally misguided in several ways.

What surprised me was how enthusiastically so many in the congregation received the book. People worry too much about liberalism in universities and seminaries--it is far more thriving among laity! It seems like there is a discontent with fundamentalist upbringings that, the first chance it gets, quickly swings to other extremes.

Better Borg than Dan Brown, I suppose. But I think the way that huge people adopt such drivel shows the dissatisfaction with fundamentalism--however popular on the surface or, in the states, seemingly politically powerful.

Yes, I also read anti-Christian apologists and, as you remarked, many of them are surprisingly ill-informed.

At 12/12/2006 12:36 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Michael,

"it is far more thriving among laity"

I personally think liberalism needs maturity, so this worries me!

"Better Borg than Dan Brown"

Well, I guess that is one way of looking at it!

At 12/12/2006 2:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er, that was supposed to read "huge numbers of people." No comment on the size of individuals was intended. (He says as he vows once more to lose more weight!)

I swear, though, my experience as a former pastor and one who does quite a bit of pulpit supply work is that, even in congregations that are outwardly very conservative, more of the laity are liberal (in uninformed and immature ways) than most people would believe. Then, along comes something like _The Jesus Dynasty_ or _The Da Vinci Code_, etc. and it sells like hotcakes among those who should know better! So, yeah, better a flawed liberal like Borg than some utter drivel conspiracy theory.

But educating the laity far more thoroughly is the only way to hope for healthier, more mature theological thinking--that's why I have begun using Ben Myers' Theology for Beginners and other materials to help curb the over-enthusiasm for Borg-ianity.

At 12/14/2006 8:16 PM, Anonymous J. B. Hood said...

Colossians Remixed is very, very interesting reading. But I imagine it's less challenging for non-Americans.

At 12/15/2006 12:18 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi JB, very challenging for us Europeans too!

At 12/16/2006 2:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can one be a scholar and conservative? I seem to get the idea I must be a liberal to really understand the text and grasp the true message.

With Borg text, (His name is really Borg?)how does one distinguish between interesting layers of meaning and some guy making up stuff to sell books?


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