A Dismayed Democrat Reads the Bible

By Candace Chellew-Hodge, Religion Dispatches, December 27, 201

Talking to theologian Marcus Borg about biblical errancy, the spiritual body, and the scandal in American Christianity

Marcus Borg has a formidable reputation in the world of Jesus scholarship, but if you ask him to describe himself he’s more likely to say he is “a dismayed Democrat”—the result of years of surveying the militaristic, individualistic attitudes of so many of his fellow American Christians.

Borg, a professor at Oregon State until his retirement in 2007, has written twenty books, mainly aimed at debunking fundamentalist ideas about Jesus and God. His newest book Evolution of the Word, is a chronological reading of the New Testament. When read in historical order, Borg argues, the Bible reveals itself as having been shaped by the community that engendered it, rather than the other way around.

I had a chance to speak with Borg recently about his book, and its provocative thesis.

RD: Not many people take the time to read the New Testament in the order it’s laid out in the Bible. What can we glean from reading those texts in their chronological order?

Marcus Borg: In the New Testament, among the things we learn by reading it in chronological order is, in a sense, the obvious: mainly that there were vibrant Christian communities. I call them ‘Christ communities’ since there was not a separate religion called ‘Christianity’ in the first century. There were vibrant Christ communities spread out around the Mediterranean world before any of the documents were written, so the documents give us glimpses, or windows, into what those Christ communities were like.

And they make clear that the New Testament as a whole, including the gospels, are the product of those communities, written to those communities, and in many cases written within those communities. So, we learn that it’s not that the gospels created early Christianity but early Christianity produces the gospels as well as the other documents.

The book of Revelation, which of course comes at the end of the familiar New Testament, is almost in the middle—number 14 of 27 documents. When the book of Revelation comes at the end of the New Testament, it makes the whole of the New Testament sound as if we’re still looking forward to the second coming of Jesus and what is popularly called ‘the end of the world.’ When the book of Revelation appears more or less in the middle, we see it, hear it and understand it as a document produced in a particular time and place that tells us about what that Christ community, and the author, John of Patmos, thought would happen soon, in their time—rather than it being ‘Oh, this is still about the future from our point in time.’

Picking up on Revelation—you say that Paul’s understanding of the second coming had nothing to do with anything like Rapture theology…

Paul thought that the second coming of Jesus might very well happen while he was still alive. This is clearest in the early letters of Paul, like 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, and near the end of chapter 15 [in 1 Corinthians] he speaks as if this might happen while he is still alive.

One big difference is he thought it was very, very soon from his point in time. Also, there is no reference to what Christians in our time refer to as ‘The Rapture,’ the notion that seven years before the second coming of Jesus, true-believing Christians will be taken up into heaven to be spared the suffering and tribulations of the final seven years. There’s nothing like that in Paul at all. Indeed, there is nothing like that in the New Testament.

The notion of the Rapture is roughly 160 years old, invented in the middle of the 1800s by a British evangelist named John Nelson Darby. Things like the Rapture—or even the notion that the Book of Revelation or Paul, for that matter, are speaking about things still to happen in our future—disappears when we understand this is what they thought in their time.

This reveals something I wish every Christian knew, and I say this as a deeply committed Christian myself: sometimes the Bible is wrong. It not only tells us about the wisdom and insights and experiences of our spiritual ancestors, but also contains their limited vision, their acceptance of things like slavery and the subordination of women. That’s not uniform, of course. There are also texts that proclaim the equality of men and women and forbid a Christian from having a Christian slave and so forth, but it’s all there, including mistaken notions about how the second coming will be soon.

We would escape a whole bunch of problems if only we all knew that and weren’t alarmed by it. The whole Genesis versus evolution controversy. For me, it’s not that the first chapters of Genesis are wrong, but they’re not meant to be taken literally. So, also the issue of whether women are supposed to be subordinate to men. That issue disappears if people are willing to say, “sometimes the Bible is wrong.”

So also with the texts that are quoted in opposition to same-sex behavior. Those passages, and there aren’t many, tell us what some of our spiritual ancestors thought and clearly they were wrong about that. So many conflicts in the church could be either resolved or handled in a very different way if only we didn’t have this uncritical reverence for the Bible.

Another point of contention is over the idea of literal, bodily resurrection. But you say Paul doesn’t talk about it this way?

In addition to Paul saying it’s not the physical body that is raised, he goes on to speak about a spiritual body. And as he tries to explain what a spiritual body is, he uses images of continuity that are at the same time image of radical discontinuity. So, the physical body is like a seed. The spiritual body is like a full-grown plant. Obviously, there is continuity, but the difference in appearance is enormous between a tree and an acorn. He does say there is continuity, but it terms of what they are like they are enormously different.

I don’t have any idea, myself, what a spiritual body is like. I don’t think it means just that our bodies more or less look the same but are made of spirit instead of flesh. I think that would be a rather silly way to understand it. For Paul, the resurrected body of Jesus is one that can still be experienced. Paul, himself, as he writes in his letters, had more than one experience of the risen Christ. His experience of the risen Christ was not of a physical body. The Damascus road story is what we would call a vision—and the people that are with Paul do not see or experience exactly what he does.

In addition to that, when Paul provides a list in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 of the people to whom Jesus appeared he not only uses the word ‘appeared’ four times, which is standard for a vision, he includes himself in that list. Paul sees the experiences that the other followers of Jesus had of Jesus after his death as belonging in the same category as his own.

Finally, for me the question isn’t whether or not the resurrection happened. It’s obvious to me that many of his followers continued to experience him after his death. But, to confuse that with the revitalization of a flesh and blood body is to misunderstand what Easter is about in the New Testament.

Easter is really about two things: Jesus continues to be known and God has vindicated Jesus. By which I mean, God has said ‘Yes!’ to Jesus and ‘No!’ to the powers that killed him. Those are the central truths of Easter, as I see it. To turn the question of Easter into a conflict about whether the tomb was really empty is an enormous distraction.

Getting back to what you said earlier about the community creating the Bible—what would it mean if people came to think this way about this sacred text?

It would be very difficult to believe in biblical inerrancy or infallibility. I think it’s difficult to believe in that in any case. I often say that if you read the Bible carefully and attentively you could no longer believe in biblical inerrancy.

But the whole notion of biblical inerrancy is grounded in the conviction that God directed the people writing these documents in such a way that everything in them has the authority and truth of God. Once we realize, ‘Oh, these are the products of people living within early Christian communities,’ that whole question changes. Nobody would say ‘well, these communities were inerrant and infallible.’ To me, that’s not destructive of the Bible’s authority, rather it’s a foundation for understanding what this collection of documents is about.

In much of your writing, you talk about something called “the domination system” in which the rich rule over the poor. How do you see that working in our society?

The pre-modern domination system was ruled over by the top one to two percent of the population. We’ll call these people the ‘elites of power and wealth’—and they would include the monarchy, the aristocracy, and their extended families. Ordinary people had no voice in how the society was put together.

The post-modern domination system is in one respect quite different. To use the United States as an example, ordinary people, of course, have the opportunity to vote. But the power of the very wealthy to shape the systems of our society remains. It’s not only that the wealthiest one to two percent receive a quarter of our national income every year, but they own about 40 percent of the total wealth of the United States. Wealth in a democratic society creates enormous political power.

In 1976, the wealthiest one percent of Americans received about seven percent of the nation’s annual income. By 2007, that figure had gone up to twenty-four percent going to the wealthiest one percent. How did that happen? Is it because the wealthiest worked really hard from 1976 to 2007 while the rest of us kind of slacked off? No. The obvious answer is because of tax, regulatory, and economic policies and so forth. And the wealthy are able to shape those policies in their own interest.

How do you see the role of religion in this, especially when it is so often used to justify the attitudes of the wealthy? And what about the (bad) theological view that poor people are sinners, reasoning that if they were more moral people, they’d be rich.

The scandal of American Christianity today is that it is deeply divided not only about issues like biblical inerrancy and evolution, but it’s deeply divided between a conservative vision of Christianity that emphasizes that what really matters morally is personal morality, the behavior of individuals. Much of that is focused on what I call the ‘loin issues,’ the issues of gender and sexuality. Social values are about individual righteousness.

On the other side of the great divide in American Christianity are progressive Christians for whom moral behavior does matter, but moral questions extend to economic issues, to social justice, war and peace.

This orientation flows from seeing the political passion of the Bible and the God of the Bible and the political passion of Jesus himself. The Bible is one massive protest against the ancient domination system, which makes it a very political document.

And we need to remember that Jesus didn’t simply die, he was executed by the domination system that ruled his world. He was executed because he had become a radical critic of the way that world was put together and he was beginning to attract a following. To be very blunt, it’s difficult for me to imagine how anybody who has seen what the Bible and Jesus are about could vote for policies that actually maintain or increase the wealth of those at the top in our day.

So, I don’t have to ask how you vote.

Well, I often refer to myself as a ‘dismayed Democrat.’ I wish the Democratic party had more political courage. I admire the president a great deal, but sometimes I wish he’d channel his inner Harry Truman a bit more.

Of course, both parties have been criticized for being in the pocket of the elites.

Yes, that’s true because both parties have to appeal to wealthy supporters to run their campaigns and this does limit, to some extent, the populist voice in American politics.

Is there any room, then, for those of us ordinary religious folk who want to make real social change? 

I began by emphasizing that even within our system it does matter how we vote. And I would go on to say that, at least for Christians, a major task is consciousness raising within our own congregations about the Bible. Not only about what it is, but also about the idea that God is passionate about our liberation from oppressive systems.

Part of the scandal of American Christianity is that statistically the U.S. is the most Christian country in the world, and yet as a country we have the greatest income inequality in the world. And as a country we are uncritically committed, not simply to being the most powerful nation in the world militarily, but to being as militarily powerful as the rest of the world combined.

We Christians live in a tradition that is passionate about issues of economic justice and peace and yet at least half of American Christians, probably even more, think it’s really important that we be as powerful as the rest of the world put together.

Would reading the Bible be something you would recommend?

People need help in reading the Bible because if we read it on our own, chances are we will hear what it says within the framework of what we’ve already been taught. If the Bible really is about how to get to heaven and ‘Jesus is the savior who died to pay for sins so we can be forgiven’ we’ll be primarily struck by those passages that talk about God’s judgment and sin.

So, consciousness raising about the what the Bible is and how to read it is very important.

Do you think Paul or Jesus would recognize what we call Christianity today?

I don’t think they would, but I also don’t know that they would condemn it. I think they would be surprised, even amazed. It’s helpful to remember, for example, that the Christ communities that Paul created were very small, intimate, intentional communities, maybe 15 to 20 people in each, meeting in a shop, not so much in houses, in the cities of the Roman world.

Mammoth church buildings, paid professional clergy, a country that claims to be Christian—all this would amaze them and I think they would be very curious. I think, in many cases, they’d be a bit dismayed with values that they see many Christians proclaiming.

They might be dismayed Democrats as well?

Oh, I think so!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008)


‘Republicanity’—The GOP Transformation is Nearly Complete

By Gary Laderman, Religion Dispatches,  July 17, 2011

Gary Laderman is Director of Religion Dispatches and Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University. His most recent book is Sacred Matters.


Let’s just face the facts…The Repub­li­can Party is no longer a polit­i­cal party—it’s a full-fledged reli­gious move­ment. The polit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy fuel­ing this move­ment is reli­gious to the core; and while it might be eas­i­est to label the reli­gious ele­ment “Chris­t­ian,” that des­ig­na­tion is too broad and gen­er­ous for the true com­plex­i­ties at work here…This makes sense not so much because of any real Chris­t­ian mes­sage it con­tains but rather because it offers an unequiv­o­cal com­mand: fol­low­ers are chil­dren who must be obe­di­ent in the face of authority…Republicanity is a cul­ture that merges pol­i­tics and religion…and unashamedly and unre­servedly blows apart the longed-for “wall of sep­a­ra­tion” keep­ing the two spheres sep­a­rate. Now more than ever the case can be made that our pol­i­tics are a form of reli­gion and that reli­gion is the new politics.

Full text

Let’s just face the facts and not kid ourselves anymore. Yes, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee… er, tea: The Republican Party is no longer a political party—it’s a full-fledged religious movement. The political ideology fueling this movement is religious to the core; and while it might be easiest to label the religious element “Christian,” that designation is too broad and generous for the true complexities at work here.

Still, if I were a communications consultant hired for lots of money to create a new brand for the Republicans, I’d replace the elephant with a cross, perhaps appropriating that popular bumper sticker of a child kneeling in the shadow of a cross. This makes sense not so much because of any real Christian message it contains but rather because it offers an unequivocal command: followers are children who must be obedient in the face of authority.

But what does it really mean to argue that the Republican Party, a movement with a distinctive religious culture, is a new kind of religion we might as well call “Republicanity”? Let me count the ways. (And please, don’t try this at home—I’m a professional religion-ist, it’s what I do for a living. Really.)

1) Mythology:

Every religion has a mythology, or sacred stories that describe and explain the origins of the universe, the creation of humans, the meaning of death, and so on. The Hindus have their Vedas; the Jews look to the Hebrew Bible; Neo-pagans draw from ancient Druids for some of their myths.

Republicanity’s myths are being manufactured by the mythbuilders over at Wallbuilders. In case anyone is confused, we in religious studies are not mythbusters. Let’s remember that myths are not about verifiable historical facts; they’re sacred stories that provide orientation, identity, community boundaries, etc. for a religious group. It’s not our job to tear down and deconstruct these cherished myths, though anyone with an education beyond high school or any training in the academic study of history should question the assertions being produced by David Barton and his Wallbuilders comrades, since they do claim to be “historians.”

The myths of Republicanity are fairly obvious and easy to identify when uttered by the faithful: glorifying the Founding Fathers as saints, inserting God into the nation’s origins, and demonizing the US government when policy disagreements occur.

2) Rituals:

Every religion has rituals—communal acts that bond social groups together at specified times and with specific actions signaling ultimate values and commitments. Muslims pray five times a day to demonstrate their fidelity to Allah; Rastafarians smoke cannabis for spiritual sustenance; the ancient Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice to appease the gods.

Likewise, Republicanity is rife with ritual acts of the sacred variety. One of the most recent examples is the signing of yet another pledge, “The Marriage Vow—A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family,” drafted by The Family Leader, an Iowa-based organization. Signing pledges (against raising taxes, for lowering the debt, agreeing that this is a “Christian nation”) is all the rage these days, with adherents of Republicanity understanding the public ritual act of participating as a demonstration of their own fidelity to certain core principles. Town hall meetings to vent anger and frustration, public events more akin to religious revivals than political rallies, and following Fox news, religiously, at certain intervals throughout the day, are a few other examples of rituals performing their role in a religious movement: to energize the faithful, differentiate insiders from outsiders, and establish what is sacred and what is profane.

3) Ethics:

Every religion has its own ethical teachings which provide moral guidelines for how to act, identify the good guys from the bad guys, and determine the right course of action in an often ambiguous world. Tibetan Buddhists emphasize compassion as a critical component of ethical behavior; members of the Peyote Church follow the Peyote Way, seeking to live a more holistic and balanced life; Scientologists include in their creed an ethical commitment to the belief that all men (and I assume women too) have an inalienable right to their sanity.

Republicanity is no different, possessing its own set of ethical commitments that define its moral universe. It is like the most narrow and conservative religious cultures in its absolutist ethical positions and refusal to tolerate any difference of opinion. Obedience to authority—at the moment embodied in prominent charismatic leaders like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum (okay, this last one is short on charisma but people still seem to listen anyway)—is critical to the success of this religious movement, with the primary sacred textual sources legitimating the moral universe drawn from the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

What is the operative creed for Republicanity? This is, by no means, an exhaustive list: Money rules and wealth is the greatest good; the natural world is at the disposal of humans who can exploit it with no fear or consequences; every American should own a gun; screw the “golden rule,” the world is populated with evil threats to the American way, including Muslims, gays, immigrants, liberals, and of course that group of individuals who represent the gravest danger to Republicanity: smart people (read: “intellectuals”).

4) Theology:

Most religions have a God or multiple gods who rule the universe and the lives of humans on this Earth, leaving members preoccupied with seeking greater understanding of the power and influence of divine powers. One of the Orishas, or manifestations of God, in the Santería religion is Oshun, a spirit associated with love, beauty, and intimacy; Mormons understand God the Father (and the Heavenly Mother) as having a physical body; Wiccans, as the letter writer below notes, “worship divinity in both male and female forms.”*

Republicanity is built on a theology of divine presence in national affairs that looks in some instances like a form of theo-fascism—particularly when leaders claim an intimate knowledge of God’s will and being chosen by Him (no goddesses in this religion) to purify America. If we asked all the presidential candidates to state whether they are doing God’s will in the world certainly most, if not all, would answer in the affirmative.

Some even assert a direct link and special relationship with God (like Michele Bachmann, who understands herself and her career in divine terms). As RD’s own Julie Ingersoll and Sarah Posner have demonstrated, a deeply-held and ubiquitous strand of Christian Reconstructionism undergirds many of the positions taken by leaders in the Republican religious movement, and the core of that theology might be boiled down to this simple formula: God is on my side, so I’m right and you’re wrong about what it means to be an American.

Taken all together, Republicanity is a culture that merges politics and religion (maybe better identified as a form of “poligion,” as one of my teachers used to say) and unashamedly and unreservedly blows apart the longed-for “wall of separation” keeping the two spheres separate. Now more than ever the case can be made that our politics are a form of religion and that religion is the new politics.