Review: Marcus Borg’s ‘Reading the Bible Again for the First Time’

PREFACE: The full title of this book is Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. Before some of you read the subtitle and run for the hills or start lecturing me on the importance of attending a Bible-believing church, I ask that you stop, take a deep breath, and proceed with an open and loving heart.

Review: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

Borg begins the book by explaining two ways of approaching the Bible: the literal-factual and the historical-metaphorical. Because he spends a lot of pages expanding these two viewpoints by tracing their histories and sketching their strengths and weaknesses, boiling it down without stepping on anyone’s toes is hard.

As Borg explains it — and as I understand it — the literal-factual approach believes that God wrote the Bible and as such, it is infallible and should be taken literally, except in those places where the language clearly indicates otherwise. The historical-metaphorical approach, however, recognizes that the Bible’s historical and cultural context is vital to understanding its message. It allows for the universality of some language, but also points out that some things, whether for reasons cultural, linguistic, or otherwise, just don’t translate.

That’s where the metaphorical approach comes in. Metaphor, Borg explains, is art. It is “intrinsically nonliteral” and allows for nuances in the language (i.e., more than one possible meaning). Most importantly, it accounts for profound truth.

Borg’s biggest example of profound truth comes in his section on the creation stories, which he describes as myths. By myths, he does not mean Norse gods and Greek mythology, but rather “metaphorical narratives about the relation between this world and the sacred.” That’s pretty heady language if you don’t have a background in theology or literature, but the bottom line of Borg’s reasoning is that Adam and Eve did not have to be real people in order for their story to be true — profoundly true. If that bothers you, think of Jesus’ parables; they are not historically accurate, but that does not stop them from speaking to and changing us. Thus, like the creation stories, Jesus’ parables are profoundly true.

After laying the foundation for this approach to the Bible, Borg divides the book into two remaining sections: the Hebrew Bible (where he examines the creation stories, the Pentateuch, the prophets, and Israel’s wisdom) and the New Testament (where he focuses on the gospels, Paul’s letters, and Revelation).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but in each chapter the author invites readers to view the Bible through a new and challenging lens. As an advocate of the historical-metaphorical approach, Borg focuses on the context of each book or group of books by grounding it in history and culture, then uses that context to pose possible interpretations of the text in light of today’s culture. By doing so, he threads past with present and shows readers the enduring themes of the Bible.

What is his bottom line? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure that out, but I think Borg best sums it up in his chapter called “The Bible and God”:

I see the Bible as a human response to God. Rather than seeing God as scripture’s ultimate author, I see the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities to their experience of God. As such, it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves. As the product of these two communities, the Bible thus tells us about how they saw things, not about how God sees things.

That might make you uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable the first time I read it. But the more I reread it, the more I embrace it. Do I agree completely with Borg’s theology? No. He goes a little too far with his opinions about Jesus and divinity and the reality of miracles. However, that shouldn’t stop me from considering his numerous other points.

To be honest, I think Borg unearths a lot of thought-provoking material. While he does make a few blanket statements that I’m not entirely comfortable with, his book is well-researched, thoughtfully presented, and does not shy away from the hard questions. Most importantly, Borg neither condemns nor condescends to those who disagree with him. He is careful to point out that this is merely his opinion, one which he has formed after many years of study and prayer, but one which is by no means the ultimate authority on the subject. In the epilogue he writes, “All any of us can do is to say, “Here’s how I see it.” We can muster our reasons for seeing in a certain way, of course. But ultimately it is always personal.” I think that testifies to his wisdom and maturity on the subject.

So what do I believe after experiencing this book? Well, I’m not entirely sure. As one preacher put it, “Any decision you make is going to have to be made only for today, although a decision made for today has to be made with an openness to the possibility of more truth being presented tomorrow.” Add that to a favorite Annie Dillard quote — “I know only enough about God to want to worship him, by any means ready at hand” — and you have my approach to this book.

I don’t have all the answers. But I do have a head and a heart and eyes with which to read and hands with which to write and that’s all I need to seek him. He has promised that when we seek him, we will find him when we seek him with all our hearts. So this is me, seeking him. 4/5 stars.


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