Marcus Borg, one of the nation’s leading biblical and Jesus scholars, said in a talk in Sylvania, Ohio Sept. 21 that the message of Christianity is increasingly misunderstood because core words are misused.
Salvation, for example, is commonly used today to describe going to heaven. In the Old Testament, salvation was never about the afterlife but about being rescued from death or from enemies.
In the New Testament, salvation rarely is used in reference to the afterlife, Borg said. It was more commonly used in reference to transformations such as giving sight to the blind or life to the dead.
The word redeemer is another example Borg used in his lecture, which was based on his latest book, “Speaking Christian” (2011). In today’s Christianity, the word redeemer is synonymous with Jesus who redeems people of their sin. But that was not what redeemer means in the Bible, Borg said. Redeemer and redemption “have nothing to do with sin and forgiveness but refer to liberation from slavery or bondage,” he said.
His lecture, titled “Reclaiming Christian Language,” was attended by a capacity crowd of 300 at Sylvania United Church of Christ.
Borg said the way words are used sets up a “framework” that shapes the meaning of Christian language and, hence, the way people see reality and form an “ethos” or way of life.
Among other words in Christianity that are commonly misused and misunderstood, according to Borg, are:
- “Saved” – meaning from bondage, not from sin.
- “Sacrifice” — offering something as a gift to God, not as a substitution for sins.
- “Faith” – loyalty and trust, not the belief that something is true.
- “Righteous” – means “just,” not morally pure.
Borg, who earned a doctorate from Oxford University and was an active member of the Jesus Seminar, spoke with gentle, professorial tone that was lightened by a sense of humor.
Regarding righteousness, he said that if someone is described as “full of righteousness, would you want to meet that person? Sounds like a moral creep. Not only upright but uptight.”
If instead of righteousness the person was described as “full of justice,” it would not carry such a negative connotation, he said.
In the same way, in the Sermon on the Mount, instead of Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” it should read, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake,” Borg said.
When such foundational terms fail to convey their true intentions, the result is a serious distortion in the concepts and practices of Christians and Christianity, according to Borg.
When the afterlife becomes the main focus of a religious group, it detracts from life in this world and distorts the central meaning of Christianity, which is our own transformation as individuals and of humanity’s impact on the world, he said.
The retired Oregon State professor said another problem with the language of Christianity is that a growing percentage of Americans do not attend church and have no basic understanding of the Bible.
In Oregon, where he taught, only between 22 and 28 percent of people have a connection to a church. It is the most secular state, despite Vermont’s efforts to claim that top spot., he said jokingly. But it means about three-quarters of Oregonians are unchurched.
Borg said he would start the school year by asking his Oregon State students to write down some of their thoughts about the Bible, and said some of the notable answers included, “There’s a story of a guy and a fish in there,” and, “Christians are really against trespassing.”
Borg, the Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Ore., held the Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007. He also served as chair of the Historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical Literature.
Among the 20 books he has written are the best-sellers “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” (1994) and “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary” (2006).
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