Sunday, June 19, 2011

Speaking Christian -- Book Review

Here is a book about words. The full title is Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—and How They Can Be Restored. It is by Marcus J. Borg, well known Bible and Jesus scholar and author of many books.
The book is written in understandable language. It’s interesting and thought provoking. According to Borg, the purpose of the book is to “exposit an alternative understanding, one that draws on the Bible and premodern Christian tradition….it compares and contrasts the contemporary meanings of Christian language with their often very different biblical and traditional meanings.” He points out that Christians often misunderstand the faith as presented in the language of the New Testament, because the words have taken on newer meanings than were intended originally.
Each word or phrase has its own chapter. Borg tells how the word is used today and what it meant in the Bible and the early Christian community. He presents a short essay (two or more pages) about the word or concept, with occasional personal anecdotes. This is not a dictionary, not written in alphabetical or encyclopedia format. It moves from one word to the next, so that one can pick it up and not need to read it in sequence.
Some chapters are Salvation, the Bible, God, God’s Character, Jesus, Mercy, Righteousness, Sin, and Heaven. I was impressed with the chapter about Mercy. He offers official dictionary definitions to show what most people think it is, and then goes into its historic origins, turning it into something like compassion. Of course, he has to explain compassion, too. Mercy in scripture and Hebrew associations is not about a person in power granting clemency to someone with less power. The Mercy chapter is just one example of the way Borg deals with the words of Christianity.
“Heaven and hell” Christianity gets its day, too. Borg doesn’t buy it. He says that that framework emphasizes the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, and is the main reason that many people are Christians. Borg, as a liberal Protestant, explains that the Kingdom of Heaven is here on earth now and not just about going to heaven later. Borg doesn’t agree with a lot of the teachings with which Christians have grown up. He seems lukewarm about the Trinity, the afterlife, and about the divinity of Jesus.
There is a lot in this book. Borg correctly points out, “Christians in this country (and elsewhere) are deeply divided by different understandings of a shared language.” It is available from

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