This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 02 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Most conservative evangelical Christians who would read periodicals such as the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL are prone to wonder from time to time what makes folks on the other side of the religious spectrum tick. How can a Mormon believe Joseph Smith, Jr., was a prophet? What is it that attracts so many people to The Secret? How is it that a devoted Darwinist can’t see the obvious markers of design in living things?
It would be so helpful in communicating the great truths of the gospel to unbelievers if we could, even for a few moments, crawl into the minds of those who differ with us and see the world through their eyes.
Well, I think I may have discovered a unique vehicle to get into the mind of someone on the “other side.” What does the world look like from the standpoint of a modern-day liberal biblical scholar? Marcus J. Borg, a leading light of the radical Jesus Seminar, has written a novel titled, Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, that provides an accessible window that can help us Bible-believing, Jesus-lovin’, gospel-sharing types see the very different world inhabited by self-described “progressive” Christians.
Marcus Borg earned a doctorate at Oxford and went on to have a distinguished academic career at Oregon State University. In addition he is Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland and has authored many books, including bestsellers such as Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994) as well as several with his co-author John Dominic Crossan, also of the Jesus Seminar.
In interviews about his new novel, Borg said he believed he had presented all of his important ideas in nonfiction publications and wanted to try his hand at a novel in order to “give readers more of a sense of how people struggle with these ideas in everyday life.”1 My take on this new book is that Borg succeeds in giving us a sense of how some people struggle with these ideas, that is, people who have a far-left-leaning stance on the gospel and the Christian worldview. His novel is never able to get past stereotypes and caricatures of those of us who hold traditional, orthodox views. Indeed, the very title, Putting Away Childish Things, is a rather in-your-face paternalistic affront to the kinds of Christians who think God is knowable and that He has revealed His will and His plan to humankind in history.
Nevertheless, although I really can’t recommend this novel as a real “page turner” or as a wonderful example of didactic fiction, I found it to be an interesting and pretty accurate picture of the thinking, lifestyle, and dreams of a group of people with whom we conservatives or commoners don’t have much direct contact. Borg represents in himself and in this novel scholars who occupy the left wing of the Society of Biblical Literature or any wing of the American Academy of Religion. These are academics who hold teaching and research posts in religious studies departments at a whole range of colleges and universities across the country and at left-of-center theological seminaries. I did my own doctoral work in religious studies at the University of California and have been a longtime member of the American Academy of Religion, and I can confirm that Borg’s novel really does capture the mindset that one encounters in these places. The novel is set on the campus of a small liberal arts college and an Episcopal seminary, so Borg is writing about what he knows well.
Borg’s main character is Kate Riley, a professor of religious studies specializing in New Testament at the fictional and secular Wells College in Wisconsin. She is in her late thirties, a spiritually engaged Episcopalian, one of the most popular teachers on campus, and preparing to apply for tenure. She smokes cigarettes (but only six a day) and drinks (but only a couple of pints of Guinness per day). She is sexy and would sleep around more than she does if she had the opportunity. I found the Kate character an interesting window on the “progressive” moral world. There are no moral absolutes in theory. In practice, however, real vices do exist and only the well-educated have the ability to keep them in proper balance. In other words, there are no real prohibitions on behavior, just arbitrary limitations on the number of transgressions per day. Even Kate’s gay, male, chardonnay-sipping faculty colleague (an odd stereotype I didn’t expect from Borg) doesn’t really act on his attraction to men. It’s a very strange world.
The whole plot centers on a big decision Kate must make. This is certainly no “Sophie’s Choice.” To be sure, at some points you want to shake Kate and say, “Quit whining and pick.” She has been offered a well-paying, one-year teaching slot at a liberal Episcopal seminary where she would have more freedom to express her spirituality in her teaching and research. As attractive as that sounds, a much stronger attraction for the lonely Kate is that a man named Martin Erickson teaches there. Kate had an affair with him while he was married years ago and desires to be with him again (but not too much). Martin also drinks and smokes (but not to excess). Taking the one-year slot at the seminary would jeopardize her march toward tenure at Wells College. Oh, the agony.
This decision is really not enough to drive the plot and, in my view, that is perhaps the novel’s most prominent flaw as a novel. Borg, however, was upfront with his readers that his first try might be less than stellar in terms of fictional writing skill. He makes it clear in the introduction that this is a novel designed primarily to teach—and teach it does. It even includes lecture handouts that might very well have been used by Borg himself in undergraduate classes. The fictional classroom lectures and discussions led by Professor Riley, then, take up quite a few pages. Well what, then, is on the syllabus? What are the key points that professors Riley and Borg want us to learn about God, life, tolerance, sex, diversity, Jesus, economics, and justice? I can’t cover all of them in this review so I’ll focus on a few.
I’m guessing that if Borg were forced to choose the most important teaching point of the novel, it would be a proper understanding of the difference between fact and myth. As Kate says in a radio interview early in the book, in which she is commenting on the dramatic differences between the birth narratives of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, “People often get fixated on factuality: either things happened this way, or these stories aren’t true” (p. 25). In the Riley/Borg world we need to move beyond thinking of religious texts like this as historical or factual; rather we need to see them as “parables and overtures” (26). Says Prof. Riley, “Parables are about meaning, not factuality. And the truth of a parable is its meaning. Parables can be truthful, truth-filled, even while not being historically factual. And I apply this to the birth stories: we best understand them when we see them as parables and overtures, and when we don’t worry or argue about whether they’re factual” (26). The goal Borg mentions in one of his interviews mentioned above is “to give readers a sense of how people struggle with these ideas in everyday life.” But there is no struggling here. No thoughtful counterpoint, no alternative ways of thinking—just straight pontification on points of liberal dogma.
Another lesson that Riley/Borg hope to teach us is the great virtue it is for individuals to leave the narrow, absolutist, triumphalist, ill-informed, and sinister conservative Christian groups to which they are attached and become liberated, spiritually rich, and enlightened by “putting away childish things” and linking up with the liberal bunch. To teach this lesson, Borg conjures up a Bible study group called “The Way” on the Wells campus that has the same texture as the Christian groups portrayed on network television dramas or Hollywood movies—cultic, controlling, uneducated, anxious to force their beliefs on everyone not of their ilk, and living in fear. These are people who believe what the Bible says simply because the Bible says it.
A subplot featuring a Wells student named Erin, a committed Christian, shows how one can make the journey from the dark side to the light of progressive religious thinking. Erin slowly emerges from the darkness of biblical literalism by means of Prof. Riley’s inspired teaching day by day. Erin learns that the Jesus she reads about in Scripture probably has very little to do with the Jesus who existed in history. Erin begins to shed beliefs like the leaves of an artichoke until her heart is laid bare. She asks a classmate, “Do you ever wonder if, after all the historical sifting, you might not end up with anything left?” (247). Enlightenment has dawned. This scenario is all too real for Christian students wandering into religious studies (or history, or English literature, or biology) courses at secular schools—and even some Christian colleges. Borg has probably seen this happen many times in his long academic career and no doubt takes great joy in it.
I can’t recommend this novel on its merits as a novel. And I certainly can’t recommend this novel as an important teaching tool—its lessons are one-sided and often irrational. I can recommend this novel if you want to know what goes on in the minds of classic Jesus Seminar types such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, or even, to some extent, in the minds of the emergent Christian liberals such as Brian McLaren or Tony Jones. But you really do not need to buy or read the novel to get the most important message from it: those of us in the traditional Christian church need to do a better job making our case. The opposition is weak and easily answered. What in the world are we afraid of? What in the world are we waiting for? For well-informed Christians, there is nothing persuasive or compelling in the positions that Borg sets forth in this book. Therefore, perhaps it is time we start peeling the artichoke on the other end of the theological spectrum and exposing bad scholarship for what it really is. —Craig J. Hazen
Craig J. Hazen, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the M.A. program in Christian apologetics at Biola University and the editor of the scholarly journal, Philosophia Christi. His latest book is the novel Five Sacred Crossings (Harvest House, 2008).