The use of Christian language “is in a state of crisis,” writes Marcus Borg in the first chapter of his latest work, Speaking Christian. Familiar words have taken on different meanings over time, but most of us are unaware of the change. The problem afflicts both Christian and non-Christian alike.
This book seeks to redeem some of the most important words Christians use, words like “salvation,” “redemption,” “mercy,” “sin,” and many others. The book has twenty five chapters, some quite short, and all but three of them devoted to just one or two Christian terms or concepts.
The primary culprits in this “state of crisis” are “the literalization of language in the modern period,” and the interpretation of this language within what Borg calls the framework of “heaven and hell” Christianity. Another is the widespread religious illiteracy of our increasingly secular age. (The reality is rather more complicated than that, but basically I agree with Borg on this point.)
Christians, particularly in the U.S., are deeply divided between two different ways of using Christian language. On one side are those who “believe that biblical language is to be understood literally within a heaven-and-hell framework that emphasizes the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus dying for our sins, and believing.” On the other side are the rest of us, some unsure how to understand Christian language, and others who have moved on to some other understanding. “The differences are so sharp,” he says, “that they virtually produce two different religions, both using the same Bible and the same language.”
Borg’s critique of the “heaven and hell” framework, by which he means the “understanding of Christianity that most Protestants and Catholics shared in common and thus took for granted not very long ago,” elaborates a point he’s made in some of his previous books (indeed, much of this book will be quite familiar to those who have read his previous work, which comes as no surprise—Borg has always been somewhat repetitious).
The widespread assumption, shared by both Christians and non-Christians alike, is that the Christian message is primarily concerned with the afterlife. Heaven is, according to this view, “the reason for being Christian”:
Life after death was so important in the form of Christianity that I absorbed growing up that if somebody had convinced me when I was twelve or so that there was no afterlife, I would have had no idea what Christianity was about or why I should be Christian.
Connected with this is “sin,” which is understood as “the central issue in our life with God.” What we need above all is forgiveness, which is where Jesus comes in. For many Christians, “what matters about Jesus is that he died for our sins, so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven.” And what makes this possible is “having faith,” which is generally identified with “believing, understood as affirming a core set of statements to be true.”
These four elements, all of which are quite problematic, combine to create a framework through which Christian language is commonly interpreted. So, for instance, “salvation” becomes synonymous with “going to heaven,” despite the fact that it rarely if ever has that meaning in the Bible. To be “redeemed” has come to mean being “saved from sin,” even though in the Bible it refers to being “set free from slavery,” sometimes metaphorically, and sometimes not.
Borg considers whether traditional language should be replaced rather than redeemed. One proponent of replacement, he says, is Gretta Vosper, a pastor in the United Church of Canada. In her book With or Without God, Vosper argued that Christian language is a serious obstacle to the growth of the church. Outsiders visiting a church are likely to be turned off by language that, even if not meant literally, will inevitably be heard that way, at least at first.
Borg, though, prefers redeeming the language, and I agree with him. I read Vosper’s book when it first came out a few years ago, and found it quite unsatisfying. It includes an appendix featuring some examples of the prayers she uses at her church, which are quite radically un-traditional. Language is such an integral part of a religious tradition that it cannot be replaced to any great extent without becoming another religion. There is much to be gained by reclaiming traditional language and much to be lost by replacing it.
Christians of a more progressive bent will find much to like about this book, particularly if they are new to Borg. Like all of his work, it is well organized and written with great clarity. Readers familiar with his earlier works will find few surprises, but will probably find it worth reading, as I did.