Book review: Speaking Christian

by Marcus J. Borg

★★★★★

What is meant by our Christian language? How do we understand words like “redemption”? Borg reflects on the difference in meaning between liberal and conservative Christian thinking, even though the language is identical. Borg is quite liberal, and he refuses to turn the meaning of words that are special and meaningful to him over to a Christianity that he feels has strayed from the original, radical, this-worldly message of the first Christians.

Early Christianity was not focused on heaven or hell. An emphasis on the afterlife has turned Christianity away from its roots, and consequently, many of the concepts of the Bible have been modernized. A lot of the meanings of words we use as Christians differ so severely from person to person that it renders some of us speechless. We simply don’t know how to say what we mean. At least in America, when liberal Christians speak of faith, resurrection, even God, the conservative interpretation is so popular that we often can’t be understood. 

The problem words are numerous. Saved. Born again. Mercy. Sin. Belief. (Borg suggests that a proper synonym for “believing” is “beloving.”) I’ve struggled mightily with this problem on various online forums, to the point where it’s tempting to simply give up on “speaking Christian.” This makes Borg’s book especially timely for me. So serious is the problem that some have concluded that Christian language is beyond redemption and needs to be replaced by language that actually communicates what we want to communicate. But Borg encourages us to hang in there. If we avoid the language of our faith because of uncertainty about what it means, we grant a monopoly on it to those who are most certain about its meaning. That would be unfortunate, for the language is extraordinarily rich, wise, and transformative. Moreover, if we neglect or reject biblical and Christian language because of its common current-day meanings, a serious question arises: Can we be Christian without using the language of Christianity? 

Borg says no. To abandon the language of Christianity would mean leaving behind something that has been profoundly nourishing. Religions are like language. Ceasing to speak French would mean no longer being French. Being Christian means “speaking Christian.”

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4 Comments

  1. It IS a problem, isn’t it? I know I see the same thing in forums I visit. While most groups of people do tend to form their own group-oriented jargon, Christians go beyond what is necessary or desirable. The problem seems to me to be two-fold:

    1. The Christian group as a whole is not unified, and every “sub-group” has their own version of language; a “sub-jargon” if you will. Different meanings are assigned to different words even throughout the main group.

    2. There seems to be a feeling that everyone spoken to needs to and does understand the particular jargon being used. Obviously not true, the speaker continues to use words that have no common referent with the listener and that inevitably makes actual communication difficult to impossible.

    Perhaps the solution is to use the local Christian jargon ONLY when speaking with members known to use the same variant if a speaker wishes to use the “Christian language”. If you don’t sit next to someone on the same pew then just use the English language as represented in dictionaries and forget about different meanings assigned to special words. More cumbersome, yes, but also far more informative and it won’t come across as jibberish.

  2. Curiously, the problem I have on forums is not with Christians but with atheists! Particularly, the aggressive, vocal, religion-is-poison “New Atheists” who follow the mold of Dawkins, Sam Harris, et. al. in pushing for a new world where religion is shoved aside as an antiquated failure.

    To these people, whenever I mention God, they assume a sort of white bearded guy above the clouds, something easily ridiculed…and insist that I stay away from the word God unless that’s what I really mean. So we have long discussions about what word I can use in place of God that conveys love, awe, purpose, mystery, all the attributes that form the common denominator of the various religions. There exists no word other than God and I’m rendered speechless. Meanwhile, their tirade continues against Christianity, on the assumption that all forms are antiquated.

    Wilderness: Not knowing exactly where you fall on the scale of atheist to agnostic to theist, if I happen to be critiquing you in this conversation, well…my bad!

  3. Well, that’s exactly the problem. You use the term “God”, but have redefined it to mean something other than what the listener perceives the common Christian definition to be.

    Of course, in my opinion, if that listener definition is indeed a white bearded man, easily ridiculed, then I would find the definition ridiculous as no one but the listener would define it that way. Certainly the normal theist wouldn’t, so where does it come from? Merely an argument point, not conducive to discussion or debate?

    Lately my own discussions have centered around creationism, where the term “creator” is acceptable and generally understood by both sides. Unfortunately as soon as the discussion moves away from creation to other attributes (functions, description, location, etc.) the term fails and “God” once more is used. To poor effect as everyone has a personal definition of the word just as you say.

    A problem indeed.

  4. “Creator” is descriptive, though it does not hold the same meaning as “God.” Creator is sterile by comparison.

    I argue that I have not redefined the word God, but have merely stripped away the excess, facilitating interfaith communication. Much the way a Buddhist would speak of God to a Christian, and be understood because of the presumed differences in understanding. That is, after all, the core of Liberal Christianity … interfaith acceptance. We prefer Jesus as our guy, but don’t deny other religious teachers their role. Thus we must scale down the conservative Christian God to a common denominator between faiths. And that common denominator does not necessarily include God being a creator, nor is it the “common Christian understanding”…yet.

    So does that mean we liberals can’t call ourselves Christians? Maybe it does. My atheist friends think so.

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