Modern Distractions

By Willimon, William H. | The Christian Century, November 5, 1997 | Go to article overview

Modern Distractions


Willimon, William H., The Christian Century


While attending a conference recently I had the chance to get to know Marcus Borg, one of the best-known participants in the Jesus Seminar and author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Borg is refreshingly different from some of the self-promoting, sensationalist members of the Jesus Seminar. And he rises above the spurious claims of some biblical scholars who claim to work "nonconfessionally"--which usually means that they have no church other than the academy. Borg is a church member (his wife is an Episcopal priest). He also has a disarmingly irenic spirit about him. To my mind, however, most of the efforts of the Jesus Seminar suggest the last gasp of modernity--it's the 19th-century "quest" redivivus, one last hurrah for the liberal Jesus.

I have just finished teaching an undergraduate course called "Jesus Through the Centuries." The students read selections from such authors as H. S. Remarus and D. F. Strauss. They liked Borg's book best, though they had difficulty figuring out what is so new about the allegedly "new quest" of the historical Jesus. Remarus despised the church as much as anyone in the Jesus Seminar. Moreover, the act of letting modernity set the rules for evidence and then noting that little in the Gospels' account of Jesus passes muster is by now a rather old story.

Borg has certain postmodern tendencies that set him apart from some of his Jesus Seminar colleagues. Borg regards Jesus as a "spirit person," a challenging, enigmatic teacher who is peculiarly in touch with God. Borg's colleague, the founder of the seminar, Robert Funk, seems by contrast like an unreconstructed modernist, determined to fix Jesus within the limited categories of modernity. Borg wants a richer-textured portrait of Jesus, a Jesus who does not have to submit to our positivistic, materialist criteria. Thus the term "spirit person."

Borg rejects the reductionism of those who want us to choose either the meager historical Jesus or an uncritical affirmation of the church's canonical Jesus. As he puts it, "I am a Jesus scholar and a Christian." Yet his severance of the "pre-Easter Jesus" from the "post-Easter Jesus"--a fairly typical move for those who can't place Easter within their systems of thought--seems overdrawn and unjustified. If God raised Jesus from the dead, then it is going to be terribly difficult, even for biblical scholars, to get back to Jesus before Easter. Resurrection, if it happens, would obliterate our limited notions of "past" and "present," "possible" and "impossible." Resurrection would, by definition, transform Jesus from being an object of historical study to being an actively revealing subject. Of course, if Jesus' resurrection did not happen (Borg himself does not deny that it happened), then I can't imagine why anyone would care about recovery of Jesus anyway.

I certainly resonate with Borg's picture of Jesus as a subversive who challenged the "domination systems" (to use Walter Wink's term). In any account of Jesus, we must account for the most solid historical facts about him, namely that he was Jewish and that he was crucified. The Jesus Seminar has been roundly criticized by Richard Hays and others for being fixated on the words of Jesus and ignoring his deeds. The seminar's list of stories and aphorisms attributed to Jesus cannot account for Jesus' martyrdom. Nor, by the way, does it account for why he attracted followers who were themselves willing to be martyred.

The nonwonder-working, nonapocalyptic teacher who emerges from much of the seminar's work is not the kind of figure who fits with the history of what happened to and after Jesus. I hear that the seminar is working on a volume about What Jesus Really Did. Borg suspects that it was Jesus' cleansing of the temple that led to his arrest, so he can't be accused of focusing only on Jesus's

In a number of his books and lectures, Borg shares his own spiritual autobiography, including his escape from the clutches of midwestern Lutheran orthodoxy. …

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