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True Stories
that are not literally true


Just days before Christmas last year, the Kane County Chronicle carried an article about Northern Illinois Bishop C. Joseph Sprague's review of Marcus J. Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Borg is a major player in the Jesus Seminar.

Responses to the review have occasioned two articles of clarification by Bishop Sprague in the Northern Illinois edition of the United Methodist Reporter. In his most recent column, he noted accusatory and hostile letters he had received and expressed amazement at the "incivility" of some "Christian" attacks. He also admitted that as a public figure, he must "stand the test of fair critiques, knowing that public people have little private space."

We, too, know what hostile and accusatory letters are like. Our exchanges should rise above such attacks. However, serious debate must not automatically be viewed as being hostile and accusatory. Rather, it's a necessary means of clarification about what we do and don't believe, so we can be held accountable in our covenant relationship. For sure, the bishop has raised issues the UM Church must discuss.

The concern about the review of Borg's controversial work is that Bishop Sprague acknowledged at the conclusion of his review that Borg's book is "a very provocative and, I think, very much on target piece of work" (emphasis mine).

The following is Borg's reflection of his first mainline seminary New Testament course:

"There I learned that the image of Jesus from my childhood-the popular image of Jesus as the divine savior who knew himself to be the Son of God and who offered up his life for the sins of the world-was not historically true. That, I learned, was not what the historical Jesus was like. I learned that the gospels are neither divine documents nor straightforward historical records. They are not divine products inspired directly by God, whose contents therefore are to be believed. Nor are they eyewitness accounts written by people who had accompanied Jesus."

Borg concludes, "My journey from the childhood state of precritical naiveté through the critical thinking of adolescence and adulthood now led to hearing John and the Bible as a whole in a state of postcritical naiveté-a state in which one can hear these stories as 'true stories' even while knowing that they are not literally true."

We can better understand the great gulf that exists between seminary lecture hall and pew when we hear about "true stories" that "are not literally true." It takes a liberal seminary education to understand that kind of talk.

The responses Bishop Sprague has received no doubt reflect the suspicion that something destructive is being done to the church's message, especially its Christology. Borg presents Jesus as a religious seeker who was made a messiah by the church.

About the crucifixion, Borg writes: "Moreover, this story is very hard to believe. The notion that God's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without that having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible. Taken metaphorically, this story can be very powerful. But taken literally, it is a profound obstacle to accepting the Christian message. To many people, it simply makes no sense, and I think we need to be straightforward about that."

Orthodox Christianity holds that the crucifixion is not an obstacle to the Christian message, it (along with the resurrection) is the Christian message. As Charles Wesley wrote, "Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"

Bishop Sprague raises further questions about his Christology, saying, "I believe that Jesus was fully human (how else could he be humankind's Savior?), who in his radical and complete trust in and commitment to the God he called 'Abba,' experienced such at-one-momentness with God that he revealed in and through himself the very heart, the essential nature of God. Thus, he was fully God, fully human-not by some trans-human altering of his genetic code, but by relationship with God, Neighbor and Self."

We would ask: is the Son a part of the eternal Godhead, that is, the Trinity? Again, were one of us to have radical and complete trust in and commitment to God, might we also attain that "at-one-momentness" with God, thus also revealing "the essential nature of God." If so, then in what way is Jesus unique?

The bishop implies something is being kept from the rest of the church. At the conclusion of his review, Bishop Sprague admitted, "We who are clergy have done a disservice to the laity for about 100 years. We've feared that if we told the truth about what we learned in seminary, [you laity] couldn't take it."

And what is it they have learned in seminary? It appears that what was learned is how to present the stories of the gospels as "true stories" while believing they are not literally true.


The above article is reprinted with permission from Good News Magazine, July/August 1997 Issue

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