Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally

Like his earlier book, this one is written for lay people whose faith has been frustrated by their misapprehension that fundamentalism’s claim to be the one true faith is valid. Borg, a professor of religion at Oregon State University, describes an alternative to fundamentalists’ so-called “literal” readings of scripture. (He believes that such “literal-factual” readings do not live up to that description, and that the limitations of such readings have alienated many people who would otherwise remain part of the church.) Borg calls his alternative “historical-metaphorical” reading, a way of “taking the Bible seriously without taking it literally.” Study guide available, by FaithFutures.

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Review & Commentary

One thought on “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally

  1. Review

    By the title of his book, Marcus Borg assumes that most people who purchase his book have read the Bible, but he wants to point to a way of reading it again as if "for the first time." One common way of reading the Bible is through a "literal-factual" lens, which is central to Christian fundamentalists and conservative-evangelicals. For them, this way has made the Bible the inerrant and infallible Word of God. But for many other Christians this way has made the Bible "incredible and irrelevant." Another way to read the Bible is through the "historical-metaphorical" lens, which "makes persuasive and compelling sense" for moderate-to-liberal Christians. If the reader of this book has been reading the Bible in the "literal-factual" way, to one degree or another, reading it in the "historical-metaphorical" way will result in reading it "again for the first time." It will mark the end of taking the Bible literally but not seriously and mark the beginning of "taking the Bible seriously but not literally."

    In Part One of the book, Marcus Borg discusses the sources of the conflict between the two ways seeing and reading the Bible which is "the single greatest issue dividing Christians in North America today." One source of the "literal-factual" way is the Protestant Reformation, in particular the second and third generation reformers who claimed "plenary inspiration" for the Bible – the idea that God dictated the words of the Bible and therefore it is free from error. The other source is fundamentalism, which originated in the twentieth century as a reaction to modem culture and stresses the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. He points out that the "literal-factual" way of seeing the Bible is "not the Christian tradition." It is a historically conditioned way, undergirded by a particular form of conservative nineteenth and twentieth Protestant theology.

    Borg then explores three foundational questions separating the two ways: questions about the origins of the Bible, its authority, and its interpretation. Borg devotes a chapter to each question. The question of origin, "Does it come from God, or is it a human product?" The question of authority, "Is the Bible an "authority standing above us," or the "ground of the world in which Christians live?" The question of interpretation, "Is the Bible to be read through the "literal-factual" lens or through the lens of the "historical- metaphorical."

    Seeing the Bible as a human response to God, as sacred scripture for three religious traditions, and read through the lens of history and metaphor, Borg devotes Part Two, to the Hebrew Bible and reading the Creation Stories, the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and Israel’s Wisdom literature again. Part III is devoted to the Christian Testament and reading the Gospels, Paul, and Revelation again. Each chapter, representing the fruit of thirty-five years of studying and teaching the Bible, is an exploration and illumination of what it means to read the Bible as a combination of history and metaphor.

    Borg points out that since the Bible is foundational for Christianity, the way we see and read the Bible determines how we see and understand Christianity. A "literal-factual" way of seeing and reading the Bible, Borg suggests, results in an understanding of Christianity that is doctrinal, moralistic, patriarchal, exclusivistic and afterlife oriented. In contrast, the "historical-metaphorical" way of seeing and reading the Bible results in a different understanding of Christianity. Borg shares three "primary convictions" which derive from what he hears as the "major voices of the biblical tradition." First, God "transcends all our domestications of reality, including those generated by theology and even the Bible itself." God is knowable experientially as the sacred Mystery "in whom we live and move and have our being." Second, "Christian faith is not about believing, but about faithfulness" to our relationship with God, the sacred. This relationship is "life lived in accord with radical monotheism: centering one’s life in God rather than in the rival lords of culture and convention. And third, God is a God of "justice and compassion." Borg writes, "The God of the Bible is full of compassion and passionate about justice . . . God cares about suffering, and the single greatest source of unnecessary, human misery is unjust and oppressive cultural systems."

    On this biblical foundation, the Christian life is seen as participation in the justice and compassion of God which is focused in what is known as the twofold "great" commandment attributed to Jesus and which Borg calls the "great relationship." His paraphrase is illuminating: "The first relationship is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the great and first relationship. And as second relationship is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ On these two relationships depend all the Law and the Prophets.’"This is a unique book, which will be a treasure to anyone striving to be faithful to the Biblical vision of life in relationship with God.

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