Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored


“This book could start a revolution. Borg cracks open the encrusted words of faith and pops them into fresh language that people can understand and trust. The last time this happened, we got the Reformation.” (Anne Sutherland Howard, Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society )Speaking Christian correctly may seem like it’s just a fuss over semantics, but it’s ultimately about something bigger: defining Christianity… When Christians forget what their words mean, they forget what their faith means. (CNN )

About the Author

Marcus J. Borg is Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. He was Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007. Borg is the author of nineteen books, including the bestselling The Heart of ChristianityMeeting Jesus Again for the First TimeReading the Bible Again for the First Time, and the novel Putting Away Childish Things. He was an active member of the Jesus Seminar when it focused on the historical Jesus, and he has been chair of the Historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Review & Commentary

  • Dean Watt

    Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power
    Marcus Borg
    Harper One; HarperCollins New York, NY, 2011

    The distortions in use and understanding of what Borg calls “Christian Language” has played an important role in the turning away from the Christian Faith that is so widespread in the past and current century. It has also had a role in the splintering of Christianity into literally thousands of separate churches, with new ones appearing daily. There is such diversity among these groups that one wonders how they can all claim the label “Christian”.

    Borg states on the inside cover, “Modern Christians are steeped in a language so distorted that it has become a stumbling block to the religion.” Very few Christians are aware that the language they think they speak so fluently is, in fact, very often distorted, misunderstood and misused.

    Borg renders a valuable service to all Christians by making us aware of what our misunderstanding comes from and what it produces. He states that the first cause is the literalization of language in the modern era. The second is the adoption of what he calls the “heaven and hell” framework in contemporary Christianity.

    For many, the choice has been to either accept the biblical language literally, with all the confusing and contradicting models for Christian living, or discard it all as irrelevant or even ludicrous.

    Borg believes that about half or more of modern day Christians believe that biblical language is to be taken literally, emphasizing a heaven-and-hell framework and emphasizing the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, with Jesus dying for our sins. It is in response to this distortion that Borg writes this book, offering an alternative understanding of our faith. This alternative draws both on the Bible and on premodern Christian tradition. He presents to us the more ancient and authentic meanings of “speaking Christian”, connecting these to our twenty-first century realities.

    Borg grew up within and is still a part of the Episcopal Church. He has found it not only possible, but meaningful, to understand the origins of the rites and rituals of his church, but to see them with the eyes of an objective scholar, a view not always appreciated by some of his Episcopalian brethren.

    Twenty-one of his chapters focus on a subject that has become important to many Christians, but that he claims have become distortions of their original meanings. Each of these chapters is rich in meaning and well worth the reading, but for this review I will select only two chapters.

    Chapter three is titled “Salvation”, which has become for many the very most fundamental issue of life and the one critical element any religion. “Are you saved?” What else could really matter? Saved from what? The fundamentalist answer, of course, is saved from Hell. “Saved” means destined for Heaven.

    I recall the words very clearly that I enjoyed singing as a youth; “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angles beckon me from heaven’s open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

    And what is a consequence of this theology? Simply that Christians need not be very concerned about conditions in our present world, as we are here but briefly and will then spend eternity in heaven.

    My home church was not involved in programs to help the poor, or to do away with prejudice toward the blacks or Hispanics in our community. We instead held revival meetings to “save souls”, and I was “saved” at age fourteen.

    Another consequence is the obligation to commit to carrying out missions worldwide to persuade people of all other religions to abandon their ancient faiths and to accept our American, protestant, conservative Christian religion. (Their conversion to Roman Catholicism would be to a sadly faulty faith.)

    Borg goes on to clarify that this concept of “Salvation” is accompanied by considerable baggage that is often not even questioned. It presents a God who is not only annoyed or dissatisfied with his creation of human beings, but is, in fact, so angry that he plans to bring death to the whole lot of them. He is only dissuaded from this action by the persuasion of his “Son”, Jesus, who offered himself as a substitute recipient of God’s wrath. “If you just have to beat the !@#$ out of someone, do it to me and not to them.”

    But a very different interpretation is offered in Borg’s third chapter, where he offers the biblical concept of salvation as the transformation of this side of death, about personal and even political transformation, that our lives as individual and in communities is lifted to a higher level of being.
    He points out that the people of ancient Israel didn’t even believe in an afterlife. He goes on to say that while “In the New Testament Salvation is occasionally about an afterlife”. . . “.most of the time it is not.” Instead, it more often relates to the status of the Jews under Roman rule and looks toward “Liberation from Bondage”, such as had occurred in the exodus from Egypt.

    This is a too brief sample of one of his chapters and he goes on to offer chapters on such topics as: The Bible, God, Jesus, Easter, Mercy, Sin, Forgiveness and Repentance, Born Again, The Ascension, Pentecost, The Rapture and the Second Coming, Heaven, and still more.

    I found the chapter on Heaven interesting for a number of reasons; first is his making us aware of the different meanings of the word; including the “after-life” that is a common Christian understanding. But he states that the Bible has a number of meanings that are not about an afterlife. Sometimes the word means the abode of God, as in the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven”. Sometimes the word simply means “the sky”. . . “Sometimes it is a synonym for God, as in Mathew’s Gospel.”

    This brings Borg to stating his personal view on an after-life, which I welcomed and found refreshing. He states: “In the precise sense of the word, I am an agnostic about what happens after death. An agnostic is ‘one who doesn’t know’”. He then continues, clarifying with, “I am aware that I cannot resolve my uncertainty by deciding to believe something in particular. Believing does not make something true.”

    I found his comfort as “not knowing” something a welcome trait in a person of the Faith.
    In his conclusion, Borg states the importance he feels resides in the issue of how to understand Christian language; “It not only divides American Christianity, but it also an issue elsewhere in the world. In the global Anglican communion, of which I am a member, a literal and absolute understanding of particular biblical texts threatens Anglican unity and could even lead to the expulsion of the American Episcopal Church.”

    But even more important than church unity, which has never yet existed, is that of the question, what is Christianity about? Is it only about individuals and whether they are going to heaven or hell after their death?

    Borg makes clear that believes that while Christianity is about individuals and their personal lives, it is also about “the dream of God”, God’s passion for a transformed world here and now.”

    He goes on to include the world of nature and the whole of creation. While he calls this “utopian”, one Greek meaning of which is “no place”, he instead chooses the meaning “the good place”, the “blessed place”, the “ideal place”, which he acknowledges will never occur, but toward which we are called as Christians to move toward that vision.

    Reviewer: Dean Watt, Th.M.