Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – and How They Can Be Restored by Marcus J. Borg, HarperOne, NY, 2011; 248 pages, ISBN 978-0-06-197655-1, hardback $25.99.
Christianity as generally presented is centered on the afterlife, sin, and personal salvation through a savior who died to save those who believe that he died for their sins. Many Christians and non-Christians unquestioningly accept this description. However, it is not the author's view of Christianity nor, he argues, the traditional one, and a misunderstanding of language is a large part of the problem:
Christian language has become a stumbling block in our time. Much of its basic vocabulary is seriously misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike. Big words like salvation, saved, sacrifice, redeemer, redemption, righteousness, repentance, mercy, sin, forgiveness, born again, second coming, God, Jesus and Bible and collections of words life the creeds, Lord's Prayer, and liturgies have acquired meanings that are serous distortions of their biblical and traditional meanings. – p. 1
For example, "redeem" originally did not mean to be freed from sins by the death of Jesus, but to be set free from slavery, bondage and captivity. The interpretation of Jesus' death as a substitutionary sacrifice, that he died to pay for humanity's sins, was only formulated in 1097 by Anselm of Canterbury. Again, before the 1600s, the word "believe" did not mean the belief that something is true but rather to believe in something, in the sense of loving and having confidence in it. It was about giving one's heart to something, not giving mental assent. He concludes:
"When Christianity is about 'correct beliefs,' it does become complex.
"But ultimately, the central message of Christianity is simple. It is about loving God and loving what God loves. That means loving God as disclosed in the Bible and most decisively revealed in Jesus. Jesus is the incarnation, the embodiment, of what can be seen of God's character and passion in a life lived among us. His passion was the kingdom of God – what life would be like on a transformed earth. The world is God's passion.
"Christianity is a magnificent tradition. Like all religious and human traditions, it has its shadow side. But at its best, it is about truth, goodness, and beauty. And it addresses the two great human yearnings – our ongoing for personal transformation and our desire that the world be a better place. The Christian message reduced to its essentials is: love God (as known in Jesus) and change the world.
"Claiming this vision involves reclaiming Christian language. How we understand 'speaking Christian' matter." – pp. 237-8
This is a powerful, well-argued book with a great deal of heart as well. It expands the possibilities in Christianity and provides much food for thought for both Christians and non-Christians. At the same time it is very much about looking at the world through the Christian lens, and reading it made me acutely aware that I am not a Christian. – Sarah Belle Dougherty