Father Jones on Borg, Crossen, Spong and Pagels
There is an odd tendency in today's Episcopal churches -- particularly in urbane settings -- to focus on the writings of four people:
John Dominic Crossan
John Shelby Spong
Here’s why they’re of dubious value to the transformation of disciples of Jesus Christ in the Episcopal Church. Here's why I wish my colleagues would show some imagination and find some solid theological food for their flocks to consume -- and not the semi-gnostic theological pop tarts these folks are cooking up.
Marcus Borg (HarperSanFrancisco) may be the best of this bunch, but as a member of the Jesus Seminar, he bought into an organization with a terrible reputation for using the media shrewdly to disseminate their dubious findings. I have read his fairly recent book, ‘The Heart of Christianity,’ and I do like much of what he says – but I don’t trust his witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Marcus Borg has said, “The truth of Easter really has nothing to do with whether the tomb was empty on a particular morning 2,000 years ago or whether anything happened to the corpse of Jesus. I see the truth of Easter as grounded in the Christian experience of Jesus as a living spiritual reality of the present.” The problem with this statement is that goes against everything the disciples of Jesus Christ have said since that particular morning 2,000 years ago. What they said then – and the earliest accounts in the New Testament witness to it – “he rose.” The letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark (written between 49-62) attest very coherently to this core proclamation -- Jesus' dead body was placed in the tomb – then the tomb was empty – then many of us experienced him as a living spiritual and physical reality subsequently." It may be that these early disciples and witness of the resurrection were wrong – but what they said was, “We saw the Lord – as a living, spiritual and physical reality.” Anybody so willing to deny this key witness should not be a major influence in our church.
John Dominic Crossan (also on HarperSanFrancisco) is a founding member of the Jesus Seminar – and continues to hold no recognizably Christian theology of the incarnation, cross or resurrection. Sorry folks – the manger, cross and empty tomb matter form the furniture of the Gospel – and if they were real in the way you and I are real – there is no Gospel. According to Crossan, Jesus’ body was dumped and eaten by wild animals.
John Shelby Spong (HarperSanFrancisco) has written a lot of books. But, like many who have gotten a good start in the high-dollar publishing world, he will continue to publish books. He got a pretty good start several decades ago as the smart young rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. His book This Hebrew Lord wasn’t really too bad. But as the Bishop of Newark (New Jersey) he continued to put out books which got increasingly worse. His niche was “the skeptical bishop willing to question the basics of the Christian faith for intelligent readers of today.” It is notable that as his sales got bigger – for asking the bad-boy semi-agnostic questions typical to reasonably smart 10th graders in religion class – his diocese shrank. The diocese he oversaw shrank by more than a third in his tenure as a bishop. This alone renders him a dubious authority in my mind – but mainly what drives me nuts is his radically ‘modernist’ worldview. He is fond of describing the biblical and traditional Christian worldview as ‘pre-Copernican.’ As such, like many tired old Enlightenment-era modernists, Spong rejects things mysterious, miraculous, ethereal, or beyond human scientific comprehension. No wonder his diocese shrank like crazy (despite growth in the population it was located within.) Spong doesn’t believe in God in any way close to the traditional Christian faith.Elaine Pagels (Random House) has, like Jack Spong, had a long and productive publishing career. But, though he is not a scholar and is considered rather a joke to scholars, Pagels is a college professor – at Princeton. However, they are alike in another way. Just as one would expect a Bishop to believe and love every word of the Nicene Creed fully and completely – one would expect a professor at Princeton to be a competent scholar with a good reputation among her colleagues. Not so much. Apart from publishing a lot of popular books about gnosticism – she appears to have little of a truly scholarly nature in her canon of work. What’s worse, other scholars have pointed out a great many errors of fact in her popular work – which over time seem to represent her as a highly questionable authority.
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Friends – please – there are lots of people out there better in every way than these guys. If you think you need a ‘liberal’ perspective – try Stanley Hauerwas, William Stringfellow, Jim Wallis, Justo Gonzalez, Ellen Charry. If you think you want somebody post-modern – try Brian McLaren. Somebody looking for feminist perspectives – try Deirdre Good or Vanessa Ochs or Sandra Schneiders or on and on.
Luke Timothy Johnson, N.T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, and a host of others offer very solid mainstream and mainline perspectives on the Bible – in a very generously orthodox way – while preserving deep intellectual and scholarly integrity.We just don’t need to hear from Borg, Crossan, Pagels and Spong – they’re the product of big time publishing money, and a capacity to catch the public’s attention with ‘hot’ or ‘radical’ or ‘alternative’ perspectives.We can do better – and still fulfill our sense wanting an open-minded, inclusive, progressive and tolerant intellectual community.
Read it all.
There was a period of time when I read everything of Marcus Borg that I could find. That lead me to read The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), which was co-authored by both Borg and N.T. Wright. I then stopped reading Borg and read everything written by N.T. Wright that I could find. I have not read Borg since.
Borg is a better writer than Wright, but in the end I found the orthodox vision of Wright more satisfying and persuasive than Borg. I was especially influenced by Wright's persuasive argument about why we should believe in a real, physical Resurrection of Jesus--something that Borg hedges, at best.
I do not agree with Wright on everything (including his views on the current troubles in the Anglican Communion), but I will always be grateful to Borg for leading me to Wright. And now Father Jones has given me an even larger (and diverse) reading list.