"…he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." Matthew 7:29


religion borg
Image: Corey Arnold

Dr. Marcus Borg and his dog, Henry, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Northwest Portland.

Dr. Marcus Borg

Canon Theologian, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, marcusjborg.com

Doctor Marcus Borg is gregarious in conversation. His eyes widen. He leans over the table, his body almost parallel to the table where he’s enjoying his morning coffee. The air erupts with the wide swoops and rapid chops of his arms. It’s as if the knowledge acquired from 41 years of teaching religious studies (which Borg retired from two years ago) still courses through his body. Small wonder that the world-renowned scholar on the historical Jesus has written four best-sellers (most notably Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary), been a guest on the Today Show and Dateline, and for 13 years held the Hundere Chair in Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. Described by his peers as “a key force in the emerging ‘new paradigm’ of Christian faith,” Borg makes the typically stuffy world of theology not only approachable but, dare we say it, fun.

“At OSU, around 50 percent of my students had a tremendously negative view of Christianity,” Borg says, preemptively removing his coffee mug from the table lest his perambulations send it flying. “For them, Christians were, and I’ll use their five favorite adjectives: literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, bigoted, and judgmental. That’s the public face of Christianity.”

Which is why the 67-year-old considers emerging Christianity such an important new movement in modern religion, and why it remains a more and more popular topic on the lecture circuit—Borg logs over 100,000 miles a year speaking at churches the world over. “This way of seeing things has made it possible for me to be a wholehearted Christian,” Borg says, “and I think that’s true for millions of other people as well.”

In contrast to conservative evangelism, which mostly holds firm to the idea first floated during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries that the Bible is an infallible document (as well as a literal translation born from the conflict of Christianity and the birth of modern science), emerging Christianity’s tenets are far less strenuous. Congregations are more concerned with this life than the next life. Members attend intentionally, not out of any sense of tradition, habit, or cultural expectation. The movement’s progressive theology means the Bible is read as a historical-metaphorical document that sees no fundamental conflict between Christianity and science, and that affirms religious pluralism. Members tend to be progressive both socially and politically. And the Christian gospel is about transformation—of the self and the world.

The move away from fire and brimstone toward a more introspective, service-based belief system is what Borg thinks has helped emerging church congregations to gain such a firm toehold in Portland. “For many people, especially those under 40, Christianity has become like a foreign language,” Borg says. “I’ve found that living in an unchurched part of the country has forced me, and therefore enabled me, to talk about religion in other than traditional Christian language.”

Liberal Christians like himself, Borg explains, have long been better known for what they preferred not to believe. With the emerging church, that’s changing. “They take the Bible very seriously, but I don’t for a minute think that it’s inherent,” he says. “The fear of some people is that emerging churches are moving too far away from the scriptures. I would say that it’s not that they’re moving away from the Bible as they’re recovering the Bible as a story, symbol, and metaphor.” —Bart Blasengame