Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Putting Away Childish Things: Marcus Borg's First Work of Fiction

I confess that when it comes to reading I am more comfortable in the realm of nonfiction than fiction. My wife often challenges me to provoke and develop my imagination by setting aside, even if it is just briefly, theology, philosophy, history, and other scholarly works, in order to pick up a novel or other form of creative and engaging fiction. I have heeded her advice on more than one occasion (I find this to be a wise move on my part, i.e. to listen to my wife when she speaks) and read in the recent past a few works that have allowed me to escape for brief periods of time the density of nonfiction. However, I have found that I cannot do this for long, as I prefer to stimulate the mind with the works of Moltmann, Barth, and Gutierrez versus the cleverly crafted fantasy worlds of past and present storytellers.

That being said, Marcus Borg’s first novel, Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, was a great read that I plowed through in a mere two days. I have always enjoyed and been challenged by Borg’s nonfictional reflections and theological contributions to the Christian faith. I have particularly appreciated his interaction with and reclaim of the validity of myth in regards to the gospel stories and the historical Jesus. Borg’s concepts and suggestions are neither without controversy, nor to be digested without a certain dose of critique. Nonetheless, there is much to be gained in reading such books as Jesus: A New Vision, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

This fascination with Borg’s scholarly contributions made the fictional tale both captivating and spiritually rewarding. The story interweaves Borg’s biblical insight, theological imagination, political wisdom, and ethical musings within an honest tale saturated with relatable characters and relevant plotlines. The bulk of the novel incorporates two parallel and interconnected stories. First, there is Kate Riley, a professor of Religious Studies at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Professor Riley is well known for her contributions to the academic world in regards to New Testament Studies and a beloved teacher in the student body. However, recently she has been under fire in the academy for being “overtly” Christian in the classroom and too “popular” in her publishing. On the flip side, the evangelical world has labeled her as a liberal fraud for her suggestions that much of the gospel writings are more connected to the memory and kerygma of the early church and disciples than factual accounts and literal teachings of a historical Jesus. That is to say, Kate Riley is caught in crossfire with only a few advocates and friends. Second, there are students such as Erin and Amy. These two friends are a part of a small Christian group called The Way, a conservative campus ministry that is apologetic and fundamentalist in nature. Erin and Amy are enrolled in a course with Riley that challenges their understandings, stretches their convictions, and reframes their spirituality. It could be said that the narrative of these two students is paradigmatic of many college students when they engage theology and religious discourse outside the church for the first time. They are surprised by how the freedom to ask questions, deconstruct their traditions, and engage “liberal” ideas not only breathes new meaning into their religious commitments, but also refreshes their passion and hope found in the Way and story of Jesus. However, like their teacher, their slow embrace and curiosity also causes conflict in their circle of friends.

Putting Away Childish Things, much akin to Borg’s scholastic work, unashamedly tackles tough and controversial subject matters. However, Borg’s fiction allows him to do so in a way that is new and clever, even somewhat generous. In other words, Borg’s carefully crafted story provides a framework that allows the reader to interact with his thoughts and ideas in a way that escapes his nonfiction, yet certainly compliments and buttresses it.

This text is a must read for anyone who has experienced cognitive dissonance between the academy and the ecclesia. This text is a formative read for those who find themselves interested and called to both the academy and the ecclesia. This text is a pastoral read for others who believe that mystery, wonder, and faith are sacred gifts of the Spirit that have often been overshadowed, in the academy and ecclesia, by modernist quests for certainty and assents towards absolutes. As with Borg’s nonfiction, Putting Away Childish Things should be read with care, caution, and within a community (which Borg, generously, provides resources to do so). But, Putting Away Childish Things, should without a doubt be read.

A great Christmas reflection from the novel:

Parables are about meaning, not factuality. And the truth of a parable is its meaning. Parables can be truthful, truth-filled, even while not being historically factual. And I apply this to the birth stories [of Jesus in Matthew and Luke]: we best understand them when we see them as parables and overtures, and when we don’t worry about or argue about whether they’re factual…And they are about God’s passion for a different kind of world. They’re about all of this. Even the themes of light and fulfillment are political as well as religious. They are the gospel in miniature. And just as the gospel- the good news about Jesus- is both religious and political, so are the Christmas stories”
(Kate Riley in a radio interview, pp. 26, 29).