The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions

MeaningofJesusOne of my great passions, aside from reading, blogging, and theatre, is theology. When I’m not at work or immersed in leisure reading, I’m probably studying for one of my theology classes (I’m slooooowly working towards a master’s degree) or preparing for a theological discussion group at church. Over the last several months, my discussion group has been reading The Meaning of Jesus by Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright.

Borg and Wright are an odd pair because they represent distinctly different sides of the debate within Christianity about Jesus’s nature and identity. Borg’s perspective is commonly described as revisionist, while Wright has a more traditional view. In this book, the two scholars take turns sharing their thoughts on Jesus’s divinity, his life, his death, his resurrection, and so on.

What really stands out about this book is how the two men can argue so passionately, but respectfully about things that they take very seriously. This statement in the introduction sets the tone:

Neither of us is content to let things rest with a cheap and easy suggestion that, since we are both practicing Christians, our two positions are equally valid—whatever that might mean. It might be that both our positions are equivalent and fairly adequate expressions, from different points of view, of the same underlying reality. Neither of us quite thinks that. It might be that we are both wrong, and that some quite different position is truer. Neither of us thinks that, either. It might be that one of us is closer to the truth in some areas, and the other in others; and that by our dialogue we may see more clearly things that the other has grasped more accurately. We are both prepared for that eventuality.

For the most part, the two men maintain this attitude throughout the book. They argue with firmness and conviction, occasionally making digs at the other’s arguments, but they never get personal or seem angry. In a day when theological discussions about trivial matters quickly disintegrate into back-biting and name-calling, it’s refreshing to see civil discourse about something that, to the Christian, must be of the utmost importance.

In general, I found Borg’s writing to be more consistently engaging and more accessible. Borg, however, was too quick to make arguments like this:

I cannot imagine the return of Christ. If we try to imagine that, we have to imagine him returning to some place. To be very elementary, we who know the earth to be round cannot imagine Jesus returning to the whole earth at once. And the notion of a localized second coming boggles the imagination. I do not think it will happen.

I can come up with plenty of reasons to think that the second coming of Jesus is not going to be much like what is pictured in books like Left Behind (and Wright, incidentally, presents several such arguments), but once you’ve accepted the existence of an omnipotent God, it seems preposterous to say that such a God can’t do something simply because you can’t imagine it. Seems like a failure of imagination to me.

Where Borg fails to come across as a serious scholar with arguments like this, Wright comes across as too scholarly. Several people in my group complained that his sections were a tough slog. It was difficult to connect all the dots in his discussions of what first-century Judaism can tell us about Jesus. But in other sections, he argues with a wonderful blend of logic and passion. Borg was more consistently engaging, but my favorite passages all came from Wright.

So does this book have anything to offer someone who isn’t a theology geek, or even a Christian? I think the best thing that it offers is balance. I know Christians and non-Christians alike who are interested in these questions, but it’s extremely difficult to find literature that takes an unbiased look at what Christians believe about Jesus. By joining forces, Borg and Wright have given readers a good overview of the debate, from the horses’ own mouths.

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4 Responses to The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions

  1. JaneGS says:

    What an interesting review of what sounds like an interesting book. I like the way it’s constructed, and if nothing else, serves as a model for how theological discussions should be managed (civil, balanced, and without animosity, much less bloodshed).

    Though I have never taken a theology class, I do go through spurts when I can’t get enough of this type of book. A few years ago I read From Jesus to Christ (Paula Frederikson), which I absolutely loved.

    >Borg was more consistently engaging, but my favorite passages all came from Wright.
    Interesting how that turned out :)

  2. Teresa says:

    JaneGS: Yes, this is a great model. So many books on topics like this express only one point of view, and readers may not even be aware that there are good arguments for the other side.

    I haven’t read the Frederikson book, but I did see a good documentary of the same name a while back. I wonder if it’s related. I’d guess from the title that she’s more on Borg’s side of the spectrum.

    I suspect that my liking of certain passages of Wright’s have to do with the fact that I was inclined to agree with him a lot of the time :-) And, when his arguments were clear, they always seemed very strong to me. Borg’s arguments were always clear to me, but not always so strong.

  3. Dorothy W. says:

    This sounds interesting! I’m thinking of reading another Borg book at some point (Meeting Jesus Again), so I’m glad to hear a little about what else he’s written and what his perspective is. What a great concept for a book. to have the authors have a respectful back and forth — a real dialogue.

  4. Teresa says:

    Dorothy: I’ve not read any of Borg’s other books, but I suspect the one you mention covers a lot of the same topics as this one. Although I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, I think he has some valuable insights that are worth chewing over. I do love books like this one where you can get lots of points of view at once and evaluate them side by side. Wright has done a similar book to this one with John Dominic Crossan on the resurrection that I may read eventually.

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