“Speaking Christian” continues those interests by contrasting the meaning of some 20 terms and expressions as established by their usage within modern American Christianity and the biblical and early Christian tradition.
He begins by exploring the role language plays in cultural and especially religious formation. To be the member of a community, especially a faith community, is to be one who not only speaks its language but is formed by its “cultural-linguistic traditions.” That is why Borg decides against the option of finding new language to express Christian understandings about God and God’s claim on all of life. If our faith language has failed — either through misunderstanding by the faithful or rejection by those outside the community — then it must be “redeemed” rather than “replaced.”
Borg argues Christian language does indeed fail in precisely those ways in our society and offers two explanations for why. First, Christian language has, in his view, been forced into a “heaven-and-hell framework” that reduces Christianity to a means for finding forgiveness for sins through belief in Jesus’ death in order to obtain the afterlife. The second problem is “literalism” rooted in an empirical understanding of reality and language that only emerged with the Enlightenment. By contrast, both Scripture and Christianity through most of its history shared a “historical-metaphorical approach” to language that sees it as having “more-than-literal, more-than-factual, more-than-historical meaning.” His critique of both the “heaven-and-hell framework” and “literalism” is that they are too limiting to account for the fullness of Christianity.
The remaining chapters take up key words and concepts in Scripture and Christian tradition to show they cannot always be forced into the “heaven-and-hell framework” or understood only in a “literal” sense. Taking his first example, he maintains that “salvation” is only occasionally about “the afterlife” but is widely used in Scripture to describe liberation from bondage, return from exile, rescue from peril, recovery of sight, wholeness and even life, and establishing justice and peace — often both literally and metaphorically and for both individuals and communities.
The value of the book is less in its details than in its basic premise. If we use Christian language in ways that limit its meanings to a concern for a personal afterlife, then we have made Christianity fundamentally different than it was at its beginning and has been through much of its history.
Timothy B. Cargal is the PCUSA Interim Associate for Preparation for Ministry/Exams in the Office of the General Assembly.