Reclaiming Christian Language

“Reclaiming Christian Language: Rebooting Our Concepts,” Jim Turner


Exodus 34:29-35

2nd Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Speaking Christian, Introduction,

p.6 (1st paragraph), by Marcus Borg



Marcus Borg starts the introduction to his book, Speaking Christian, by saying, “Christian language has become a stumbling block in our time.” (Speaking Christian, Marcus Borg, p.6)   Many of you have articulated the reality that many Christian expressions have become awkward for us.  We hear amongst ourselves such questions as, “How do I respond to this language when used by right wing Christians?” and “What do I do with Christian language in the twenty-first century?”  We make comments such as, “The word ‘salvation’ doesn’t make sense to me anymore, or “I don’t like the term ‘born again.”  Hence, this morning, and the next two Sundays will be devoted to the issue of, “How do we reclaim Christian language.  The intention is for us to do this through interactive services.  We hope that together we can learn the process of “hospitable discernment.”  I’ve been assigned the task of introducing you to this three week series and giving you an overview of where we hope to travel together.  Keep in mind that we cannot resolve all of these questions in three weeks.  Hopefully, however, we can begin a process of respectful assessment that will become a tool for each of us as we continue to reclaim our Christian language.  Steffanie: Jim, will we talk about (a word or concept of your choice)?

The difficulty, Borg points out, comes from two key origins.  He says, “The first is the literalization of language in the modern period…”  The second, he says, is “…the interpretation of Christian language within a common framework that [he calls] ‘heaven and hell’ Christianity.” (Borg, p.6)  Borg goes on to say:

About half (maybe more) of American Christians believe that biblical language is to be understood literally within a heaven-and-hell framework that emphasizes the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus dying for our sins, and believing.

To take scripture literally means assuming scripture is to be read as the “literal and absolute representations of the inerrant revelation of God.” (Borg, p.12)  

This is a relatively new problem.  Taking scripture as the literal, factual, and inerrant words of God has only been around for the last few centuries.  It was first avowed just over three centuries ago in the second half of the 1600s. (Borg, p. 23)  When I did my graduate work in the Divinity school of Vanderbilt University, a relatively centrist seminary, we were taught to read and interpreted scripture from a historical and metaphorical approach.  Unfortunately, the approach of the Ivey Tower has somehow not trickled down to the masses!  That has been unfortunate.

To look at the scriptures historically, means to ask the question, “What would the words, statements, and ideas presented in scripture have meant at the time they were spoken?  What were the culture, knowledge, and situation of the people sharing their stories?”  We know the Genesis writer, for example, knew nothing of our universe, let alone that it exists in a multiversity, the extent of which we are not able to fathom.  When Paul wrote that women should be quiet at church, he was living and writing in a male dominated culture.  It is obvious in later writings that Paul had become more open to female leadership, even encouraging it.

To read the scriptures metaphorically, means asking “What might be the meanings beyond the meanings?”  Native American story tellers start their stories with something like,

I do not know if it actually happened this way, but I know this story is true.”(I.e. Black Elk)   

The way Marcus Borg put it,

…metaphorical language, especially religious language, often has a more-than-literal, more-than-factual, more-than-historical meaning.” (Borg, p.27)  

Another way of saying it is that metaphorical/religious language is more than true.  It is language which speaks to a truth which is something more than the word or story itself.  Tom: Jim, I’m struggling with (a word or concept of your choice)?

Now, we are not biblical scholars.  We have not studied in depth the history and culture of Jesus’ time, let alone the pre-history of the Hebrew people.  Furthermore, we live in a period of history and a culture which tends to look at words and stories as either fictional or historical.  Furthermore, we have grown up in a Christian culture which, as Borg says, is steeped in a theology which has understood Jesus to have died for our sins so we could get to heaven.  We tend to read the scriptures with glasses the color of that view.  It is no wonder these words and stories are difficult for us in our modern, scientific era.  So, how do we go about reclaiming the language of our Christian heritage?

Most, if not all of us, have read scholarly works by such people as Marcus Borg.  This congregation has brought members of the scholarly Jesus Seminar, such as Borg and Robin Myers here to speak.  Many, if not most of us are hear because we have begun to take of our old pair of glasses and are seeking to refocus our eyes on what lays before us. I’m probably “speaking to the choir” when I share Borg’s “literalization of language” and “heaven and hell” framework.  We understand these concepts.  But how do we use them to reboot the language?

I believe we reboot the language and concepts of our faith best by looking at them in community.  With regard for each other’s perspective, we look together at words and ideas from scripture, keeping in mind the cultural period they come from.  In that atmosphere we ask our questions; we listen to each other; and we seek to reach an understand of the metaphorical meaning a story might originally have had.  We may not all reach the same conclusion, but respecting each other’s perspective, we search for how these images may inform our living in this place, at this time as opposed to some future space and epoch.  In such a discernment process we learn from each other.  We will need to be hospitable, open, to one another’s input and to where we each end up at the end of our journey.

Let me try and share one deeply moving experience I had with this kind of process.  It was a much longer and more focused route than we are traveling these three weeks.  Nevertheless, it is a good example of what happens when a group of people come together in Respectful Discernment.  

The congregation was not “Open and Affirming” like ours is.  I had invited people to spend 12 weeks with mean discerning what the Gospel message was for their congregation as they related to Gay and Lesbian Christians.  I had hoped for a group of about ten.  Thirty congregants took me up on my enticement, way more than could carry on a reasonable discussion.  I had also asked a lesbian couple to join us in our journey, so we could talk with them rather than about them.  We opened each week’s meeting with a brief worship.  Then, given the size of the group, we divided into two discussion groups.  After respectful conversations the two subgroups came back together to share what each group had discovered and we closed each session with communion.  

Early on we looked at those passages of scripture which are often quoted around GLBT issues.  We put these writings in their historical cultural context, and compared them to Jesus’ way of relating to those who were marginalized in his day.  Finally we shared our own stories and feelings, many of them coming out of personal experiences.  The congregants were so hospitable by the third week a young deaconess in the congregation come tearfully came out, telling her personal story of her discovery and her family’s early response.  Her church family’s response was immediate and totally accepting of her.   

At the end of this journey not everyone came out at the same place. We found that not everyone could affirm gay and lesbian relationships.  On the other hand, everyone came to the conclusion that the gospel message is that everyone should be accepted for whom they are, and no one should be excluded from any part of the life of the congregation.

As I said, there is no way that we can do something like these folks did in the next two weeks.  Furthermore, we are not wishing to be so singularly focused in what we want to do.  What we hope to accomplish in the next two Sundays is to experience in a small way this kind of discernment around Christian terms and ideas you find problematic.  Garrett: Jim, What about (a word or concept of your choice)?

The hope is that what we begin here will be seeds for future discovery.  I think what we want to encourage is a continuation of what goes on with our young people each Sunday at NCC.  Perhaps my own early development in another progressive congregation might be nformative.  As a young person in the church, like Moses, I had a veil over my head.  In my young, concrete understanding of things, I understood the Creation stories of Genesis to be literal truth.  In school I began to learn about the origins of the universe and evolution of life on our planet’  I began to find the Genesis story a “stumbling block.”  Through a caring community of Sunday school classes, worship services, and youth group gatherings I experienced many “hospitable discernment” opportunities.  Over the years I learned that in their day Biblical story tellers did not differentiate between history, science, and theology the way we do today.  I also learned about the metaphorical language Biblical story tellers used to tell their stories… not unlike Native American story tellers of today.  When I read narratives from Black Elk he starts with:

I do not know if it actually happened this way, but I know this story is true.

I learned these things through in a trusting community where I could ask questions, listen to what other’s thought, and express my own ideas.  Via this kinship experience I came to see the Genesis story as a metaphorical story, albeit steeped in ancient knowledge of the physical world they knew.  Allegorically these ancient writers sought to explain what was then the unexplainable.  Freed up from my early literal understanding of this story I began to find a meaning in this story which fit my needs. I’ve come to see in the Genesis creation the story of my and your development, with all of its pitfalls.  Like Adam and Eve, we all come into this life naked.  We are totally dependent upon our god.  Early on this god is our mother and/or father.  Knowledge of right and wrong is yet to come in our development.  As we grow, we learn we are expected to cover our nakedness; that we must decide between right and wrong; and that life is a struggle.  That is, we must leave Father and Mother and make our own way in life.

Both of my examples of discerning the meaning of Christian language; or, if you will, rebooting that language for the 21st century, were lengthy passage.  We obviously cannot duplicate these kinds of journeys through two more worship services.  But, we can share with one-another our own stumbling blocks in Christian language  We can share what we have discovered so far.  We can begin to discern new meanings for ourselves; meanings which better meet our individual needs and the needs of our world.  We can respond to the Apostle Paul’s invitation to take the veil off and see more clearly.  Hopefully we can begin to reclaim at least a little more of the language of our heritage.  Stephaney, Tom, and Garrett have already started what we would like you to do early in our excursion next week.  Over this week consider what Christian words or concepts, what in Christian language becomes a stumbling block for you.  Bring one or two with you next Sunday and offer them up for healthy discussion, Hospitable Discernment.  Steffanie, Tom, and Garrett, thank you for leading the way for us.