The Bible: The Heart of the Tradition

This is the third teaching in the twelve part series based on Marcus Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity.

The Bible is foundational for the Christian faith.  Yet many people have left the church because of how the text has been handled, and how earlier Christianity has demanded that the Bible to be understood.  For people who grew up with the earlier Christian view, the Bible is seen as God’s product, so powerfully influenced by the Holy Spirit that it is inerrant (there are no errors) and infallible (it cannot be wrong).  To question this way of thinking about the Bible puts one immediately on thin ice, and may even call one’s faith into question.  According to foundational statements that support both Fundamental and Evangelical Christianity (both are earlier expressions of the faith), you are not a “real” Christian if you don’t see the Bible as God’s product.  And if you’re not a real Christian, you have no real hope.  Better invest in some fire-resistant pajamas for your afterlife experience…

If you’ve been raised in that earlier tradition, messing with the idea of the Bible as God’s product feels like heresy because that’s how you’ve been taught.  This is a terrifying venture.

Millions of people – and that number is growing – have simply walked away from even thinking about the Bible at all because they know enough to know that to see it as God’s product doesn’t make sense.  Yet the Bible is central to the Christian faith – to chuck it essentially destroys the faith, because it is the central text that shapes the faith in the first place.

This chapter of Borg’s book will be helpful for both types of readers, giving you a way to embrace the Bible without checking your brain at the door, and giving you confidence that your hope may not be in jeopardy – in fact, it may be emboldened.

The primary difference between the earlier-and-currently-loudest rendition of Christianity and what is emerging ultimately comes down to determining how the Bible came to be.  The earlier version quickly quotes from Paul’s letter to his protégé, Timothy: All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  This quickly led to people creating the bumper sticker that says, The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.  Essentially, that verse is interpreted as saying that God wrote the Bible, even if human hands were used.  It’s not a good or even correct interpretation, but it’s popular, and has been used to justify a lot of awful treatment of people in the world: slaves, women, the LGBTQ community, people of other faith traditions, and people who don’t agree with this interpretation.

The emerging view of Christianity view the Bible as a human product in response to God, written for their current audience with great care and prayer.  The Spirit of God was surely sought and received, but the scrolls the biblical writers wrote on were filled with their fingerprints: their worldview, their sensibilities, their agenda, everything.  If we think about who God is, we can affirm that God would not want to wipe those fingerprints away, as God uses people as they are, capitalizing on who they are, working in cooperation with people’s total identity to bring redemption into the world.  In this view, the Bible is an historical product of two historical communities: Israel and the early Christian movement.  The truth that it contains is related to the time and place in which it was written.  Some of those truths easily relate to all times.  Others are clearly time-specific, need to be appreciated, yet kept as a relic from the past that no longer speaks directly to our current reality.  When the Bible is approached this way, a lot of the problems disappear.

Within the emerging paradigm, the Bible is still understood to be divinely inspired: the Spirit of God surely moved in the lives of the people who produced the Bible.  Their written response to God’s movement is the Bible we hold.  By extension, this way of viewing the Bible has implications for the sacred texts of faith traditions beyond Judaism and Christianity.  Using the same criteria, we can appreciate what they are communicating in their time and place in history, too.

In the emerging view, the Bible is Sacred Scripture.  Our ancestors declared that what we have were the most important documents to the faith in it’s earliest expressions.  The Bible provides the foundation for our belief, identity, and wisdom for how we think about reality and how to live.  The text is sacred in the sense that it serves to connect us to the divine.  The Bible is no less important in the emerging tradition than the earlier tradition – the primary difference is essentially on who gets the most credit for producing it.

The final major distinction Borg recognizes as it relates to the Bible is that it needs to be appreciated as metaphor, and not necessarily literally.  This might initially freak people out who have been raised with the earlier paradigm, as it might conjure up the idea of the Bible-as-fiction, or worse, Fake News.  Borg notes that modern Western culture identifies truth with factuality, and devalues metaphorical language.  When we ask the question, “Is that story true?” we are usually asking, “Did that actually happen?”  This bias toward factuality blinds us to metaphorical truth – something we all operate and employ quite frequently and comfortably without apology, even while we denounce it. We are hypocrites in this regard, as I would guess the two most memorable teachings of Jesus which communicated great truth were parables.  The parable of the Prodigal Son and the parable of the Good Samaritan are widely known and embraced as communicating great truth about the love God has for people and what love looks like when it’s lived out faithfully.  Yet they are stories.  Not factual events.  They never happened, yet they’ve happened a million times.  Metaphor, as Borg notes, is not to be understood as less-than-factual, but rather more than literal.  Read that again.  Borg further contends that “the more-than-literal meaning of biblical texts has always been most important,” and that “only in the last few centuries has their factuality been emphasized as crucial.”

One of my favorite musicals is Into the Woods, which dovetails multiple children’s fables together into a crazy mish-mashed adventure.  I love it because of the truth it speaks about the human experience.  Great truth is communicated through the lyrics and characters and storyline.  The metaphor is more than factual.

With the understanding of the Bible as historical, sacred, and metaphorical, let’s take a look at a text (Luke 8:22-25, NLT) and see what we can do with it, and what God might do with us.

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and started out. As they sailed across, Jesus settled down for a nap. But soon a fierce storm came down on the lake. The boat was filling with water, and they were in real danger.
     The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?”
     The disciples were terrified and amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “When he gives a command, even the wind and waves obey him!”

Debate all you want as to whether this story is literally true.  At the end of the day, however, the metaphorical truth is what will be of actual value.  I am confident that over the millions of times this story has been shared, the application has not been, “So, if you’re ever in a small watercraft in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, and a storm comes on real fast and threatens to capsize you, remember that Jesus calmed the storm.”  I am certain the power of the story has come across something like this: “I felt like the storms of life were going to take me out.  I cried out to God for help.  Somehow, some way, a peace came over me that I cannot explain, and I got through it.  It’s like God gave me calm in the middle of the storm like Jesus did with the disciples.”  For a group of Christians in the first century who may have been consistently hiding from those who threatened to literally kill them, this was particularly comforting and true.  Truth spoken into their historical context.  It was part of the sacred story that helped them understand the nature of God and everything else, shaped their identity, and provided wise counsel to help them move forward in the way of Christ.  This story provided great truth, regardless of whether or not it actually happened literally. 

Here is a helpful tool to help you gain metaphorical truth from a text:

When I hear the story of ______, I see my life with God in this way: _____________.

Let’s  end with a Psalm and a reflection in light of the text we viewed.  Held together, we see that Luke was tying God and Jesus together, to encourage readers to see that thread and have hope.

God visits the earth and waters it.

God turns a desert into pools of water,

a parched land into springs of water.

The river of God is full of water.

God waters the furrows abundantly,

softening the earth with showers,

and blessing its growth.

– Adapted from Psalm 65:9-10


Christ sails with us to the other side.

Christ turns a raging storm into calm waters,

a place of terror into amazement.

The sea of Christ is full of possibility.

Christ rebukes the wind,

softening the storm with authority,

and accompanying our way.

So true.