I am reposting this 2012 review because the kindle edition of The Heart of Christianity is $3.79.
A long time ago and in a far away place, I decided to go to seminary. I never wanted to be a pastor. But at the time, I thought I wanted to be a social worker or at least work in a church based social service program.
So I decided to get a dual masters in Social Work and Divinity. There are several places you could do that at the time. I could have stayed in my denomination of origin (American Baptist) and gone to Eastern Seminary (but then would have gone to a different school for the social work.) I could have go to Southern Seminary where my father went to seminary.
What I decided to do was go to the University of Chicago Divinity School and School of Social Work. I very intentionally decided to go to U of C because I had an undergrad degree from Wheaton College. I had experienced one of the best Evangelical colleges in the country, I had a very good background in theology and I am from a long line of pastors and was quite comfortable in my faith. I wanted to challenge my Evangelical background and be in the minority for a while.
University of Chicago was overwhelmingly Christian, mostly Protestant, but of a liberal bent. Marcus Borg would be very comfortable with many of my professors at U of C Div School. I loved my time at the Div School. It is one of the few places that I have very clearly claimed the label Evangelical. Being among a different stream of Christianity both expanded my view of the Church and made me more comfortable in my part of the Church.
So for quite a while I have been very intentionally trying to understand what other Christians believe, how they think and how they explain their faith. The Heart of Christianity is an attempt by Borg to explain his faith. In format it is very traditional. He starts with his understanding of scripture, and works through God, Jesus Christ, Salvation, Sin, Heaven, Salvation, Spiritual Practice and Pluralism. Essentially he is doing what he doing an Emergent (his word) version of systematic theology.
What I really appreciate about this book is that he makes it very clear that liberal Christians have real faith. It is not just some type of wishy-washy universalism that has gotten rid of any belief or theological content. His belief is not the same as most Evangelicals (although in many more areas than most Evangelicals are comfortable with, there will be a good bit of agreement).
He is very clearly trying to show that in much of the more conservative Christian world, there has been a narrowing of definitions. What he wants to do is expand our understanding. So for instance in talking about sin, he wants to start with sin as separation from God. Then he talks about the different ways that we are separated from God (blindness, oppression, slavery, etc.) He emphasizes that he is not trying to say that sin does not exist. But he says that when we only see separation from God as sin, we lose other metaphors that are in scripture that describe our separation.
His best illustration of this is that a woman that is being abused in a marriage does not need primarily to be told to repent of her sin. Primarily she needs to be told that she is a child of God that need to be freed from the oppression of the violence of her husband. She also needs to be told of her sin, but forgiveness of her sin does not free her from the violence of her husband. (And presumably her husband needs to also be confronted with his part in oppressing his wife.)
He does not spend time on this, but this is similar to the discussion on Christ’s death as penal substitution. It is very clear from scripture that one model of Christ’s death is the penal substitution. But to limit Christ’s death to just penal substitution is to also minimize scripture because scripture also described Christ’s death as a sacrificial lamb, Cristus Victor, the fulfillment of Israel’s Messiah, illustration of how to live as the second Adam and more.
So there really are many good points to this book to help Christians reclaim parts of their historic Christianity that their own stream of Christianity may not have emphasized. Occasionally, Borg does go too far and minimized other images in Christian faith. This is most clear in his early discussion of scripture. While trying to uphold the long history of scripture as metaphor, he minimizes scripture as literal. I agree with him that far too many parts of scripture are read as only literal. But that does not mean that all of scripture should be read as primarily metaphor.
I think that he gives a good background in a very particular view of Christian Universalism. (I think that he is wrong, but he give a cogent background to the concept.) And I think that his discussion of Christian practice and the thin places where we find God are very well written.
This is not a book I would say everyone needs to read. But if you are interested in a decent book to help you understand that the liberal stream of Christianity has a real and actual faith, this is a good one.