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Obituary – Marcus Borg

In The Church Times, Canon Adrian Alker writes:

PROFESSOR Marcus Borg, who died on 21 January, aged 72, was Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University until he retired in 2007. He taught students there for 28 years, and wrote or co-wrote 21 books. He lectured at so many churches, conferences, universities, and seminaries that, friends say, he earned more than 100,000 frequent-flyer miles almost every year.

Borg popularised a liberal intellectual approach to Christianity through his lectures and books about Jesus as a historical figure, and was an early member of the Jesus Seminar in the United States. Unlike some other members, he was not led towards atheism by studying the New Testament, but towards deep belief in the spiritual life, and in Jesus as a teacher, healer, and prophet. Borg became, in essence, a leading evangelist of what is often called progressive Christianity.

Tributes to Borg have poured in from all quarters of the theological world, not least from Evangelicals who disagreed with much of his work. Their generosity highlights the gentle, humble, and yet passionate person who was a fine scholar, enthusiastic educator, and brilliant communicator.

Borg, perhaps, did not present the same threat “from within” as the radical Bishop Jack Spong; and, unlike a great friend, Dominic Crossan, he did not fall out seriously with any particular Church. Indeed, he counted among his friends more conservative scholars such as Tom Wright, with whom he co-wrote The Meaning of Jesus. Professor Wright says that he and Borg shared “a deep and rich mutual affection and friendship”.

Of course, deeply conservative people on the US Christian Right found Borg’s writing troubling, especially his exposition of scripture. Borg, however, gained the respect of most serious students of the Bible and apologetics. Many considered him a “friendly provocateur”. An important influence in the early days of the Jesus Seminar, he nevertheless avoided the tendency to reductionist criticism. His approach suggested a humble conviction of the presence and transforming power of God; hence his desire that people look at Jesus, God, and the Bible as it were “for the first time”.

In many of his books, Borg alluded to his modest traditional Lutheran upbringing, and his journey of fascination with the New Testament, which led him to graduate study at the Union Theological Seminary, in New York. Further study at Oxford, under Professor George Caird at Mansfield College, led to his doctoral thesis published as Conflict, Politics and Holiness in the Teaching of Jesus. In this, he explored the conflict between a politics of holiness and a politics of compassion, and their implications for Israel.

His books Jesus: A new vision (1987) and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994) were on bestseller lists. There followed a host of books aimed at an enquiring readership. The God We Never Knew explores different meanings of salvation, multiple images for God, and the wonderful idea of the “dream of God for God’s world”. Borg, like other biblical critics, elucidated with rigour the context and form of scripture, an analysis that nevertheless led him to assert that the Bible could be seen as a sacrament of the sacred. In The Heart of Christianity, a much valued introduction to the foundations of Christian faith, he shows how the term “born again” can have real meaning to seekers of the truth.

With Crossan, he co-wrote books on the birth and Passion narratives, and, in The First Paul, put forward a case for liberals to begin to love the man from Tarsus.

In 1983, Borg became an Episcopalian. His wife, Marianne Wells Borg, is a priest in the Epsicopal Church in the US, and a former canon of Trinity Cathedral, Portland, Oregon, where he later served as a canon theologian. Their son, Dane, daughter, Julie, and a grandson also survive him.

I invited him to the UK to lecture in Sheffield and Edinburgh. On each of three occasions he spoke in packed churches with spellbinding lucidity and clarity.

It would be reasonable to say that, because of Borg, thousands, if not millions, of people have felt able to own the name of Christian. His work helped to bring new life to individuals and church communities. Liberal and progressive Christians owe a huge debt to him, and we are all the poorer for his passing.

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