Our worldwide circle of readers shrank by 1 last week with the January 21 death of Bible scholar and best-selling author Marcus Borg.
In addition to his tireless work and travels, Marcus found time to look at his weekly edition of ReadTheSpirit. Occasionally, he would send an encouraging email to the editor’s desk, usually expressing thanks for discovering a new author through our coverage. Every now and then, he also would share his latest discoveries among mystery writers with my wife Amy, who shared with Marcus a passion for murder mysteries featuring well-crafted, character-rich sleuths.
The two of them discovered this connection a decade ago when we were enjoying dinner with Marcus before a public talk he was to deliver at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor on the campus of the University of Michigan. When this online magazine later was founded in 2007, one of the first stories was an interview with Marcus about his love of well-crafted mysteries.
In that interview, he explained in greater detail what he saw as a connection between mystery novels and the vocation of a religion scholar: “We are all living within a mystery, in a sense. Now, the difference between detective stories and religion is that in detective stories you typically find out in the end what happened, so the mystery is neatly solved. But that sense of living within a mystery touches something deep inside of us and, in religion, things do not get resolved so easily.”
‘Things do not get resolved so easily …’
Marcus understood that final phrase on a spiritual level, on the level of intellectual inquiry—and, most importantly, in the lives of countless Americans who remain inside a church, today, because of Marcus Borg’s books and public teaching. For decades, Marcus tirelessly barnstormed the country with his message that Christianity is not the enemy of rigorous intellectual inquiry. Both spiritual and academic disciplines are searches for truth and, he would tell crowds: People of faith know that we have nothing to fear from the truth.
That’s not to say it was easy. One of the most memorable experiences I shared with Marcus was literally being burned by enraged evangelical Christians in Indiana in 1993. The incendiary protest was covered by long-time New York Times religion writer Ari Goldman under the headline: “Burning Rage in Indiana”
Ari’s story said, in part:
An article about the Bible in a Gary, Ind., newspaper has so enraged some local evangelical churches that their members are planning to publicly burn copies of the paper after Sunday services on the day after Christmas. The churches are protesting the publication by The Post-Tribune of a front page article with the headline: “Biblical Scholars Take Words Out of Jesus’s Mouth—New Book Claims Jesus Didn’t Say 80% of What’s Attributed to Him.” The article … was published on Dec. 12. It reported on a book “The Five Gospels” that is the result of six years of work by a committee of liberal Christian scholars who tried to determine the authenticity of the more than 1,500 sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. …
Jerry Kaifetz, the organizer of the protest, said the decision to publish the article less than two weeks before Christmas was a “calculated attempt” to “insult and injure the faith of Christians at their most sacred and precious time of the year.”
As a religion writer for the Detroit Free Press, I had written that article, which then was carried in other newspapers nationwide. And one the most prominent voices in that “committee of liberal Christian scholars” was Marcus. It should go without saying that Kaifetz’s charge was flat-out wrong. Neither Marcus nor I were trying to “insult and injure” anyone.
Nevertheless, the Indiana Baptists went ahead and carried out their burning. News photos from the incident show angry men in dark suits torching newspapers in oil drums.
Marcus loved the church
What critics failed to understand about Marcus was that he loved the church. No, not the church of the Inquisition or the church of Fundamentalist hellfire condemnation. He saw those as tragic distortions of the truths that were sitting there just waiting to be discovered in the pages of the Bible—and in the compassionate interaction of people that truly, he believed, was the church at its best.
He worked toward this goal in so many ways! Just read this interview about Marcus’s book Speaking Christian and his public campaign to “reclaim” the powerful words of Christian tradition. Or consider his campaign to rethink the way adult education programs should explore the Bible. He even re-envisioned his own teachings in the form of a novel—because he was convinced that some men and women who didn’t like to read non-fiction would understand his ideas in that fictional form of storytelling.
Since 2000, Marcus has largely been lionized by his fans nationwide. He appears forever, now, in so many documentary films about religion, the Bible and the early church that it would be pointless to try to list them all. He and his good friend John Dominic Crossan (and often their wives as well) loved to travel together. In a series of educational tours to “Bible lands,” the two scholars would lead travelers into sun-baked settings that were crucial in the early Christian era. They might get down on their knees to examine an ancient artifact and, in the process, awaken in their travelers a fresh appreciation for the dawn of Christianity. (In 2009, for example, we published an interview with both Marcus and Dom about their collaborations.)
‘Take this with you …’
Through the decades, we crossed paths many times and I also got to know and admire the work of Marcus’s wife, the Rev. Canon Marianne Wells Borg. Certainly my warmest memory of Marcus and Marianne centers on the couple of days we spent together at their home in 2010 as part of the ReadTheSpirit American Journey project. I was traveling for 40 days and 10,000 miles with my son Benjamin, reporting for our online magazine as well as the Detroit Free Press and radio stations.
In their home along the Pacific Ocean, the four of us talked for hours, but we also found time to walk along the booming shoreline. Marcus enjoyed exercising his dogs along the shore and appropriately, the dogs are mentioned by name as part of the family in the official obituary from Marcus’s publishing house, HarperOne.
Marcus announced that he was staffing the kitchen during that visit—and he cooked as an evangelist. He wanted to show off to his visitors from the Midwest the good news of products produced by the Tillamook cheese company, which also is based in Oregon. And of course, the sharp Tillamook cheddar was as terrific as Marcus promised. He served some of the cheese with black-and-white Holstein-patterned knives that he had bought at the Tillamook Creamery.
When my son and I said our goodbyes, Marcus pressed a rectangular, gift-wrapped box into my hands.
“Take this with you as a memory of our time together,” he said.
A Bible perhaps? One of his books? As my son drove our van down the road, I tore off the wrappings. It was a boxed set of the Tillamook knives.
And that was a full circle in Marcus Borg’s remarkable life.
In our interview during that visit, he had told us this story about his feelings for America: “For me the two biggest holidays as I was growing up in the 1940s were Christmas and the Fourth of July. Christmas obviously is a big holiday when you’re a child, but the small community of 1,400 where I grew up was Park River in northeastern North Dakota. In that corner of North Dakota, the 4th of July was huge. There always was a parade with bands and color guards of veterans going back to the Spanish-American War at that time. I can still see in my mind the carnival that would come to town and food booths in the city park. My Dad was a creamery owner and ice cream maker so we always had a big tent in the park selling ice cream. I was too young to have to work in the tent, but I got to eat whatever I wanted all day long.”
Today, our circle of ReadTheSpirit readers diminishes by 1. But please help us remember Marcus Borg by sharing this story with someone you know might enjoy it—and, in doing so, send another little gift down the road to one more traveler.