By PAUL A. BARRA
MONCKS CORNER — I went to Mepkin Abbey on April 3 expecting fireworks — exactly the opposite reaction most people anticipate when visiting the peaceful environs of the monastery. But I was going to hear a talk by Marcus J. Borg.
Dr. Borg’s address the night before at the University of South Carolina drew 600, some of whom had to be forcibly removed because of the vehemence of their protests. And Stephen Burdick wrote in The Miscellany the same day that Borg may be an intellectual without faith. He warned readers about going to the Borg lecture.
“For those who choose to attend, do so guardedly,” Burdick said.
A full-house did choose to attend the Mepkin lecture, which was the 1998 version of the Lenten Study Day series sponsored by USC and paid for by the estates of Nadine Beacham and Charlton F. Hall. The abbey and the university have worked together on the series for the last four years. They brought Raymond Brown, a leading Catholic theologian, to the state for the first time in 1994. Borg, however, is a scholar of a different color from Father Brown.
Father Francis Kline, the abbot of Mepkin, who called the USC talk last Thursday “a most stimulating event,” recognized that Borg’s position as a fellow of the Jesus Seminar and his contention, among others, that Jesus’ resurrection may not have been an actual physical happening, paint him as a controversial figure. Nevertheless, Abbot Kline agreed to let Borg speak at the Trappist monastery because the series appeals to an ecumenical audience and because controversial exegesis should not be an automatically disqualifying distinction.
“While we can’t countenance all his positions as a Jesus scholar, orthodox Christians should be mature enough to listen to him,” the monk said. “We’re not denying the issues, but if we want to be part of this series we can’t always pick and choose. I think that when other churches are involved, more good than wrong will be served by hearing this talk.”
Donald Jones, the USC theology professor who manages the lectureship, admitted that Borg was a focus of protest at the university the day before his abbey talk. The trouble was easily handled by campus police, however, and was neither much of a problem nor much of a surprise for Dr. Jones.
“When you say the kinds of things that Marcus Borg says, and you say them in the Bible Belt, you can expect some reaction,” Jones said.
But Borg provoked no protest at Mepkin Abbey. The tone for the day was set by the abbot himself when he opened for the theologian by thrilling the large, early crowd with a brief organ recital of Bach pieces (Father Francis may be the country’s foremost organ interpreter of that composer, according to Jones). Borg maintained the stimulation and the temper of the music by describing Jesus as a Jewish mystic and healer, a wisdom teacher and a social prophet. His actual topic was titled: “Following Jesus: spirit, wisdom and politics.” The religion professor at Oregon State University and author of nine scholarly books said that he was speaking as “a Christian who is an historian of Jesus.” Follow-
ing Jesus, he said, was the basic structure of the synoptic gospels and central to the Christian tradition.
“Spirit was the central reality of Jesus’ life. A mystic is a person … who knows God. God is the encompassing being all around us, a reality that can be known. I’m convinced that Jesus was a teacher of enlightenment wisdom because he lived in the spirit. His wisdom was a way of moving out of the conventional wisdom. It was a new way of seeing, a new way of centering and a new way of being,” Borg said.
He said that mainline Christians have allowed the fundamental religions to co-opt the “born again” experience, which is not a single event but a kind of dying to self. According to Borg, the only good reason to ignore the fundamentalist who preaches to us about being saved is that the preacher is “a jerk.”
Borg went on to say that there existed “a strong political dimension to the life of Jesus,” a protest by him of the elite domination system that he encountered in Israel. We have Good Friday, he said, because Jesus was executed for being a social prophet.
“My conclusion is that social justice matters to God… because God cares about human suffering. The single greatest cause of human suffering may be bad politics. I suggest that taking Jesus seriously means taking his spirit seriously. He had a passionate concern for compassion, the largest virtue of Christianity.”
Borg also railed against trickle-down economics and opined that the Christian right thinks God is preoccupied with sex. At the same time, he spoke of being quiet like a bird-watcher, letting the forest come alive around you in your silent commentary. He came across as a good man but not a holy one.
But whether he sounded holy or not, Marcus Borg crafted his talk in brilliance and diversion; he taught something to everyone who heard him at Mepkin Abbey — and the monks didn’t have to wrestle down any protesters.