Sunday, February 10, 2013

Book review of "Jesus: a New Vision"

Yung Suk Kim

Review of Marcus Borg, Jesus: a New Vision

In his book Jesus: A New Vision, Borg advocates a new image of Jesus: a person filled with the Spirit who sought to transform the social world of first-century Palestine by the politics of compassion (an alternative consciousness) against culture's conventional wisdom and the politics of holiness.

Borg's scholarly study and reflection on the historical Jesus began with rejecting the two dominant images of Jesus. The first, popular image of Jesus is a divine being who came to the world to die for the redemption of sinners and then ascended to the heaven. The second image is the eschatological prophet, who mistakenly predicted the end of the world in his own time. Borg rejects the first image because it portrays Jesus through the faith lens of post-Easter Christians. Such portrayal is distant from the historical Jesus' life and death. He also refuses to take the second image of skepticism about the historical Jesus because it depicts Jesus only as the eschatological prophet -- who failed to bring about the end of the world. Against these two images, Borg emphasizes the importance of the historical Jesus viewed from a new angle of knowing what Jesus was: a Spirit-filled person in the charismatic stream of Judaism.

To support his thesis that Jesus was a Spirit-filled person who sought to change the religious social world of first-century Palestine, Borg works on the two organizing principles: Spirit and culture. Borg claims that the world of the Spirit is real and Jesus had deep, intimate relationships with the Spirit. The author does not stop here but relates this reality of the Spirit with culture. That is to say, a Spirit-filled person could not remove himself from the culture in which he lived.

In discussing the world of the Spirit, the author states that the reality of the Spirit has been present not only in the biblical tradition and but also in the social, scientific studies of paranormal experiences (universal primordial tradition). In the biblical tradition, Israel's story itself was the story of the interaction between the world of the Spirit and the world of ordinary experiences. The Spirit of the world became part of their lives. Moses and the prophets were also Spirit-filled mediators. In social, scientific studies of paranormal experiences, cross-culturally, the world of Spirit has been also accessed by the charismatic who entered it and experienced the world of the Spirit.

Borg says that the biblical tradition of Spirit-filled mediators is very significant to understanding the historical Jesus. The reality of the another world (the invisible world of the Spirit) was not unusual to those people of the ancient world, unlike the modern people who disregard the reality of the invisible world simply because it seems to be unscientific, superstitious, or psychotic.

Borg also argues that Jesus stood in the ecstatic, mystical tradition of biblical and Jewish religion. He lists the examples of this trait demonstrated by his internal life: his prayer life, the visions he experienced, his sense of intimacy with God. All his life was full of ecstatic, mystical experiences with the Spirit. He was a person of the Spirit. A corollary was that Jesus as a Spirit-filled person evidenced his life of the Spirit by the mighty deeds of exorcisms and healing. Exorcism and healing are good examples which demonstrate his charismatic power that flowed out of his deep encounter with the Spirit.

In discussing Jesus' relation to the culture, Borg shows a contrast between the politics of holiness and the politics of compassion. The social world of first-century Palestine was under the pressure of Roman occupation and was operated by the politics of holiness, which separated the pure from the impure, and insiders from outsiders. But Jesus challenged with the politics of compassion, this prevailing holiness-ridden culture and the conventional wisdom of that social world, which centers around "family, wealth, honor, and virtue, all shaped by a religious framework" (81). This self-oriented culture was a focus of transformation. Jesus was filled with God?s compassion to change his social world into a transforming community of compassion filled with love, acceptance, and inclusiveness.

Borg, then, using four social, religious types, portrays Jesus, as sage, revitalization movement founder, prophet, and challenge. First of all, Jesus, as sage, was both radical and subversive. Jesus critiqued the conventional wisdom of the Jewish social world by asking his people to turn to God rather than to their religion of holiness politics. Spirit-filled Jesus called his people to center themselves on God and to change their hearts and minds so that they see things in a new way: the narrow way, the way of "dying to the self" in place of the broad way that seeks wealth, power, honor, and this-worldly securities.

Second, as revitalization movement founder, Jesus focused on the renewal of Israel rather than creating a new religion, in the midst of a crisis in the Jewish social world: "the growing internal division within Jewish society, and the deepening of the conflict with Rome" (142). Jesus? renewal movement is summarized by his "alternative community with an alternative consciousness" rooted in the Spirit (142). His alternative consciousness is to reverse the dominant consciousness of conventional wisdom through his vision of transforming Israel. Jesus calls his people to change their consciousness of holiness politics. Borg states that revitalization movement stayed in the frame of Judaism. He put this rightly: "Jesus remained deeply Jewish, even as he radicalized Judaism" (141).

Third, as a prophet, Jesus similarly assumes the job of traditional prophets who indict, threaten, and call to change. Borg points out that "the purpose of the prophets was not to reveal the future but to change it" (154). The author also points out that Jesus was not really speaking about the final judgment or about the kingdom of God that would come very soon. But Jesus' concern was just to change the present lives of his people by speaking out prophetic utterances to bring about the real change of heart to God-centered.
Finally, Borg picture Jesus as a challenge; Jesus risked his life and went to Jerusalem to issue the call to change, and "to make a final appeal" to his people at the center of their national and religious life (172). Borg states that the death of Jesus would be the result of his sojourn in Jerusalem, not the purpose of his journey. Jesus was killed because he sought to transform his own culture, in the power of the Spirit.

This book sheds a fresh light on the understanding of the historical Jesus. A new image of Jesus as a Spirit-filled person is very relevant to the contemporary church and moderns as well. The first significance or relevance is that the reality of another dimension (the world of the Spirit) is real beyond the visible world. Moderns are so caught up with the first dimension of the material world that they cannot consider things to be real if they do not see them. They are so boastful of the power of human reason. In fact, modern technology and science force us not to believe in the power of the Spirit because human reason is so elevated. But the realization of another dimension of the world gives rise to a new understanding of humanity, who was supposed to have genuine encounters with the Spirit. In the mainstream church where I belong, this reality of the unseen but powerful world of the Spirit is not fully recognized. I think we need to grasp the importance of personal encounter with the Spirit one way or another in our church. In this way, we can strike a balance between the bodily and spiritual life.

Another relevance to today's church is that the real spirituality is not distant from compassion with which society can be changed to the culture. In other words, the Spirit-filled person should work for the sake of a community to transform the dominant way of culture in which Christians are called into to live out Jesus' life (Spirit-filled life with compassion). Unfortunately, however, many Christians think of spirituality as the subjective reality of experiences that has nothing to do with compassion to change the social world of our time and culture.

Still another relevance to our churches is the distinction between knowing about God and knowing God. Knowing God through experiences can be a living reality. A Christian life can be enriched by the actual living relationship with God (the Spirit). Knowing about God is not sufficient to living out the life of Spirit-filled compassion. A compassionate work can be done in a personal, intimate relationship with the Spirit.

If I find a small weakness of this book, Borg could have dealt with the elements of culture or Judaism as to how they shaped Jesus' identity. The other small weakness is that Jesus' humanity is not much addressed because of too much focus on the world of the Spirit. If Borg had had a balance between the Spirit and the humanity of Jesus, the picture of Jesus would have been more realistic or appealing to us.

*NOTE: This review was written when I was an M.Div student in late 1990s. I am now a professor of the New Testament and early Christianity. My recent book: Truth, Testimony, and Transformation: A New Reading of the I AM sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.

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