Putting Away Childish Things: a tale of modern faith
Marcus J Borg
Marcus J Borg; author of Reading the Bible for the First Time, Again and Meeting Jesus for the First Time, Again and a host of other works of popular theology has turned his hand to writing fiction. This isn’t any old fiction, either; it is didactic fiction; a thinly-veiled attempt on the author’s part to promote his own theological perspective.
Not that there’s anything underhand or sleekit about this literary form. The author is completely upfront and transparent about this. He even provides suggestions for reading groups in an appendix which offers questions for readers to discuss among themselves. That impressed me greatly, as the author has deftly managed to smuggle a lot of deep stuff into this compelling novel.
Professor Kate Riley is a popular religion teacher in a college somewhere in the American Midwest. Her students love her classes. She loves her work, she is happy with both her personal and her spiritual life and she has had some success with a couple of her books; a scholarly look at the Epistle of James and a new one examining the differences between the two Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke’s gospels.
It’s just in the middle of Advent that things start to go off the rails for Kate. Her publisher has set up a number of interviews with radio stations up and around the country in order to promote her book. These question and answer sessions introduce the reader to Kate’s liberal Christian perspective, but she falls foul of a husband and wife tag team on a Christian talk radio show, Rise and Shine, who accuse her of seeking to ‘debunk the truth about Jesus’.
Before long, she is named as Number One Un-American of the Week by an inflammatory pundit on a conservative network for ‘a secular humanist apology of a book’ that trashes ‘one of the most sacred parts of our country’s Christian heritage… at Christmas, of all times.’
Ironically at the same time Kate is beset with another problem. One of her colleagues on the college faculty is a bit sniffy about her latest book. It’s too popular and too Christian. He is one of those illiberal ‘liberals’ we all know; the kind who don’t want to see others doing things of which they disapprove. This man notes that she attends church regularly and claims that this could be interfering with her teaching of religion in the college. She is condemned, not for what she actually does, but what she could do. The reader gets to sit in on Kate’s classes and her one-to-one sessions with individual students, so we know that it ain’t so.
In the midst of all this, Kate receives an invitation to teach in a seminary as a visiting professor of New Testament Studies for a year. Conflicted and confused by the reaction of her colleagues and an organised campaign by some parent to deny her tenure at the college, Kate finds her faith coming under pressure as she wrestles with the possibilities in front of her.
As the story develops, we get to meet some other characters; Geoff, her gay colleague on the faculty and her soulmate and confidant (every girl should have one); Frederika her minister; Martin, a professor at the seminary in question, her mentor and one-time lover (a long time ago) and Erin, a student who is a member of a conservative evangelical group on campus.
I rather suspect that any reader of this book will come with their own personal baggage, or to mix the metaphor, may read it through lenses tinted by the events and understandings of their own lives, I really identified with Erin in this story as she struggled with her faith when what she had been taught to believe came into conflict with the real world of flesh and blood human beings.
This is stirring stuff. Borg is didactic but it’s anything but preachy. I hope there’ll be a sequel. Borg introduces readers to some wonderful stuff too, as Kate goes through her daily devotions and her lectures. Not only are we treated to Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach but to a moving poem by Denise Levertov called The Avowal. This is so powerful that it reduced me to tears. Here it is…
As swimmers dare
To lie face to the sky
And water bears them,
As hawks rest upon air
And air sustains them;
So I would learn to attain
Freefall, and float
Into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
Knowing no effort earns
That all-surrounding grace.