*originally posted September 2, 2010
In his new novel Putting Away Childish Things, Marcus Borg invites us into the world of academia, following the decision making process of professor Kate Riley as she flirts with leaving her tenure-track position at a liberal arts college to teach for one year at a mainline seminary. For three months, we are flies on the wall as Kate interacts with friends, colleagues, and students, teaching about how people think about God all while wondering where God might be leading her.
The story itself is well-written and engaging, even if the title seems somewhat disconnected from the story itself. There are no shocking plot twists or scenes that would require big budget special effects if Hollywood ever makes a script of it. Rather, the tension is intellectual and emotional. Predictably, from Kate's religion department chairman to the charismatic leader of the evangelical campus group called The Way, the "bad guys" are straight, white men. More predictably, Kate decides to ... oh, nevermind ... I don't want to give a spoiler alert.
The impact of Borg's novel will be in the area of narrative theology, in a manner very similar to Brian McLaren's New Kind of Christian trilogy. He artfully uses both classroom and personal discussions to raise issues relevant to our understanding of Christian faith in the postmodern era:
•How are we to think of the fantastical stories of the Bible?
•What impact has the Enlightenment had on the Christian religion?
•Is there a better approach than the traditional one for Christians to think of homosexuality?
•What is an evangelical?
While he gives many helpful insights into these and other questions, for me, the strength of Borg's story is its parabolic illustration of this truth: beliefs have consequences.
Like Kate, I have lived this truth.
As a pastor of a fundamentalist congregation, I experienced the hurt expressions and gossipy complaints of congregants when I dared to question President Bush's triumphalist language in the wake of 9/11. I expected that if I raised my own doubts about our denomination's eschatological certainty, I would be called on the carpet by the board. I knew that if I publicly voiced my questions about the early chapters of Genesis, I would certainly lose my job. My beliefs had consequences.
And so do Kate's. She feels as though she is challenged on both sides. Evangelicals condemn her as heretical and even unAmerican for writing about the differences between the biblical birth narratives of Jesus. Progressives question her scholarly credentials for writing about CS Lewis and faithfully attending church. What she authentically believes keeps her on unsure footing.
But the consequences of our beliefs are not just negative. For Kate, her beliefs produce many beautiful opportunities. Because she is genuine as both a Christian and a scholar, she has the chance to be more than a teacher to her students; she can be a mentor and friend. And, more significantly, because she does not fit the traditional religious studies professor mold, she is courted by the seminary to join their team. These positive consequences would not be available to Kate if she were not authentic in her own spiritual and intellectual journey.
For me, the consequences of my own faith journey meant that while I had to leave behind fundamentalism, I was given the glorious privilege of being part of a new community. I now enjoy more genuine friendships, more vibrant worship, more engaged discipleship because I was unwilling to fake it any longer. I had to become an emergent church pastor; the consequences of my beliefs were inescapably wonderful.
I am thankful for Marcus Borg's book because, though Kate's circumstances and choices are much different than my own, our paths are parallel. Our beliefs have consequences, and we could not have it any other way.