The Bible as Metaphor; Metaphor as Truth?: The promise of Marcus Borg’s Historical-Metaphorical Approach to Scripture.

This post is an brief introduction to Marcus Borg’s historical-metaphorical method for interpreting Scripture. In the next post we will examine the creation stories in Genesis as an example where Borg’s historical-metaphorical reading shows real promise in bringing people together by concentrating on the metaphorical meaning of the text. Following that, our third post will examine a historical-metaphorical reading of the Easter stories. Here there is serious conflict. Is the meaning behind the stories enough if we do not insist on a physical resurrection?

“Father, I cannot tell a lie..”

Many American schoolchildren are told a story about George Washington and a cherry tree. The story goes that a young George Washington cut down one of his father’s cherry trees. Angry, George’s father confronted him and the young child replied, “I cannot tell a lie, I cut down the tree.” Hearing his son, the elder Washington gushed that honesty was worth a thousand trees. Because most American children are taught to admire George Washington as the commander of our army in the Revolution and our first President, we are compelled by this story to follow his example of honesty. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this event ever happened. It appears to be an anecdote created by one of Washington’s first biographers.[1] Does the fact that this never happened change the meaning of the story? It appears that someone used our respect for a historical figure to manipulate our feelings about a virtue with an apocryphal story. If it never happened, then does the story lose all its power? I would argue that it does not. It still serves to reinforce our intuition that honesty is important. Similarly, the Christian Bible walks a line over a number of competing and complementary motives. It is a complex mixture of history, metaphor, theology, law, prophecy, and cultural wisdom. What are we to get out of this soup? How can we trust it? How do we arrive at meaning?

The late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg has a few ideas on how to interpret the Bible in the modern world. He advocates a historical-metaphorical approach to the Bible to arrive at the true meaning of the stories therein. His driving question is “what does this story mean?” The truth behind the meaning can be independent of history. It is the meaning that has the power to transform our lives in the present. I think there is profit in considering Borg’s methods carefully. I have some disagreements with him. However, I also see real value in his central question and concerns. I think his interpretive framework might offer a way forward for those who find themselves on opposite ends of the Christian theological spectrum. Different parties may have fundamental differences on the inspiration of the Bible, its divine/human status, and its historical reliability. However, we most likely all agree that the meaning of a biblical story has the power to shape our lives in the present. Does the meaning remain stable through our differences? I think there is potential for that. Therefore, we should investigate Borg’s proposed framework as a possible way forward in constructive dialogue that avoids heated arguments.

THE HISTORICAL

Obviously, to examine Borg’s methods we need to summarize the historical-metaphorical framework first.[2] The historical descriptor means that the method is an attempt to determine what the ancient text meant within its ancient context. We study how the text is composed, how it came to be, how it relates to other books within the biblical canon and other works contemporary to it. Basically, Borg supports all the methods common to modern historical-criticism. Determining what a biblical text meant to its ancient intended audience is crucial to understanding. Ensuring that our impressions of meaning are consonant with the earliest hearers’ understanding hedges against following our own agendas and importing foreign meanings into the text. It guards the original inspiration behind the text.

The historical method has its limitations and Borg is honest about that.[3] Perhaps the most simple limitation is that the study has become highly specialized and technical. In that regard, it is inaccessible to some. It also means that many scholars disagree with one another. Little can seem certain. This causes some to lose faith in the Bible’s ability to communicate anything with certainty.

Another limitation is that historical study is conducted within a modern worldview and epistemology. Modern historical study runs the risk of denying the text its full range of meaning by determining what is “possible” according to our current worldview before ever coming to the text. For example, miracles are completely outside the realm of possibility.[4] They violate the founding principles of a critical study of history.

Finally, and most importantly, historical study alone limits the text. If we only study the text from a historical point of view, then it is an object to hold at arm’s length and observe. In limiting our reading to historical observation, the text has no real power to transform our present.

THE METAPHORICAL

The second prong of Borg’s method is metaphorical reading. Because it is susceptible to greater misunderstanding, he spends more effort in explaining it. First, metaphorical language is not literal. To say “God is my rock” is not meant to communicate that God is a literal rock. In fact, a literal reading is absurd. Metaphorical language such as this contains a great deal of nuance. “God is my rock” communicates that God is reliable. God is a sure foundation. God is unmovable. God is eternal. One statement can have many resonances.

Metaphorical language also emphasizes “seeing” rather than “believing.” For Borg, “The point is not to believe in a metaphor, but to see in light of it.”[5] Metaphorical reading is where the text gains an ability to transform us and how we see the world around us. It is not a literal-factual recounting. The metaphorical has layers of meaning and can be read and reread in many contexts.

METAPHOR AND TRUTH

Some people will have trouble with classifying biblical passages as metaphorical. A metaphor is a contrivance (though not in the negative sense). It is a creation of the author. In the modern world, we have conflated “truth” with the literal/historical. Therefore, whether we are conscious of it or not, we often believe that poetic metaphorical language cannot carry truth. Borg emphatically denies this. Permit me a longer quote. “Metaphor is poetry plus, not factuality minus. That is, metaphor is not less than fact, but more. Some things are best expressed in metaphorical language; others can be expressed only in metaphorical language.”[6]

Even historical narratives should be read metaphorically. Borg uses the example of Jesus healing the blind. Borg believes that there are good reasons to think that Jesus actually did heal people. These stories could very well be historical. However, the gospel writers are not presenting these stories as if they were reporters on the nightly news. Their motives are primarily theological. We should read these historical accounts metaphorically. We are the blind who are healed. We have been brought out of blindness to seeing the way of Jesus.[7] Reading the story in this way affects us. It brings us into the story rather than holding us at arm’s length the way a purely historical reading would.

I have not been able to determine if Borg was directly influenced by the work of Paul Ricoeur.[8] There are many places in Borg’s work that echo Ricoeur to my ears. Ricoeur has written on metaphorical and poetic language, “Poetic language does not say literally what things are, but what they are like. It is in this oblique fashion that it says what they are.”[9]

Unfortunately, we have been conditioned to accept only literal scientific descriptions of reality. Borg and Ricoeur are maintaining that the poetic language of metaphor is also capable of describing how things really are. It may seem counter-intuitive, but metaphor uses non-literal language to describe reality. This may strike our ears as odd, but Borg points out that this is an ancient method of interpretation. He appeals to Origen who argued that the whole Bible can be read spiritually (or metaphorically); however, there are parts of the Bible that cannot be read literally. In other words, in reading the Bible through a historical-metaphorical lens, we are making an attempt to read the Bible in a way similar to its ancient audience. In historical reading, we are trying to guard its ancient meaning. In metaphorical reading, we are trying to see reality in the way that the ancient authors were trying to convey it through metaphorical language. Historical and metaphorical lenses are both needed to bolster one another and guard against the other’s limitations.

THE SACRED AIMS OF SCRIPTURE

Reading Borg, I have been struck by his apologetic aims. It is evident that he cares deeply about the Bible. He has seen too many people dismiss it as ancient fantasy. Too many have rejected it in the wake of the scientific enlightenment. Borg wants his readers to understand that there is a way to read the Bible authentically without sacrificing the critical scientific spirit of the modern world. He sees his historical-metaphorical reading as a way to do that. He wants to open people up to the Bible because he believes that reading the Bible is sacramental. It mediates the presence of God to us. As Borg puts it, “The Spirit of God speaks through the human words of these ancient documents; the Bible is a sacrament of the sacred.”[10] No matter what stripe of Christian, we all want to hear what God has to say. Borg’s thoughts on reality and meaning in the Bible may give us a common ground of unity as we approach the Bible.

NOTES

[1] Read about the story at http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/cherry-tree-myth/

[2] Borg has outlined his process in a number of works. This summary largely draws from Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 37-53. See also Borg’s The Heart of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 45-60.

[3] Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. 39-40.

[4] To be fair, one should also define what exactly a miracle is. That is beyond our scope here.

[5] Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 41.

[6] Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 41.

[7] Reading the Bible Again for the First Time 45-46.

[8] Paul Ricoeur was a French philosopher active in the mid 20th century. He is extremely influential in the field of hermeneutics.

[9] Paul Ricoeur, “Biblical Hermeneutics” Semeia: An Experimental Journal for Biblical Criticism 4 (1975), 88. A page earlier Ricoeur gives a more complete description of poetic language’s ability to communicate reality. “Poetic language also speaks of reality, but it does so at another level than does scientific language. It does not show us a world already there, as does descriptive or didactic language…It is an eclipsing of the objective manipulable world, an illumining of the life-world, of non-manipulable being-in-the-world, which seems to me to be the fundamental ontological import of poetic language” (page 87).

[10] Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 33.

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