Marcus Borg died Wednesday morning. He was 72 years old. Early in his career (1986-87), Marcus taught at the University of Puget Sound as the Chism Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities. He continued a tie to Tacoma through frequent speaking engagements and was scheduled to talk about his newest book, “Convictions,” at Immanuel Presbyterian Church this past fall.
A few months ago he asked me to reschedule that talk until September 2015 due to health concerns. He was optimistic about returning to Immanuel until two weeks ago when he wrote to me about the severity of his situation.
Marcus and I had a personnel relationship that began in a brew pub in Berkeley in 1988. Late into the night over good beer we talked about Jesus, Van Morrison and the future of the church. In our interactions over the years that followed we looked back fondly to that night and looked forward to the next time we shared beer and conversation. For me, there is a personal dimension to his passing.
The headlines announcing his death this weekend have used the phrases like “liberal theologian" or “prominent leading liberal theologian and Jesus scholar." And his vision of Jesus would be labeled that way by those who like the convenience of labels and who divide the Christian world into two conflicting parts: liberal vs. conservative or to state it another way: progressive vs. evangelical.
I don’t think these labels capture Marcus Borg. I see him as an evangelist. In his talks and especially in his very popular best-seller, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” and “The God We Never Knew,” Marcus was an evangelist for the future of Christianity.
The word root of “evangelist” means good news. Marcus proclaimed the good news of a new way to understand Jesus. His books and public appearances articulated a vision of Christianity in a manner that helped countless people find their way back to the faith or to stay in the faith.
His scholarship did not just deconstruct old understandings. It reconstructed a way of being Christian that didn't require leaving questions and minds at the church's front doors. He articulated a way of being Christian that engaged science and did not run away from historical criticism and new archeological discoveries. A way of being Christian that focused on being actively grounded in the way of Jesus and went beyond faith as giving assent to certain abstract propositional truths.
It is a way of being Christian that nurtured deep thought and equally deep spirituality. It focused on being community in church while working and speaking out for justice in society.
Marcus Borg was a scholar and an evangelist, spreading good news about Jesus and his message about living a life full of God, a life of compassion that challenged the way of empire. He spread good news about meeting Jesus again for the first time.
I give thanks for our friendship and the legacy he leaves for us to build on.
The Rev. Dave Brown is pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Tacoma.