Like Bishop John Spong, Marcus Borg is among a growing number of scholars who are committed - as they see it - to rescuing Christianity from the clutches of fundamentalism and making it relevant for the twenty-first century. Borg argues that the literalist approach to the Bible and to Christian language in general is a relatively recent phenomenon which does not do justice to the language as originally intended. The Christian faith, in fact, is all about language - it is a matter of "speaking Christian" much as one might speak French or German. Just as we would not be able to call a person French who could not speak or understand the language, so we cannot regard someone as a Christian who cannot play the Christian language game. But here we have a quandry, Borg suggests. Church-goers are adept at speaking the language - indeed, they do it with aplomb every Sunday - but most do not understand it, so in that sense they cannot properly be called Christian. What is required is the recovery of the original meaning of the language which Christians use with such matter-of-fact assurance. By way of illustration, let us refer to one particular term: "ascension". In Borg's words: "For many people today... the ascension refers to an event within the space-time world - a historical event, even if supernaturally caused, a 'public' event in the sense that anybody who had been there would have seen it." (p.176).
So most Christians still presuppose that Jesus ascended to heaven on the clouds, quite literally. But is this how the Bible itself sees it? The departure of Jesus is seen by different writers in different ways. In Matthew's Gospel (28:16-20) Jesus parts from his disciples on a mountain in Galilee, and the language of ascension is absent. In Luke 24:50-53, he parts from them on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, apparently on Easter Sunday, and, again, the language of ascension is absent. Only in Acts 1:9-11 (also written by Luke) do we get the classic ascension story "after forty days". These inconsistencies suggest that the story of ascension was always meant to be taken metaphorically. It symbolises Jesus' lordship, that he is with God beyond space and time, and so can be with us always, not as a ghostly being "up there", but as a living presence with us and among us. This is how Christians of today should understand the ascension, and not as a once-upon-a-time event.
Borg applies this same method to all the stock words and phrases used by the Christian (salvation, mercy, sin, righteousness, heaven, born again, only way -even God), and argues that the most useful interpretation of all these is metaphorical. Why should all this matter? Perhaps because the greater part of the troubles and conflicts caused by religion can be put down to bigotry over particulars: which religion is correct? which demonination is correct? which is the "proper" way to observe the Lord's Supper? and so, ad infinitum. Treating the Scriptures and religious language as metaphor releases the believer from commitment to any one way, and into the freedom of worshipping God according to personal conscience.
Borg's book is easily accessible, and highly recommended.