Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, by Marcus Borg: A Review

I love the writing of Marcus Borg. What he says about Christ and Christianity in books like The Heart of Christianity and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time rings so true for me that I sometimes wonder why I read anything else about religion and faith.

Borg’s latest work is a novel, his first. Unfortunately, one can only hope that it is also his last. In the Preface to Putting Away Childish Things, he says:

I am aware that I may not have a novelist’s imagination or gifts [No kidding]. And I am aware that if I were not already a somewhat established author, this novel might not have been published [Ditto]. It’s not easy to find a publisher for a first novel.

Lots of awful novels do in fact get published. But this one frankly has a self-indulgent and slightly exploitative feel about it given the esteem in which Marcus Borg is generally held.

Good novels are about interesting and complex characters who find themselves in interesting and complex situations of conflict. The plot in this novel is thin at best. The protagonist, Kate Riley, who is a professor of religion at a small liberal college in Wisconsin, is eligible for tenure in one year. As she has published a well-received scholarly work on the gospel of James and her classes are very popular, the tenure seems assured. She is concerned, however, when one of her senior colleagues hints that her recent published work is less scholarly, more “popular,” and a little too Christian. She also learns that parents have been writing letters to the college complaining that she is using her classes to proselytize to her students.

The situation becomes more complicated when Kate is invited to apply for a one-year position at a well-known seminary and is led to believe that she would be the preferred candidate; in this position she would be encouraged to teach within the context of her Christian faith. She asks her present institution for a leave of absence but they are reluctant to give it to her as she is not yet tenured.

When Kate is formally offered the seminary job she must make a choice between a good chance at job security and an opportunity to do what she really loves to do but that does not offer security. Anyone who knows Marcus Borg will have no difficulty guessing Kate’s choice.

A couple of subplots that could have been interesting actually go nowhere. In one of these, a Wells student who belongs to a conservative Christian group on campus attends one of Kate’s classes because she has begun to question some of the elements of her faith. Again, however, the story only serves as a rather clumsy platform for Borg’s religious ideas. In the second, a romantic relationship from the past between Kate and a former professor, who will be her colleague at the seminary, appears as if it may be rekindled. The professor is perhaps the most interesting and well-developed character in the novel.

I found hardly any of the characters in Putting Away Childish Things, including Kate Riley, to be either interesting or complex. Because I was not especially interested in Kate’s character, I did not find myself caring very much about her conflict.

Information that is supposed to tell us something about the main character in fact tells us nothing because it is never connected to her developing story in any way; the information itself is clichéd and boring:

• She drives a new Volvo—standard transmission

• Her parents were killed in an automobile accident when she was in high school

• She frequents a seedy neighbourhood tavern because she likes to smoke and drink Guinness there and write in her journal (even though she lives alone and could just as easily—and more economically and comfortably—do these at home)

• She is attracted to one of her male colleagues but he turns out to be gay (The most boring conversations in the book are between her and this character; see below)

• She belongs to an Episcopalian congregation whose pastor is a woman (as it happens, Borg’s wife is an Episcopalian priest)

• She likes to wear red shoes

One can not help but suspect that Borg (of Scandinavian roots) likes Volvos with standard transmission, smokes the occasional cigarette (or was once a smoker and still misses it) and drinks Guinness.

The novel is full of boring conversations that are either irrelevant altogether or are used clumsily for exposition or to present the author’s views on various aspects of Christianity. In one of these pieces of dialogue the main character is having dinner at the home of one of her colleagues at the start of the Christmas break.

“So,” Geoff said, putting his napkin in his lap, “I’ve told you about my next few days. What do yours look like?”

“Well, I’m spending Christmas alone again this year. So I’m basically going to be at home—with myself. I mostly love the thought. Except next week won’t feel exactly alone—I’ve got all those radio interviews to do on my book. Fourteen—that’s a lot.”

“Good for you,” Geoff said. “Your publicist has done a good job.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Kate paused to take a bite. “But still I wish there weren’t quite so many. This duck is fantastic as usual, Geoff.”

“Thank you. Are you nervous about the interviews?”

We are not exactly experiencing poetry here.

In Chapter 3 Kate is being interviewed about her new book Two Stories, One Birth. The author uses the interviews to offer his view of the purpose of the biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus, as well as to expose the “other side”—the literal-factual interpretation. The first interview takes six pages, the second two pages.

Borg says that he had wanted to write a novel for a long time. I, for one, certainly hope that through this rather self-indulgent exercise he has got that desire out of his system. I also hope that he returns quickly to what he does best: lovingly and wisely nudging us out of the nest of inflexible Tradition and biblical literalism and into free flight buoyed by our absolute trust in God.

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  1. "We are not exactly experiencing poetry here".

    LOL, that made me laugh. Though I am inclined to say something similar in his works of theology-as-scholarship. Thanks for the review.

  2. JD:

    Thanks for your comment. As I said in my introductory paragraph, I love Borg's writing - non-fiction, that is. I am no theologian or scholar, so I am disqualified from critiquing at that level (Of course, even though I am no literary critic either, I felt completely at liberty to trash his novel). But what he says in the books I mentioned has liberated me from the childish notion that I must blindly believe in order to be saved.