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Monday, March 30, 2009

RevGalBookPals Book Discussion: The Last Week

Today we are discussing The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Final Days in Jerusalem, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. It covers, day by day, the week to which we now refer as "Holy Week."
I very much like the preface, titled "The First Passion of Jesus." Borg and Crossan point out that we tend to think of "The Passion" only as what happened on Good Friday...they posit that it might be as, or more, important for us to look at what Christ was passionate about. "The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding for all a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by the covenental God of in this book we focus on 'what Jesus was passionate about' as a way of understanding why his life ended in the passion of Good Friday" (viii)
A major theme of this book is that Jesus was protesting a domination system - that of the Roman political leaders who controlled the country and who, in turn, controlled the local Jewish leaders as part of the entire imperial system.
1) In the discussion guide for the book, it suggests that a group reading this together might share, in separate sessions, what they remember knowing or understanding about Jesus at various early stages of life (first memory, childhood, now). I thought of these things as I re-read it.
-What are your various memories of Jesus, and how has your understanding of "the last week" changed over time?
2) In the chapters on Wednesday and Friday, there is substantial discussion of the theory of Substitutionary Atonement. As this is an issue that has been very alive for me this Lent, I read it with much interest.
Wednesday's chapter has a section on page 101 called "Atonement: Substitution or Participation?" Their argument for participatory vs. substitutionary atonement is the word from Mark that "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (102). According to Borg & Crossan, "the Greek word for ransom is "lutron," which means payment to an owner for a slave's is not used in the Greek of the Hebrew Bible for anything like vicarious satisfaction or vicarious atonement to God for sin" (103).
The Good Friday chapter reveals the extent to which substitutionary atonement is ingrained in Christian understanding. "Thus it is not surprising that many Christians think this is the "real" reason for Jesus' death, the orthodox and "official" understanding" (138). Borg and Crossan point out that the language of the Markan gospel does not support substitutionary atonement theory (p. 155).
-What is your understanding of substitutionary sacrifice? Were you taught this way of understanding Jesus' death? has it caused problems for you?
3) Chapter Eight, Easter Sunday, discusses the different views of Easter as history or as parable.
-How do you react to this? Is it a useful opportunity for you (even though you may believe in strict historical interpretation) to consider a parabolic view?
-What does the chapter say about Easter and Christian life today?
Other discussion and questions are most welcome. Join us!


  1. I was blown away to see this discussion pop up at this site.

    This is a phenomenal book, with incredible insights into Mark's gospel, written by two Biblical scholar/writers in the mainstream today. I read this several years ago, and still I am amazed at the work this book presents.

    This was my 2009 Lenten Bible study at my congregation. I get the same group of about 6 women who explored Genesis with me last summer. These are wonderful women who 'get it' about life, and faith, and life despite the paradox of faith and modern life.

    Before I started the class, I printed up the scriptural references that frame each chapter, and gave them instructions to think about the accompanying discussion questions. Ironically, we never get to the discussion questions, as the questions that arise from our discussions take up much more time.

    An aside: sadly, there is not a 'hue-and-cry' for Bible study. Most people think Bible study means picking out words that tell us how to live a 'Christian life,' like those studies that claim to save marriages thru Paul's writings. That's not where I am, and I don't think they are helpful in our contemporary life. Sadly, many people think Bible s

    Anyway, Borg/Crossan do what's called a 'close reading' of Mark; they arrive at their brilliant interpretation by reading exactly what Mark wrote, then step back and discern why Mark wrote what he did, and what Mark's community may have been experiencing at that time in history. This is eye-opening, because of the Roman oppression of Israel at that time.

    This knowledge blows holes in the whole 'rapture' phenomena, because Jesus' 'predictions' of signs of the End Times are in reality editorial statements of the author in light of the destruction of the temple, and oppression of the early Christians by Romans and Jews, who suspected them of collaborating.

    I agree that an examination of the domination system at that time indeed played into Jesus' passion for the Kingdom of God. It brings an awareness of how we still battle domination systems in our contemporary life, maybe even more obvious with the economic breakdown in the USA. Exploring just how radical Jesus' proclamation was/is
    hopefully can open some eyes and hearts. Borg/Crossan portray Jesus as a peaceful radical, who sought to unite the people in God's justice.

    I plan to us the theme of Jesus' Passion for God's kingdom as the basis for my Palm/Passion Sunday sermon.

    Another book that explores Mark in light of political justice is Ched Meyer's "Binding the Strong Man."

  2. Thanks, Sage1, for your visit and your comments.

    One of my favorite churches in Big City to the South used this for Lenten study this year. I was sad not to be able to join them but I loved their references in weekly bulletins to a living a life as "passionate" as Jesus'.

    This and several other books have been very important to my Lenten journey this year. Sometime in January, I think (before Lent began) I became dismayed, enraged at what I later learned was called "subsitutionary atonement." I could no longer accept the idea of a God who would devise such a system.

    I was one of those people who had never heard that there was any other way to look at Christ's death. And when I broached this topic to those around me (mother, spouse) they said, "Well, without that (substitutionary aspect), what's the point of the whole thing?" Argh.

    I'm grateful for people who have recommended other reading and counseled with me as I continue to walk this path.

  3. Mary Beth,

    The concept of substitutionary atonement is the theology most churches preach and teach. We don't even question it anymore. And perhaps we need to discuss it.

    To examine history, as was in the Borg/Crossan, this is primitive medieval theology based one the Old Testament 'eye-for-an-eye' thinking, blood demands blood.

    When we discussed this with my class, this was indeed difficult for some to accept.. 'after all, didn't God send the angel of death to kill all the children during the Passover?'

    This once again rolls into biblical interpretation.. do we accept everything in scripture as factual reporting? Or are there some accounts that can be myth, or some stories that are parables, as Borg/Crossan present with the resurrection accounts.

    As women clergy, we are on the front lines of changing paradigms, we are feminists whether we like that word or not. Theologically we cannot and should not accept the party line of theology that has been handed down for generations. The longer I serve the church, the more I 'put away childish things..' that have served my personal faith for years.

    It's indeed a challenge, and yet its empowering... the HOly Spirit is working on us overtime! This is such provocative stuff, and I love it.

  4. I have not been able to read the book yet. I have just started it.
    But, love our questions! Thanks.
    As a child, growing up in a traditional Baptist church in the South, we did not talk about or observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. Holy Week was very minimal with little focus on Jesus' death.
    We looked forward to Easter early on when Jesus was alive again. We had no focus on his death or what that was "like."
    It was not until I got in my present tradition (at 28 yrs) that I learend of the focus of death and darkness. I was also introduced to the Lenten and Ash Wednesday traditions.
    Growing up: The whole focus of Jesus' death was left out, we talked about Jesus "dying for our sins" and be "raised again" but will little emphasis on what that period of time was like, we never observed it.
    So the actual observation of a period of time for death and darkness was all new, but quite meaningful to me.

  5. Thank you, Sage1! The "eye for an eye" was just what was mentioned by my family members. And I said, "But don't we have a NEW covenant with God now? isn't that the whole point?"

    Welcome 1-4 Grace! thanks for being here. I, on the other hand, grew up in my present church, one which goes through the entire liturgical/Lenten observance. I've loved it. So it's been interesting for me to feel very differently about it this year.

  6. My apologies MB - I meant to stop by here yesterday, but the day got away on me and was insanely insane on more levels than you care to know...

    Anyway, I have the book, haven't read the whole thing, but so far, I have really enjoyed their perspective.

    I'll be back later to read through the other comments.


  7. I haven't read the "assigned" book, but your discussion of atonement brings the work of another powerful theological pair to mind: Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock. These are the voices I've found most helpful in my own struggle with doctrines of sacrifice and atonement. They reject the idea that God sent God's child purposefully into harm's way, which could be construed as "divine child abuse."
    Their emphasis is on Christ as Kingdom-Bringer, Relationship-Restorer, and Passionate Healer. The cross and Christ's final suffering have meaning, but it is secondary. They point to the fact that, for the first few centuries of Christian art-making, images of the Peaceable Kingdom and Christ's active ministry were everywhere, but images of Christ's suffering and crucifixion only came into use much, much later. (I haven't finished reading their latest book, "Saving Paradise," but I'm working on it.

    How does this help us deal with liturgy, worship, and other concerns of church leadership during Holy Week? I'm not entirely sure, but the emphasis on "passionate life" seems to point in a helpful direction. The most meaningful characterizations I've found of the betrayal-to-crucifixion sequence has been the emphasis on the human failure to recognize Holy Kinship and practice Restorative Justice. We try to tell the story in such a way that the community gathers themselves in that broken, dark place, better prepared to celebrate when the stone rolls away and the light breaks in.

    Then the challenge shifts: how do we embrace both the radiance and the brokenness and harness our storied solidarity for Kingdom-Building again?

  8. Late to the discussion and haven't read the book since last year but: the more I think about the subject of Jesus' suffering and crucifixion, the more I think that much of their effect in terms of restoration has to do with his accompaniment of us in our experiences. I have heard the crucifixion described as a uniquely horrific death, but of course crucifixion was a standard form of execution in the Roman Empire. The magnificence of Jesus' death lies in its similarity to those the rest of us face, not in its being distinctly different -- that God was willing to accompany us even that far. And then restoration emerges from the combination of Jesus' solidarity with us in suffering and transcendence of our mututal suufering in his resurrection.

    Very interested in suffering and restoration these days, for obvious reasons....

  9. Well, I've just realized that the church I referred to in the first comment have, online,
    a sermon series from their own Lenten study of this book! I recommend it highly.


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