Shortly after I decided to learn more about Jesus, I started to troll the library and book shops for information about him. I wanted something that was simple, straightforward and not dull.
I didn’t have much luck. The books I chose were either too weighty or not weighty enough. I was required to either delve deeply into ancient history and philosophy or turn off my brain altogether. And most of the books were dull.
After several false starts and dead ends, I somehow stumbled upon the books of N.T. Wright and enjoyed them a lot. I was in the library one night, looking for his latest bestseller, when I pulled out a paperback that had a picture of an immense statue of Jesus on the cover. The statue was covered in scaffolding, as if Jesus was under construction. It was a forbidding image, heavy and dense. Even the author’s name – Marcus Borg – was intimidating.
I pushed the book back into its slot and went on searching. After a few minutes, the bell rang, announcing that the library would soon be closing. Unable to find the book I was looking for, I went back to the paperback and turned it over in my hands. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. Not a bad title. Never heard of the author. What the heck, I thought, if I didn’t like it, I could always take it back.
Within a page or two, I realized this was the book I had long been looking for. Mr. Borg was intelligent, funny, passionate, brave and obsessed. In a word, compelling. I found his thoughts about the “pre-Easter” and “post-Easter” Jesus electrifying. Why had no one ever told me about this before? For the first time (I was approaching 40 and had gone to church, off and on, for my entire life) the Christian story began to make sense to me.
After reading it, I gave it to a friend, a Catholic who had left the church long ago and had taken up Buddhism. He brought it back to me a few days later, the pages well thumbed. “This is very cool,” he said without a trace of sarcasm.
I went on to read all of Mr. Borg’s books, although none of them approached the power of Jesus, in my opinion. But they enriched my life and faith enormously. Last year, I went on a week-long retreat at the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s monastery in Boston. I took just one book, a volume of essays by Mr. Borg (a liberal) and N.T. Wright (a conservative) on the essentials of the Christian faith. The monastery was full of books but I barely gave them a glance, I was so absorbed in the one I was reading.
Mr. Borg had his detractors, of course. Even his fans found some of his opinions hard to take. But the fact is, he made Jesus accessible and attractive to millions of people. That was his great gift, and I for one am grateful for it. One of his books was titled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and, for many of us, that’s exactly how it felt.
Mr. Borg, an Episcopalian theologian who lived in the United States, died in January at the age of 72. When I heard about his death, I thought back to that night in the library and said a quiet word of thanks.