This pure joy only lasts a moment, however. A few years ago, a friend who has become a naturalist taught me about “invasive” plants — species that threaten the health of our wooded areas by smothering and outcompeting important “native” plants and trees. My beloved honeysuckle is such a plant. Now when I look at the woods, I see everything differently. I am astounded and dismayed as I realize that invasive plants are everywhere, and I can’t not see them. Slowly, grudgingly, I am reconciling myself to the fact that the honeysuckle plants must be pulled out for the greater good of our woodsy ecosystems.
Marcus Borg’s book “Speaking Christian” has had a similar effect on my experience of our liturgy and language for talking about God. It has opened my eyes to the ways that what Borg calls the “heaven-and-hell framework” is woven through our hymns and prayers like an invasive vine. Like honeysuckle, these ideas bloom perennially in our worship life. Fragrant, familiar, and sweet, they evoke fond and poignant memories. Yet they also outcompete and smother important historical, biblical, and metaphorical understandings of our faith.
The most prominent example, for me, is the idea that Jesus’ death is a “substitutionary sacrifice” for our sins. I have always had difficulty with the notion that God demands a blood sacrifice for sin, and therefore had to send Jesus to take our place as that sacrifice. I know this is a stumbling block for a lot of other people as well. Thus I was relieved to read Borg’s explanation that this concept “is not ancient, it is not in the Bible, and was not present during the first thousand years of Christianity.”
Within days of reading Borg’s chapter on the death of Jesus, I participated in one of our Lenten Friday bilingual Stations of the Cross services. It’s a beautiful, moving worship service that I have loved since we started having it several years ago. As the service unfolded, however, I began to have some “honeysuckle moments,” where I recognized how much this unbiblical substitutionary sacrifice idea is woven into our prayers and hymns about Jesus’ passion and death. That was just the start. Now I find myself tripping over tendrils of the literalist heaven-and-hell framework nearly every Sunday and wondering what to do about it.
Borg argues for redeeming our language of faith, and perhaps we can do that in many instances, teaching and understanding anew some of the old expressions of faith that we have grown up with. But in order to recover and renew the rich, “historical-metaphorical” meanings of our faith, I think we also have to figure out how to pull out, very carefully, some of the invasive heaven-and-hell ideas that permeate parts of our liturgy that we love. If we are willing to do that hard work, we will make room for important, layered, and nourishing language and ideas to flourish and enrich our Christian life.
Lianne Rozzell is the junior warden at St. Stephen and the Incarnation. Share your thoughts and comments on Facebook.