Book review by Peter Fisher
“Convictions” is a book which deals with the Present but looks to the Future; Marcus calls it “A manifesto for progressive Christians”. Manifestos are a public declaration of intentions for the Future – they imply the need for change and for action. It is clear that Marcus wants groups like CRC, PCN, and others to carry on the work of proclaiming – especially to conservative churches – an inclusive, open faith that breaks free from a crippling literal interpretation of the Bible and from the fundamentalist attitudes to which this can give rise.
The book is partly an autobiographical account of his faith journey. He presents the crucial stages in this journey and the resultant changes in his thinking simply and clearly; the chapter headings are themselves helpful summaries of these convictions, the first one being ‘Context matters’.
The basic underlying context of Marcus’ faith journey is his growing up as a Lutheran in an America where religion is for the most part conservative, right-wing in social and political matters and literalist in the reading of the Bible. As a child this was Marcus’ world. As a teenager and a student, he began to question and then reject the religious certainties of his parents and church.
The religious climate in America feels very different to that in the UK. Apart from conservative evangelical congregations in this country (which in fact seem to be thriving) the population of the UK is on the whole more sceptical and/ or indifferent towards religion compared to that of the US. Marcus gives a lot of space to persuading his readers that the language of the Bible is essentially metaphorical and parabolic. Taking it all literally distorts the meaning and religious importance of the texts (the reaction of some CRC readers, of course, might well be ‘So what’s new?’
Marcus came back to a faith through three profound religious experiences spread over more than twenty years. He writes about them in the chapter ‘God is Real and is a Mystery’. He says “these episodes of sheer wonder, radical amazement, radiant luminosity, often evoke the exclamation “Oh my God !” So it has been for me. And for me that exclamation expresses truth. It is the central conviction that has shaped my Christian journey ever since. God is real, ‘the more’ in whom we live and move and have our being.”
These mystical experiences came to be the rock on which his faith rested He gives little sign of ever having doubted their significance. The word ‘God’ came for Marcus to refer “not to a Being separate from the universe, but to a reality, a ‘more’, a radiant and luminous presence that permeates everything that is”.
In the chapter “Jesus is the Norm”, Marcus says “Jesus trumps the Bible”; where Jesus’ way of life and his preaching seem to contradict elements of the Old Testament (and the New), it is Jesus whom we should follow. The question arises, however, “which Jesus?” Marcus was a member of the Jesus Seminar, an eminent New Testament scholar himself, and will have grappled with the various layers of interpretation covering up the real human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Marcus’ picture of Jesus is fairly traditional – a composite image with an emphasis on his relevance to politics, social justice , inclusivity and non-violence. This will not have made Marcus popular with conservative congregations.
Marcus was unique; scholar, preacher, pastor and mystic. We were privileged to have known him. There is now a large gap in the pantheon of religious writers. Marcus will be greatly missed.