Dr. Marcus J. Borg spoke to a packed house at Paulina Springs Books in Redmond, Oregon recently. Borg is best known for his many theological works, and for his call to Christians to “take the Bible seriously but not literally.” Plug his name into Google you’ll get hits well into the fifties—some of them diatribes against him by conservative Christians.
Borg recently struck out into new territory with his first novel, Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith. The novel’s protagonist is Kate Riley, a professor at a Midwestern liberal arts college who is offered a one-year visiting professor position at a seminary. She must decide whether to jeopardize her chances of getting tenure at her school by accepting the visiting position. To make matters more complicated, she’s had a long-ago love affair with one of the professors at the seminary.
Borg and his wife, Marianne, who is an Episcopal priest, live in Portland, but they’ve recently bought a summer home in Powell Butte, near Redmond.
Before the event at Paulina Springs, Borg bought Craig Johnson’s newest book, Hell is Empty, and told us he’d just finished reading the new Scott Turow. People began flowing in a good 45 minutes early. Beloved Oregon author Jane Kirkpatrick was in the audience. A gorgeous woman who came in very quietly and had nodded meekly when we asked “Are you here to hear Marcus Borg?” turned out to be Borg’s wife.
Before the event, Borg and I went to the Green Plow Coffee Roasters, just two doors down from Paulina Springs, for an interview. At first, he asked me so much about myself—out of genuine interest—that I wondered who was interviewing whom! Eventually I had to turn the tide and ask him some questions.
Putting Away Childish Things, your first novel, is a significant departure from your nonfiction books. Why did you want to write a novel? I think I’ve always wanted to . . . I think way back into childhood. I can remember as a preschooler wanting to be a writer, although at that point I didn’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, so it was just “I want to write books.” By the time I was in high school, I thought it would be really ‘cool’ to be a novelist. Beyond that, I’ve always thought of writing fiction as more creative than writing nonfiction. I can think of some very creative nonfiction. Examples that come to mind are Annie Dillard, Lauren Eisely, and Kathleen Dean Moore. But for me, it’s always felt like, ‘Ooh, if I could write a novel, then I’d be an artist, not just a writer.’ The final reason, or the more specific reason, is that I thought that some people might read a novel about religious ideas when they wouldn’t read a nonfiction book about theology. So I thought of it as communicating my ideas to an audience I might not otherwise reach.
Also, there’s a possibility for many more voices in a novel. When I’m writing nonfiction, it’s basically my voice. When I had done this, it seemed to me to be an added virtue that I had not expected—to put characters in conversation about these issues.
How is the process of writing a novel different from the process of writing a nonfiction book? When I write nonfiction, I basically know what each chapter is going to cover before I start the chapter, and I basically know what the whole book is about before I start the book. In writing the novel, I was making everything up. I usually didn’t know what was going to happen next, except in a very general way. For example, maybe Kate and Martin are going to have dinner together, so I have a setting, but I don’t know what the conversation is going to be. As I’m writing it I think “Now what would Martin say,” and then “Now how would Kate respond to that?”
My wife, Marianne (she is a priest, you know), tells me that I’m different at the end of the day when she comes home and I’ve been writing a novel versus when I’ve been writing nonfiction.
How are you different? I have more to say. I’m less withdrawn. I seem more eager to get back to it . . . Let me add, I don’t mean writing nonfiction is drudgery, or that I don’t enjoy it, but writing fiction activates a different part of me: the more playful part, the more creative part.
How about creating characters? Did that come naturally to you? Or was it a big stretch? I knew who my two main characters were from the very start. I knew one would be a younger woman professor in a liberal arts college and the other an older male professor in a divinity school. That’s because I followed the advice “Write about what you know.” So I put them in settings I have lived in. Initially, I got preoccupied with plot, trying to think what readers would be interested in. I started this novel about ten years ago, but I never got very far. The breakthrough came when I went back to the characters and wrote two-to-three-page character sketches and let the plot fall into place around the characters. The breakthrough was “Figure out who these people are and then put them in a setting.” And then I wrote the novel in my spare time in about eight months.
That brings me to something else I wanted to talk about. I think it was a pretty gutsy move to place a woman as the central character. Kate Riley’s a pretty unusual woman as far as fiction goes—she’s on her own and she’s not desperate for a mate, and she’s in her forties and not fretting about her biological clock. I found her refreshing. Where did you come up with her, and why did you use a woman as your protagonist? (chuckles, smiles) By the way, I’ve been very encouraged by a number of comments from women about how they really like Kate. One reviewer said, ‘And most unforgettably of all, he has given us Kate Riley.’ What a compliment! The simple answer is, it was a good disguise for myself. Of course, in some ways she’s quite different from me, but her experiences as a young teacher are much like mine.
You say in the introduction to the book that you hope this novel will be a “didactic novel.” That is, intended to teach. What do you hope to teach? Most broadly, that there is great diversity within Christianity. That the study of religion is intellectually fascinating. Then, more specifically, to explore some themes: literal versus symbolic interpretation of the Bible; the nature of faith: is faith about believing, or is faith about a trusting relationship with reality? Is the opposite of faith unbelief, or is the opposite of faith anxiety and fear? Some of the people who say they have faith in God, or faith in Jesus, are actually scared to death of them.
Do you think the novel is succeeding in your purpose for it? Oh, I think so. Because, in the reading groups I’ve heard from, people talk not only about the characters but also about the religious questions.
Tell us about some other fiction that’s in the same genre as your novel. A couple I can think of immediately, besides C.S. Lewis’s: Brian McLaren wrote two didactic novels, the best-known of which is A New Kind of Christian. And Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael, which is kind of the history of humankind from the viewpoint of a . . . is it a talking gorilla? When I proposed a didactic novel to my editor, I brought up these examples.
This book reminds me of the film My Dinner with Andre—lots of scenes with people eating food and discussing big ideas. I’ve always been told not to structure fiction this way—with lots of “talking heads.” Yet I found your book an absorbing read. I’m just wondering, did anyone try to tell you to put in more action? A few reviewers have said there’s too much dialogue, while a couple of other reviewers have said they love the dialogue. But, in terms of my two editors, no. It might be because I’ve worked with them so much before, or because I conceived of it as a didactic novel from the beginning.
As a Christian who’s spent time questioning my faith and beliefs, I enjoyed your novel very much. There’s some pretty major theology in here. I thought that might be a stumbling block for people who aren’t religious, but Brad (my employer) is an agnostic, and he really appreciated the book. What do you think your novel has to offer to the non-religious reader? A way of understanding religion that may never have occurred to them.
How would you describe that way of understanding? Non-literalistic, intellectually persuasive, engaging . . . Public imagery of Christianity in this country is very negative, because what shows up in the media is the Christian right. While teaching religion classes at Oregon State University from 1979 to 2007, I would ask the class to put on the top of a piece of paper “Me and Christianity” and write down some adjectives that described how they saw Christianity and Christians. The five adjectives that showed up most frequently were: literalistic, self-righteous, judgemental, bigoted and anti-intellectual. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this impression comes from. This knowledge of Christianity comes from Christian radio, Christian television and maybe some Christian campus groups that are trying to convert them . . . One of the themes in the novel is the conflict between the Christian right and the Christian left. A lot of people would be surprised to hear that there is such a thing as the Christian left.
Maybe they (readers who might have this view) would think, “Hey, Christians are regular people like me.” Who even drink and smoke and sleep around!
That brings me to another of my questions. You’ve given your two main characters, Kate and Martin, a habit that many people consider a minor vice: smoking. Why did you choose to make this part of their characters? It’s because I smoke a pipe and I get pissed off about what’s happened to smokers in this country. For decades, the most creative place that I could journal is in a pub with a Guinness and my pipe. I received my doctorate at Oxford University, and some of my books were conceived in almost complete outline at the Eagle and Child pub, locally known as the Bird and Baby, where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings met. I could smoke my pipe and get lost in the ideas. Here in America, when they banned smoking in all restaurants, even pubs, it severely limited the places where I could write. You can’t journal very well on a street corner. I’ve never had anyone complain about the smell of my pipe tobacco; in fact, I’ve had people chase me down the street wanting to know what tobacco I use because they liked the smell. I wanted to show people that smokers aren’t the scum of the earth.
It occurred to me that this book is a romance in the lesser-known meaning of the word: a story of passionate pursuit. There is a potential romance between two characters, Kate and Martin, but there’s also a more spiritual romance as Kate flirts with, then pursues, the idea of leaving her tenure-track job at her liberal arts college to teach in a seminary. She must decide, in effect, what her true love is. I bet you’ve never had anyone refer to this book a romance novel before. Not in that semi-technical literary meaning. People are wondering what’s going to happen to Kate and Martin. I am working on a sequel. I’m working on another nonfiction book, too, and the deadline for that one is September. Even though the deadline is near, I find myself stealing hours away to work on the sequel to the novel. This is not an indication of my feelings about the other book, but rather an indication of how interested I am in the sequel . . . My wife has told me Kate and Martin cannot sleep together until Volume Three.
A few minutes later, one of our booksellers poked her head in to call for help, having gotten swamped at the register by people arriving for Borg’s talk, and so our interview was brought to an abrupt close.
Amanda MacNaughton fled Barnes & Noble to work at Paulina Springs Books about six years ago. Besides the lack of dress code, her favorite things about her job are her work coordinating author events and the freedom to be herself when talking with customers—whether about her favorite books or the big questions in life.