For millions of Christians, born again is a completely positive phrase. It names the event or process in which they gave themselves to Jesus, which changed their lives and filled them with meaning. For million of other Christians (and former Christians and non Christians), it is primarily negative. Like salvation and righteousness, it carries a lot if baggage.
The reason for its negative associations today is that born again has been virtually identified with a particular way of being Christian. Polls indicate that Christians who self-identify as born again most often believe that:
- The Bible is inerrant.
- Jesus died to pay for our sins, and we can be forgiven, if we believe in him. (Google born again and you will find the four steps to becoming Christian, which focus on our sinfulness, Jesus dying for our sins, and the need to believe in him in order to have eternal life.)
- Creation happened as narrated in Genesis, and evolution should be rejected.
- Abortion is a sin, maybe even as bad as murder, and should not be legal.
- Homosexuality is sinful, and the extension of equal moral and legal standing to homosexuals is wrong and to be resisted.
- Christianity is "the only way" of salvation. Sometimes other religions must be condemned and vilified.
- Supporting a militaristic foreign policy is compatible with being Christian. Christianity's goal is going to heaven, not avoiding wars or seeking peace through justice on earth. (For example, in 2003, shortly before the American invasion of Iraq, the demographic group most in favor of going to war, indeed starting a war, was "white evangelicals" [84 percent]. Most of these, at least a strong majority, self-identify as born again.)
Not all born-again Christians affirm all of the above. But most do.
To say the obvious, the phrase born again has become associated primarily with the Christian religious and political right, with what is often and perhaps misleadingly called "conservative Christianity." Misleadingly, because it is a stereotype, a labeling. Misleadingly, because it actually is not very conservative. A conservative is one who seeks to conserve the wisdom of the past. But much of "conservative" Christianity in our time is a modern creation, not a conservation of the riches of the Christian past.
Given the association of born again with this particular kind of Christianity, it is not surprising that its primary meaning is negative, even for many Christians. I have heard more than one Christian say things like, "You can be born again and still be mean," "You can be born again and still filled with an angry righteousness in the worst sense of the word," "You can be born again and still be quite untransformed," and even, "You can be born again and still be a jerk." Their comments reflect its commonly negative meaning.
The negative associations of born again are unfortunate. They eclipse and obscure its rich biblical meaning. Not only rich, but important. Being born again is a powerful metaphor for the transformation at the center of the Christian life.
The classic New Testament born again passage is in John 3:1-10 (the phrase occurs only one other time in the New Testament, in 1 Pet. 1:23). It begins:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."
Nicodemus is identified as a Pharisee and a leader of the people. The latter means that he was among the ruling elite. He comes to Jesus "by night." In John's richly symbolic use of language, this means that he is still "in the dark." His interest in Jesus seems genuine. The text provides no reason to think that his first words to Jesus are false flattery.
Jesus answers him:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
For the first time in this text, the Greek phrase often translated into English as born again or born anew appears. The translation above (the NRSV) reads "born from above." It is a better translation; as the story later makes clear it means to be "born of the Spirit." But the difference in translations is not crucial; to be born from above is to be born anew. And in this text it is associated with the "kingdom of God."
Nicodemus asks Jesus:
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?
Nicodemus takes the metaphor of being "born from above" literally and wants to know how one can possibly return to the womb. Nicodemus is a literalist; he doesn't get the symbolic meaning of this language. This happens often in John's Gospel-those "in the dark" fail to recognize the more-than-literal meaning of language.
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above." The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Jesus emphasizes that to be born anew is to be "born of the Spirit" (three times).
Nicodemus asks him how these things can possibly be, and Jesus answers:
Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
As the passage concludes, Nicodemus still doesn't get it, still doesn't "understand these things."
The metaphor of rebirth, being born of the Spirit, is an image of radical transformation. An old life has been left behind, and a new life has begun. It has a number of metaphorical equivalents in the New Testament. In Paul, dying and rising with Christ, being crucified with Christ, and becoming a new creation. In the synoptic Gospels, bearing the cross and following Jesus to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection. To be born again, to be born of the Spirit, is to die to an old identity and way of being and to be born into a new identity and way of being centered in the Spirit of God-which for Christians is known normatively in Jesus.
Thus being born again is utterly central to Christianity, one of the main images for the goal and promise of the Christian life. It describes our transformation and, ultimately, the transformation of the world, for those who are born of the Spirit of God as known in Jesus share God's passion for a more just and peaceful world.
From Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have lost Their Meaning and Power - And How They Can Be Restored. Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Borg. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.