Review of Tom Harpur’s Book “Born Again” – Montreal Gazette


Tom Harpur reflects on his faith 

By Kenneth Bagnell, Special to the Montreal Gazette May 27, 2011
Tom Harpur, Canadian author, broadcaster, columnist and theologian, often swims against the tide.

Tom Harpur, Canadian author,
broadcaster, columnist and theologian.

Photograph by: Susan Harpur, Thomas Allen

      On the first day of May 1971, Tom Harpur, a Rhodes Scholar and Anglican minister, began a career in journalism  as religion reporter for the Toronto Star. He’d hold the job for decades and become, to many, Canada’s leading newspaper journalist on religion. (He also wrote widely read books.) He’s highly provocative; one of his books, The Pagan Christ, takes the view that Jesus wasn’t an actual person. In some theological circles, his name provokes disdain.

     A theological intellectual, Harpur often swims against the stream. Consider as evidence part of a passage in his new memoir, Born Again. In his view, the revered and recently beatified Pope John Paul II, whom he covered, wasn’t truly a great man. As he says: “He loved too much the limelight and the feel of his own personal power; he was portrayed as a fully modern man when he was in fact anything but.”  He adds: “The question of whether or not I personally liked Pope John Paul II is not of great consequence. But for the record I did not.”

     Harpur came from a conservative background: he’s the son of an evangelical Anglican minister whose wife, when told her son had won a Rhodes scholarship, knelt in prayer that it be God’s will that he accept it. In the early 1960s, even though Harpur by then had an illustrious Oxford education and the pulpit of a Toronto parish, his father kept asking: “How many conversions have there been?” He respected his father, but sensed he was trying to live life through the son. It wasn’t to be.

     Born Again is a memoir, but also a theological reflection. The blending of autobiography with theology works because wit leavens the religion. Harpur describes a visit to a parishioner when he was a young minister: Having trouble balancing a tea napkin on his knee, he joked that he wished he had a wooden leg so he could use a thumbtack to pin the napkin on. The parishioner glared at him: “I’ll have you know my late husband had a wooden leg and that’s anything but humorous.” Many a minister could tell a similar story.

    Harper isn’t a faithless atheist. “The holy spirit of God,” he writes, “does indeed guide and inspire us.” Now in his early 80s, he still studies scripture, still meditates, still prays. But he has pretty well dismissed organized religion. His reason, I sense, is a familiar one: much seminary teaching and parish preaching is mired in antiquated concepts and credalisms. (Leadership in the church, he says, is too often soiled by careerism.)

    He’s right to a point. But in my view, this is not the entire reason for the ever steeper decline of church adherence. Like Britain and most of Europe, Canada is virtually a secular society. The situation in England is documented in a scholarly book with a dire title: The Death of Christian Britain. Secularization’s tide means ever fewer people attend a place of worship regardless of the quality of the service. Still, there’s a valid case for Harpur’s view: as the decline deepens, those who attend show growing interest in ideas Harpur explores.

   He’s harshly criticized. But attacks, mostly from fundamentalists, have often been ad hominem. For example, he recalls response to his earlier book, The Pagan Christ, which drew upon work of scholar Alvin Kuhn, who explored evidence that Jesus was not a historical figure, but mythical. Kuhn?s credentials were savaged, though he had a Columbia University doctorate. In any case, his theological views stand or fall on evidence, not degrees. Harpur now adds: “The position on the non-historicity of Jesus taken in The Pagan Christ and now held by an increasing number of scholars has never been given credible rebuttal.” He adds: “I have learned that it is futile to attempt a rational debate on every issue raised by fundamentalists.”

       Harpur deserves to be noted along with a small but very influential body of scholars (John Shelby Spong, Thomas Berry, Marcus Borg and others) who have taken the enormous responsibility of providing light during an important passage of Christian history: the huge transition to what American sociologist of religion Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence.” By exploring its issues in popular form, Tom Harpur makes a lasting contribution to our approach and understanding.

Kenneth Bagnell is an ordained Protestant minister and journalist living in Toronto.

Born Again: My Journey from Fundamentalism to Freedom

By Tom Harpur, Thomas Allen, 255 pages $32.95


1 Comment

  1. Name
    Apr 7, 2013

    Interesting. More educated and rational religious scholars and leaders will follow his suit.