Sunday, 7 October 2012

More Lives of Jesus 7: John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong retired as Episcopalian (Anglican, for us Aussies) Bishop of Newark in 2001 after 24 years in the role, and has since worked as a freelance author and speaker.  Over the past three decades he has become the most outspoken and controversial advocate for progressive Christianity, reviled by conservative Christians and admired by fellow progressives.  He has taken unorthodox stands on a range of issues, including human sexuality, the status of the Bible and the role of women.  His stance is summed up in the title of another of his books - Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

He has written a lot about Jesus over the years but Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human, published in 2007, is his most comprehensive treatment of the historical person at the heart of the Christian faith.  After leading off with his devotion to Jesus, he follows with this.

The other (motivation) driving me into this study is my conviction that I am living at the end of the Christian era.  I believe that I am witnessing the death of Christianity, as it has been historically understood....Many of the things historically said about Jesus I, as one who yearns to be a believer, can no longer hold with credibility....

What this signals is that Spong has enormous ambitions for this book, and for his work as a whole.  Never one for understatement, Spong believes his mission is to rescue Christianity from itself.  He believes that the traditional formulations of Christianity can't stand the light of 21st century scientific knowledge, and that the resulting defensiveness and aggression seen in American fundamentalism is in any case not worth saving.  Pushed by this belief he declares himself to be an atheist, although he doesn't mean quite what other people mean by this term.  I'll leave the details of that question for another post, but the salient point is that having abandoned old-fashioned theism he still remains devoted to Jesus and is determined to fashion a post-theistic form of Christianity.

His book is broken into three parts.  In the first he strips away the things he can no longer believe about Jesus.  Unsurprisingly, these are mostly the miraculous elements of the Gospels.

I still read regularly the biblical stories about Jesus, but I am repelled again and again by the imposed assumptions we seem to think undergird those narratives, none of which I, as a twenty-first-century person, could ever make. I do not believe that food can be expanded by anyone from five literal loaves to a volume sufficient to feed a multitude....I do not believe that anyone can, with supernatural power, cause the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the mute to sing and the lame to walk in any literal way....Storms are understood today to be the result of moving, impersonal weather fronts. They serve no ulterior or divine motive. They can, therefore, not be stilled by any person's command.

Dead not in our time rise from their graves to take their places in the life of society for a second time. We know death to be a permanent state, and to be so total a shutdown of bodily functions that the brain is irreversibly destroyed if it is without oxygen for a very few minutes....Certainly a crucified man, executed and buried on Friday, cannot walk out of his tomb resuscitated and alive on Sunday, nor can a body defy gravity in order to ascend into the sky as a way to return to the God who was once believed to dwell above the clouds.

Hence, these various miraculous stories are dismissed as mythologising, as later additions used to illustrate some core truths about Jesus which his followers struggled to put into words.

Throughout the 20th century, those who took this approach to the life of Jesus ended up at the bedrock of his words.  Once his miracles, his virgin birth and his bodily resurrection were swept away, what was left was a charismatic, groundbreaking teacher.  At the beginning of the century, Schweitzer and Bultmann found a prophet of the Kingdom of God.  By its end Funk, Borg and their fellow Jesus Seminar participants had uncovered a teacher of startling, unexpected wisdom. 

Spong, however, confronts this challenge in a completely different way.  His touchstone is that while he doesn't believe in a literal bodily resurrection, it is clear that something happened to Jesus' disciples after he died.  While he dismisses many of the Gospel stories as later additions, he accepts as genuine the assertion that when Jesus was arrested, all his disciples fled.  After all, why would later Christians make up such a shameful story about the founders of their movement?  Yet within a short period these same disciples were risking their own lives to spread his message. 

In the end he doesn't explain what he thinks happened at the point, and I suspect he doesn't know.  However, what this leads him to is a sense that in Jesus the disciples experienced the presence of God in a way they never had before.  Since God is ultimately indescribable and inexpressible in human language, they searched for images in their religious culture - that of first century Judaism - and used them to describe their experience.

This is the launching pad for the second, and to me most fascinating and illuminating, section of the book.  His contention is that the first Christians were, and remained after Jesus' death, active members of the Jewish religious community.  They attended the synagogue each sabbath, and over time they came to see Jesus in terms of the annual cycle of synagogue worship.  To Spong's eye, then, the ordering and thematic arrangement of the four canonical Gospels reflects their use by Christian Jews reworking and embellishing the stories of Jesus into the Jewish ecclesiastical calendar.

We are all familiar with two of these associations - the association of Jesus's death with the Passover feast in which he is seen as the new passover lamb, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in which he is seen as the lamb or ram on whom is laid the sins of the people.  We are also familiar with the idea in Luke's writings of the connection of Pentecost (celebrating the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai) with the coming of the Spirit on the disciples.  We may be less familiar with its association in the other Gospels with the Transfiguration, in which Jesus ascends the mountain with his closest disciples, speaks directly with God and is physically transformed in a way reminiscent of Moses' glowing face. 

From here, Spong traces the pattern first of all in Mark's gospel, which he says covers only the six months leading up to Passover, and then in the way the later writers built on Mark to extend the series of stories to the full year.  Jesus' stories of the Kingdom of God are arranged to be told around the feast of Rosh Hashane when Jews came together to pray for the coming of this very Kingdom.  His various uses of the harvest metaphor are arranged to coincide with the feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish harvest festival.  There are special cycles of readings for the great festivals themselves - for instance, Mark's crucifixion narrative describes a twenty-four hour series of events, neatly divided into eight segments of three hours each, which Spong believes would have been read as part of a 24 hour Chrisitian passover liturgy.

His analysis is impressive and persuasive, because once he reveals the pattern, the correspondences are too close and too detailed to be simply coincidental.  Nor should conservative readers be frightened by this.  Christians of all stripes have long acknowledged the strong connections between the stories of Jesus and those of the Old Testament.  What fundamentalist does not believe they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and had their sins laid on Jesus?  Spong's analysis can serve as a resource for any believer.

In reading this part of the book, I gradually realised that despite his own immersion in the Church and in Christian scholarship, the writer Spong reminded me of most was John Carroll, an admirer of Jesus from far outside the pale of the church.  Carroll sees the gospels as a kind of midrash, a creative reading of the stories aimed at helping the listener to deal with pressing events in their life and times.  The point of the midrash, he says, is not to report a literal, historical truth, it is to interpret an event in a way that illuminates and guides the listener.  Although he doesn't use the term, this is what Spong is saying too.  The writers of the gospels and their oral precursors created a series of midrashes in which the stories of Jewish history and the life of Jesus were combined to help their followers understand the incomprehensible mystery of God.

Like Carroll, Spong also sees a pressing need to create a new midrash which allows the 21st century church to rescue the stories from irrelevence and help a new generation of people experience God in a way that makes sense in our culture.  Hence in the third part of the book, he outlines how he believes we should see Jesus in our day.  He does this under four headings.

 As the "Breaker of Tribal Boundaries" Jesus is seen as overturning our historical enmities and our distrust of the other, our tendency to war and to appropriate God for our own national interest.  In his reaching out to Samaritans and Roman soldiers, his cleansing of the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple, and his refusal to cry war on the Romans, he is seen as saying that God is the God of all people everywhere. 

As the "Breaker of Prejudices and Stereotypes" Jesus is seen as breaking down our negative perceptions of women, of people of other races, of the ill and disfigured, and of finding the common humanity in all of us. 

As the "The Breaker of Religious Boundaries" he is seen as standing against the forms of religion that oppress and exclude - the Sabbath regulations that prevent the feeding of the hungry or the healing of the sick, the regulations of cleanliness that exclude the crippled and lame, the gender boundaries that condemn women to subordination.

Finally in the stories of the Cross he sees Jesus exemplifying God's love in his willingness to die rather than to kill, his willingness to continue his mission no matter what the cost.

What's interesting about all this is that, like the second part of the book, you don't need to throw over theism to believe these things.  Indeed, long before I had read Spong I found similar insights in the thoroughly theistic writings of the likes of Albert Nolan, Jim Wallis, John Smith or Brian McLaren.

Indeed, there are a lot more correspondences between Spong and conservative evangelicals than he would perhaps like to admit - although having grown up among fundamentalists himself he must surely be aware of them.  Apart from the imagery of sacrifice which they use so readily, the very notion of non-religious Christianity which forms the title and theme of this book is one I first heard from fundamentalists.  In the early 1980s gospel singer Chuck Girard sang "I'm not religious, I just love the Lord."  His contemporary, Randy Miller, explained that he was very religious about brushing his teeth - he cleaned them once very three weeks whether they needed it our not.

Which brings me to my final point.  Spong believes that without his post-theistic makeover Christianity will die.  It seems to me that this death, like Mark Twain's, is greatly exaggerated.  The growing churches of our time are not the intellectual, post-theistic churches of the likes of Spong and his fellow progressives.  They are the booming fundamentalist megachurches of the pentecostal movement, and the bastions of conservative Catholicism promoted by John Paul II and his followers. 

Spong's problem is that this kind of Christianity frightens him, as does its Islamic equivalent.  He sees it as a religion of hate, bigotry and insecurity.  It's part of the problem, not part of the solution.  He may be exaggerating - he often does - but he has a point.  Although this book is written for people like me who struggle with the same kind of doubts Spong does, fundamentalists should read it too.  They should do so lovingly, resisting the urge to send the author abusive letters, and see themselves as others see them.  Then they should examine the Jesus who appears in these pages, and see if perhaps he has something new to teach them.


Andrew said...

I was fortunate to hear Spong speak last week. Some friends and I drove 8 hrs in to the mountains of Montana to a wonderful little Methodist church where he spent the weekend doing seminars. The gathering was small enough that we got to spend a fair amount of time talking to him personally. Even though I have left the faith, there are still a number of theistic authors who challenge me, and Spong is one of them. As always, you do a great review.

Jon said...

Thanks Andrew, that sounds like a great seminar.