on June 4, 2007
Tired of Bible-thumpers, door-to-door evangelists and televangelists? Ashamed to call yourself a Christian because people will think you're a bigoted know-nothing? Do you have a deep attachment to the man Jesus but wouldn't be caught dead in a church? Well, take hope!
Jack Spong has thrown religious clutter overboard in this exciting new book and allowed people of the 21st century to see the wonder and awe which Jesus' original followers must have experienced in his presence. Not superman just a super man!
In the first third of the book, Spong, dismantles all the man-made supernatural rubbish layered on the human Jesus. The reasons why the early Church did these things are many and varied but "modern" scholars, over the past 150 years or so, now know that things like the virgin birth and bodily resurrection were NOT things that the earliest followers of Jesus would have recognized as having anything to do with what Jesus was about.
The middle third of the book focuses on how and why the original evangelists made Jesus look like the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and/or a figure of importance like Moses or David. Most of us read this stuff in the Bible and just assume that it's "history" but once again, Spong points out that modern scholarship recognizes this as interpretive material to make Jesus the next logical step for Jews and eventually Gentiles in God's "plan" for us.
The final third of the book is really the pinnacle of Spong's thinking regarding where people of a spiritual inclination (Christian or otherwise) can go with this de-mythologized human Jesus. We don't need to grovel before a God and thank a God for getting Jesus killed so that in some bizzare way we think/believe that Jesus' blood washes away "original sin" that most of us don't even think/know we've got! Rather we, like the original followers of Jesus, need to see something "God-like" in the way in which Jesus lived and died.
If, as Spong argues, God can provisionally be described as "the source of love, the source of life, and the ground of being" then in Jesus we have seen someone who loves wastefully, enhances being and exhorts us to live fully. This is not just some New Age bumper sticker. This is a challenge for all of us to follow in Jesus' footsteps and create the world that we know God would want. Confronting injustice, corrupt power and killing prejudice can get us crucified, too - but that is the path of Jesus.
Don't bother reading this book if you're a "born again" Christian - it'll just make you mad and confuse you. But, if, like me, you see beauty and richness in the Christian tradition and the man Jesus DESPITE all of the ugliness of institutional religion (now and in the past) this book is a MUST read.
on March 6, 2007
I have enjoyed all of Bishop John Shelby Spong's books. This latest addition weaves together Bishop Spong's interpretation of how the gospel stories came about and how they should be viewed by the contemporary Christian. He makes a compelling argument that much of what appears in the gospels represents a reformulation of pre-existing Jewish folklore as expressed in the Old Testament in an attempt to understand the significance of the historical Jesus. I especially enjoyed his chapter that discusses how the Christian church will ultimately fail if it continues to struggle to hang on to old and outdated interpretations that even the faithful no longer take seriously.
I had hoped that Bishop Spong would further develop what it was about the Jesus of history that made the writers feel compelled to wrap Jesus's story in such complex mythology. The latter parts of the book I felt were weak in this regard. His premise is that a man like Jesus who transcended the boundaries of prejudice, stereotype, and other human frailties was deemed to be a reflection of God and consequently became wrapped into the mythology of the Jewish Old Testament. To my mind, there must have been more than that. There have been other great men of history (Gandhi comes to mind) that did not produce the impact that Jesus Christ did. I could not help feeling that there must have been something more to the Christ story...much more to make the evangelists go through the trouble that they did to produce the gospel stories of this great man.
Despite this shortcoming, I found the book to be well-written, informative, and very interesting. I highly recommend it for Progressive Christians. Orthodox Christians will not like this book and I look forward to their reviews that will undoubtably follow.
on April 5, 2007
John Shelby Spong is an excellent theologian, making faith possible for persons for whom integrity of belief is important. He argues that NT events from the life of Jesus are not based in actual happenings but are creations by NT writers drawing from OT images that are then applied to Jesus and his ministy. Thus, Spong is able to dismiss virtually all historical references in the gospels. This reviewer is thoroughly familiar with the theological meaning of mythology (PHD in NT studies from St. Andrews Univ. Scotland), and agrees with many of the conclusions that Spong reaches, but I prefer to see a core element of historical data which led the NT writers to return to the OT for religious language that will describe the event and input meaning to it. They see events in the life of Jesus with OT history and in order to tell the story they use Ot imagery and language. Thus Spong is correct in challenging specific details in the story telling, but for me, he is far to quick to dismiss far too much of the gospel data.
We agree that Jesus was an historical figure--but I do not believe Spong has done his research in extra-biblical data that provides evidence that could be understood to document events particularly from Luke's gospel.
Spong's book might be very helpful for persons looking for theological meaning in the Jesus story, but too much data surrounding that ministry is dismissed as creative story telling. I began making a list and quickly found 25 things that Spong dismisses as having no historical identity (no star, no Bethlehem, no Judas, no 12 disciples, no burial in a tomb, no cleansing of the temple, etc.etc). I agree that the stories are embellished via oral tradition with the early centuries, but I continue to believe these stories developed out of an actual event that did happen, but that we should not insist on exact historicity in all details as the story is told.
Spong is an excellent challenge to Evangelical-Fundamentalist literalism in Biblical story telling (for that clearly lacks intellectual credibility) but I wish he would have toned down his strident "slash and burn" approach to all historical rootage in the biblical life of Jesus.
This book is a very important challenge to the "literal text with a spiritual meaning" so prevalent in American Christianity. It will speak to persons who long for a theological image of Jesus preaching a desperately needed message about justice, reconciliation, compassion and personal integrity that calls persons to be all they can be, and to live with freedom and grace for all humanity.
on June 21, 2007
Although the title is "Jesus for the Non Religious," i received the impression while reading this book that Spong is attempting to put down his final conclusions about Jesus and our knowledge about him from the scriptures. It is a summation, a tying together his lifetime studies on this subject.
The book is interestiing and well written, but it has a certain quality to it that I will describe as an attempt to take the reader step by step through various stages that lead him to his final conclusion of who Jesus was (is).
Spong begins by a form of reductionism---separating what we know for sure about Jesus from the myths surrounding him. In this Part 1 Spong ends up with very little we can be sure of: Jesus was born in the Jewish homeland; he was a teacher and a healer; he was opposed by the civil and religious leaders; he died by crucifixtion. All the rest---his words, deeds, miracles, healings, prophecies --we cannot be sure about.
The Gospels are almost entirely the work of those upon whom Jesus made such a great impression that they largely created his life and words as found in the four gospels.
In the second part he shows how the original Jewish followers of Jesus saw him through their tradition, culture and scriptures. Jesus was seens as the "new Passover:. Jesus was seen through the lens of Yom Kippur as both the perfect lamb slaughtered to reconcile man with God --- and, the scape goat laden with the evil of mankind. To a lesser degree, Jesus was seen as the "Son of Man" in the work of Ezekiel, the prophet.
Jesus was also viewed as the suffering servant of Second Isaiah and as the "Good Shepherd".
In the third and final part of the book, Bishop Spong examines what is left of Jesus after identifying the myths and accepting that Jesus made a profound impression upon his early followers who then constructed his life story using as material and as a pattern -- sections of the Hebrew scriptures.
Spong describes evolution on several pages culminating when the creature we call a human being became such a person --- by the dawn of "self conciousness. However, when the first humans realized their identity and saw that they were surrounded by a possibly dangerous Nature, animals, other beings --- they were filled with insecurity. This result is the inate drive for survival found within human beings to this day. Spong identifies ways that human have sought to reassure themselves of their existence and value: tribal relationships, prejudices, stereotypes and --- religion.
Jesus broke through all the these barriers that effectively cut mankind off from true freedom and happiness.
I was waiting for the final section because I thought "What is there left?"
Bishop Spong that --even after his life's work (and, possibly because of it) he still is a God intoxicated man and one who sees what God is like in the being of Jesus.
Frankly, for me, the final fourth of the book was rather unsatisfying. For example, what Christian church can one become a member of that sees Jesus as Bishop Spong hascome to perceive him? This latest view of Jesus is a "work in progress" -- especially in that their are no structures, fellowships, etc. that are available to those who find Spong's conclusions --- the answers to their quest.
on March 1, 2008
Over the years Bishop Spong has been working out his progressive Christian theology. Of the books I have read by him, this seems to me to be his best effort to date.
I had previously read by him:
Resurrection: Myth or Reality? : A Bishop's Search for the Origins of Christianity
Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile
A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born
My recommendation would be, if you haven't read any of these books, to only read "Jesus for the Non-Religious" - or at least to begin with it after which the others may only be of interest to you if you wish to trace the development of Spong's thought.
The biggest step that Spong has made in this book is in his speculation of how the story of Jesus that eventually appeared in the Gospels might have been built up in Jewish discussions, probably in good part in synagogues, of who Jesus had been and what his life and death had meant. In these discussions, the impact of Jesus was understood to a significant degree in terms of Old Testament texts, leading to the four New Testament Gospel accounts. Explaining in this way, Spong is able to make sense of how the myths arose and what the original images of Jesus were. Spong then can present a Jesus more relevant to our times, free of reliance on supernaturalism, by emphasizing how the life and death could nevertheless reveal the love of God in a Jesus who led people past boundaries: "tribal", of "prejudice and stereotype", and "religious".
Spong presents compelling reasons for the acknowledgement of the reason for the origin and for the power of Christian myth. In doing, he presents a powerful alternative to the literalized interpretations: he's attempted this before but seems most successful in this book.
One question that remains for me is whether Spong has remained too dependent on constructing his own image of Jesus. Perhaps his message might be even stronger if, without in any way denying the power of Jesus, he accepted that the details of the life of Jesus may never be knowable but emphasized more, as he speculated in discussing the impact in the synagogues to try to understand what Jesus meant, that Christianity is a response by many. As Spong acknowledges, Paul himself did not find much about the life of Jesus significant enough to share in his letters and yet didn't Paul of something of great power about Christianity to share with those his letters were intended for? It may be that a turning us to Christ as Paul did, to Christian history, and our shared condition is what a progressive Christianity can best do rather than join the many who compete to speculate upon a "winning" image of Jesus. Nevertheless, as Spong points, moving past "tribal" boundaries, "prejudice and stereotype", and "religious" boundaries may be among the best ways we can acknowledge that "Jesus is Lord".
But might it be possible, due to all the uncertainties and speculations about Jesus, that it might be necessary in order to be a Christian that one let a definite image of Jesus go ... just as Spong has encouraged us to let a definite image (the theistic one) of God go? Paul seemed not to have communicated a detailed Jesus in his letters? Why then now so long after Jesus, Paul, and so many others are we reaching to justify doing the right things by creating an image of Jesus whose authority we then appeal to and direct others to? Founders are important but so to are successors: at this time, informed by but not tied up by history, it is our present and future actions that matter. It seems up to the living to find what God means today and to act effectively in response. One of Spong's own teachers seems of help on this, I recommend Paul Tillich as in his
The Courage to Be
when one feels ready to take another step into progressive Christianity.
on July 7, 2007
Spong's Biblical knowledge is superb. He has sent me back to reading the scriptures several times to gain a deeper/newer perspective of Jesus and the "mythology" built around Him. I geatly appreciated Spong's explanation of the writings surrounding Jesus as an indication of the frustrations of 1st century people trying to explain the depth of their feelings for Jesus and ending up with the creation of liturgy rather than exact truth of events. I've struggled with trying to reconcile miracles, death and rebirth, the passion story, etc. to what I believe Jesus to have been. As a student of history and seeing all the horrendous things that "good Christians" have done over the years has led me to wonder how Jesus was so "misinterpreted" and Spong clearly addresses this issue. I find it much easier to focus on the beliefs and actions of Jesus and to continue to believe that following His actions would lead to a better world and my own personal enlightenment and connectedness to God after having read Spong's book.
A lot of the reviews of books by Spong are polarized by the reviewer's own theological perspective: either Spong can do no wrong, or no right. This isn't very helpful, so let me attempt a review of the book itself, as opposed to a review of our opinions of John Shelby Spong, the man. And to emphasize my effort to be honest, let me acknowledge that I am about to argue that the book isn't particularly great, and yet I count myself among those who really, really admire Spong.
The book is mis-titled. "Jesus for the Non-Religious" invokes the notion that Spong is about to explain to the un-churched, the exiled, perhaps even the unbelieving, how Jesus presents a crucial and superb model of philosophy, morality, or social justice. That's not quite what happens. Instead, Spong engages in TEDIOUS dissection of minutiae to gradually develop points that, frankly, aren't all that spellbinding. No "non-religious" peer of mine would tolerate more than ten pages of this before going,. "Oh, come ON! I give up!" For example, Spong hangs entire conclusions on the variations of single words (at times) between texts, explaining what he believes is the obvious implication of the syntax in producing a conclusion that seems grandiose. When two writers of Gospels vary in wording while describing the same event, Spong sees this as clear, unmistakable indication that they are not trying to describe an actual historic event at all! No, it CLEARLY--to him--informs us that the writers only meant for their narratives to be liturgical symbolism of poetic/psychological concepts. To illustrate, it'd be like future historian comparing FoxNews to MSNBC's details of the Iraq War, noting the variations in wording and points of view and concluding, "Well, obviously, those journalists NEVER intended for their accounts to be taken as literal narratives of an actual war. There clearly was no Iraq war, and the journalists were only using the *imagery* of a war to invoke social commentary about things they lacked the psychology or vocabulary to explain!"
For Spong to see only liturgy in the multiple accounts of events, and to deny that there was even the intent by the authors to narrate events, is a stretch. But Spong doesn't merely see his conclusions as possible alternate readings, but as the logical conclusions that are so OBVIOUS (to him) that he can't fathom anyone reading them any other way! So if the Gospel authors vary in details of the sequence of Jesus' trial and execution--in narratives written decades later--that doesn't mean to Spong that there are remnants of the human mind's lack of precise recall of years-gone events. No, to him it means that the writers didn't even INTEND for their accounts to be seen as recollections of history, but only as liturgical skits, extended metaphors, expressing concepts but not events. And when the writers describe miracles such as raising the dead, Spong finds variations in the wording between accounts and sees this as more evidence that the writers were only manufacturing liturgy, and not writing about events. In fact, Spong's logic would mean that the writers who composed those narratives wouldn't have even regarded them as factual, and might have said, "you mean you took me LITERALLY when I wrote about the miracles, named the people and their roles, identified the places, quoted the dialogue, and then described the response of the onlooking witnesses? How silly--CLEARLY I was only trying to use symbolic imagery to describe an inward consciousness!"
I do not regard the Bible as infallible. In fact, between Spong and Ehrman, I think I've developed a rather healthy realism toward it. But I just can't go along with Spong's consistent argument that none of the New Testament accounts are even intended to be historic record (Mary and Joseph didn't actually exist; there were not twelve disciples; there was no trial and perhaps no crucifixion; Jesus likely died alone; there was no Judas; there were no healings; etc...). Spong seems to be personally uncomfortable with these issues, and so he develops what I can only describe as WEIRD theories to make the text say anything--anything!--other than what it says. There's almost a desperation about it. I don't have a problem with rational analysis of supernatural claims, but let's not approach such a process by saying, "even the people who first wrote those supernatural claims didn't REALLY mean it. They were just making liturgical points using metaphors and parable archetypes!"
I've been thrilled with many of Spong's books, but this one left me frustrated because of its tedious peccadilloes, very bizarre paths of analysis, and the fact that it barely achieves what the title promises.
on June 11, 2007
The title of this book does not convey its thrust very well. I think that "Christianity for the Twenty-first Century" would have been a better choice. (Note: if you are a bible literalist, this book and this review are not for you.) In this book Bishop Spong continues his exploration of the meaning of Jesus for modern people. His message is that you can believe in science and rationalism without having to abandon Christianity. For example, on p. xii he says, "God and truth cannot be incompatible," and on p. 215, "So theism can die without God dying."
The heading for the first part is "Separating the Human Jesus from the Myth," where "myth" is to be taken in its best definition as a meaningful story that is the basis for a belief system. He then goes through many chapters separating the human teacher from the christology, rather successfully, I believe. If there is a weakness to his book, it is that his statement of what is left for a modern belief system could have been made stronger. I would have liked to have seen more on the idea of acting on the message of Jesus: help for the poor, the sick, and the down-troddened.
on May 13, 2007
Bishop Spong puts forth a case for a new Christianity for a new age. With the current Christian Right Wing of our society, manipulating government, preying on fears, espousing Jesus Christ and their narrow doctrine as the only genuine faith; we need a voice of reason, intellect and enlightenment. Bishop Spong steps out where other clerics dare to tread. I highly recommend this book for all people who have doubts and are seeking a path where they can embrace faith, find a sound doctrine and live a life that Jesus intended. I am on my second reading as while it is very readable, the case and research is voluminous and difficult to absorb at one reading.
on July 8, 2007
Spong has always been excellent at critiquing the errors and problems in traditional, especially fundamentalist, Christianity. What I liked most about this book is that he gives an alternative understanding of Jesus at the end of the book.
While he often repeats points excessively, I found his arguments convincing and scholarly. Digging through and discarding the centuries of Christian orthodoxy and dogma to find the truly revolutionary core of Jesus is well worth the effort. Spong's view of the real Jesus is the one that makes the most sense to me. It is intelligent, moral, and inspirational and doesn't require ignoring or denying 21st century knowledge.
The true message of Jesus is not unique to Jesus nor does it require the authority of Jesus. In addition to Christians, it can be embraced by freethinkers, humanists, agnostics, atheists, and most faith traditions. But if Christianity is to survive in our modern world, this book could restore its wisdom and relevance. I would recommend it to anyone.