Jesus for the Non-Religious

Jesus for the Non-Religious
by John Shelby Spong
(Harper San Francisco, 2007)

Spong reveals a Jesus who crosses the borders between insiders and outsiders, Jews and gentiles, male and female, clean and unclean, sacred and profane, and leads us through to the other side of chauvinism. This Jesus reveals, by his own action and example, the way that divinity can be found in humanity. This Jesus was so present, so whole, so free, so devoted to justice and compassion, that he filled his followers with remarkable hope and courage even after his crucifixion by the Romans. This Jesus inspires John Shelby Spong so deeply that he holds hope for a Christianity devoid of many of its most commonly-cherished beliefs.

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  1. Review

    With a coroner's scalpel of scholarship, John Shelby Spong autopsies the corpse of doctrinal Christianity. In Jesus for the Non-Religious, he cuts away at the miracle stories and dissects the myths and the theological constructs that were written into the texts of the gospels. His quest is to reveal the Jesus of history.

    Spong reveals a Jesus who crosses the borders between insiders and outsiders, Jews and gentiles, male and female, clean and unclean, sacred and profane, and leads us through to the other side of chauvinism. This Jesus reveals, by his own action and example, the way that divinity can be found in humanity. This Jesus was so present, so whole, so free, so devoted to justice and compassion, that he filled his followers with remarkable hope and courage even after his crucifixion by the Romans. This Jesus inspires John Shelby Spong so deeply that he holds hope for a Christianity devoid of many of its most commonly-cherished beliefs.

    "I am convinced that a God the mind rejects will never be a god that the heart will adore," writes Spong in Jesus for the Non-Religious, his latest book. He proceeds systematically to dismantle the Jesus of traditional Christianity, using detailed comparisons of the different accounts in the gospels and their sources. He meticulously deconstructs the birth stories, the miracle stories, the dogma around blood sacrifice that was written into the gospels, the historicity of the disciples, the stories leading up to the crucifixion, and the resurrection narratives. He theorizes that the four gospels' structures corresponded to the major festivals of the Jewish liturgical calendar. The gospel writers took the oral and written stories of Jesus and fit them into this liturgical chronology and form. Spong claims that the gospels were Jewish theological interpretations of the life of Jesus, rather than ever having been intended to serve as accurate historical accounts.

    Jesus for the Non-Religious repeats many of the themes and arguments found in Spong's previous books. While it contains little new material, the book is a fresh and very readable review of his years of scholarship on the historical Jesus. John Shelby Spong is the retired Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. His many top-selling books have made him the nation's lightening rod for the wrath of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who react to any threat to their rigid biblical interpretations. His vision is for a non-theistic Christianity, liberated from supernaturalism, religious chauvinism, or dependence on belief in the unbelievable. His vision is for a Christianity that truly offers what Jesus said was his own hope: that we "might have life and have it abundantly."

    Some important questions beg for answers in his book. He debunks the miracle stories on the basis of common sense and also through careful textual and historical criticism. On the one hand, he says that in the era around the New Testament's writing, people commonly believed in the miraculous, since they had no awareness of modern scientific analysis. The New Testament was hardly the only document of that era recording fabulous events that were supposed to be historical facts. On the other hand, Spong also suggests that the gospel writers never really meant their accounts to be historical according to current standards of factuality. He theorizes that the writers fit received oral and written stories into theological structures, writing those religious concepts into the texts on purpose. So did the gospel writers believe that their stories were factual, or not?

    Despite Spong's optimism, his book leads me to question whether or not there is enough in the strictly historical Jesus around which to maintain the Christian religion. The Jesus Seminar, which Spong serves as a member of its board (Westar Institute), has concluded that only a very few of Jesus' purported sayings deserve a "red" designation, as likely to have been spoken by the historical person. Spong clearly reveres the Jesus of history, but is there enough Jesus left to serve as the focus of devotion for the Christian church into the future? Spong hopes for a new Christianity based on the inspirational example of this historical Jesus. But doesn't the title of his book suggest that this Jesus is going to make more sense to people outside the church than in it?

    These implicit questions highlight the tension between two interconnected but very different projects: de-mythologizing biblical history and re-mythologizing the Christian religion. Spong has served the church and the wider public well by popularizing an understanding of the difference between biblical-era history and the myths and doctrines that were written into the biblical texts. But the writers of the gospels confabulated the story of Jesus at least partly for spiritual reasons. They left us with a rich body of myth and metaphor. Some of it, like the theology of blood atonement, has seen its day and deserves to be retired from use by the church. But much of this mythic and poetic tradition is in dire need not of rejection, but of re-interpretation. It still speaks to and for the soul. Common sense and textual criticism lead us away from belief in the factuality of the miracle stories. But many historically inaccurate gospel stories remain potent and valuable, if interpreted in creative, spiritually sensitive, non-literalistic ways. Just because something didn't happen doesn't mean it can't be "true" in an important way.

    Some of the very mythology that Spong debunks is what makes Jesus worthy of our effort to understand from an historical perspective. Both "religious" and "non-religious" people are as fascinated by the power in the myths about Jesus as they are about Jesus as an inspiring historical figure. Saying that Jesus didn't really walk on water is not "good news". But it is "good news" to share the story as a mythical, poetic expression of the possibility of keeping faith through the storms of life. One need not tell the story as history in order to share it with good spiritual effect.

    In his preface to the book, Spong announces that he has at least one more literary task ahead of him: a book that addresses death and dying from the perspective of a Christianity devoid of supernatural theism. This future book seems emblematic of most of his writing career: a coming to terms with the death of the church as he knew, loved, and served it for so long. It will be up to those who come after Jack Spong to bring much more fully to life not just the historical Jesus he adores, but the Jesus of myth and poetry as well.

     

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