I’ve been hearing the American Episcopal bishop Spong both praised as a visionary and condemned as a heretic for quite some time now, so I figured it was about time to read one of his books.
It’s interesting to read this right after reading Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ. Both Spong and Harpur are often reviled by conservatives and traditionalists, and both reference each other in their books. On the surface, at least, it seems the two are doing something completely different. Spong wants to de-mythologize the historical Jesus: to strip away the accretions of miracle stories and supernatural myths (including the Resurrection) that Jesus’ enthusiastic followers attached to his story, and get down to the Man underneath. Harpur, on the other hand, argues that the historical Jesus is irrelevant and mostly likely nonexistant: he wants a remythologizing, where we recognize that the Jesus stories are just versions of the great pagan myths, and that it’s the myth rather than the man who matters.
But despite these differences, there’s a lot of similarity between Spong and Harpur (and they share these similarities with John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and many other liberal Christian writers). The basic message is: all the miraculous and supernatural elements of the Jesus story are not true and must be rejected by modern, post-Enlightenment, rational thinkers. There is no God in the old theistic sense of a deity in the sky who personally knows us and cares about us; such a God could not have become “incarnate” in a first-century Galilean peasant. The story of Jesus is admirable because it is the story of a wonderful human being, and human beings are what really matters: the “god” Spong is left with at the end of Jesus for the non-Religious” is simply the human spirit. Jesus is not a God-sent Savior because humanity doesn’t need a savior; we can save ourselves.
While traditional Christians would agree that Jesus of Nazareth was certainly an exemplary human being, Spong gives no reason why we should emulate and even worship this Jesus moreso than any other exemplary human being — perhaps, better, one about whose actual life we have a few more verifiable facts. It’s a very thin faith he leaves his target audience with, although since they are, by definition, the non-religious, perhaps they won’t mind.
I could bore you ALL DAY with the logical holes even a relatively uneducated reader like me can pick in Spong’s arguments. His dismissal of all the miracles of Jesus, the virgin birth, and the resurrection, is all based on the a priori assumption that nothing can happen which violates the laws of science as we currently understand them, which is a big leap in and of itself. But even granting that, Spong goes further, and sets up false dichotomies in order to dismiss things in the gospels which are perfectly amenable to logical explanation. One example: he is determined to prove that none of the stories and sayings accompanying the crucifixion is actually true. He argues that the gospel writers assigned the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” to Jesus because they read those words in Psalm 22 and felt they described Jesus’ experience. Jesus could not have actually said them, he argues, because that would mean the Psalmist had “magically” anticipated Jesus’ exact words on the cross — ignoring the fairly obvious fact that all the Psalms would have been well known to an observant Jew like Jesus and that He might have chosen to quote the 22nd Psalm on the cross because it so perfectly captured how He was feeling.
It goes on and on like this. And yet, when 90% of the gospels have been swept away and Spong is left to tell us what there is to admire about the historical Jesus, he tells the gospel stories that fit his theme — those of Jesus reaching out to include the outcast and stepping across human prejudices — without a shred of textual criticism, including, for example, the theologically beautiful but textually problematic story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (John 8).
So I find neither John Shelby Spong’s arguments, nor the Jesus he leaves us with, convincing or appealing. But I will say that I find his attitude much less angry, much less iconoclastic, than I had believed it would be based on criticisms I’d read of him. I believe that Spong truly believes in this Jesus and that the belief he has is truly comforting and inspiring to him. I just don’t think it’s much good to the rest of us, religious or not.