Book review: Jesus for the Non-Religious, John Shelby Spong

(Amazon; Bookfinder)

This book is basically an overview of John Shelby Spong’s view of what Christianity should be. In the first part of the book he spends a long time breaking down why traditional or literal Christianity is no longer believable, and looking at the historical circumstances of the writing of the Gospels. The upshot of this is that he ditches miracles, supernatural stuff generally, and a lot of historical claims (not all – he offers a clear explanation for his acceptance that there was a historical Jesus, about whom we know very little but more than nothing). He expects his audience to be upset about this, and he often offers reassuring asides or encouragements to hear him out. I found these unnecessary because I wasn’t upset, but I accept that I may not be his intended audience.

In the second part of the book, he looks at the stories we have about Jesus in the context of the first-century synagogues in which they were (he argues) created. Throughout the first part of the book, he was constantly relating stories about Jesus to stories from the Hebrew Bible – mainly as evidence that they are stories, recurring motifs borrowed from elsewhere, rather than history. In this second part, he builds on this awareness of the Jewish origins of Christianity, and describes very clearly how the synoptic Gospels can be understood as liturgical texts within the context of the Jewish calendar. I’ve heard of this theory before, but found Spong’s presentation of it both clear and convincing.

The third part of the book, meant to be a discussion of the core of Christianity as Spong understands it, felt a little weak in comparison with the foregoing. It’s slightly less carefully argued. Some of the concerns about historicity are dropped before the reader has fully understood why they are no longer relevant – Spong’s point is actually that the stories are spiritually true rather than historical, and that if we understand them as non-literal attempts to share the heart of the Jesus experience, rather than the facts of the life of Jesus, we can learn a lot from them. He does make this explicit, but I think it would have been better said slightly sooner. He also – and this is interesting in light of my previous post – uses the term ‘theist’ not for all God-belief, but for the kind of God-belief he doesn’t like (external, interventionist, supernatural, patriarchal, paternal). I found the explanation of how theism came to exist, which is framed in terms of evolutionary psychology, less than helpful – to do it in this space, or, I fear, at all, one must generalise so much that it becomes almost meaningless. Rather than trying to go back in evolutionary time, and falling into some of the same problems which Freud encountered in Moses and Monotheism, it would be enough to point out that now and in recorded history people have experienced self-conciousness, fear of death, and a desire to survive even at the cost of other lives. It’s probably safe to assume that the human condition is known to your readers, and skip the bit about it dawning on prehistoric people – although I suppose it does serve to demonstrate that Spong fully accepts evolution as an explanation of our existence.

Spong is, then, a non-theist (under his own understanding of theism) and a Christian. In particular, he is a Christian in that he takes the character and story of Jesus to be primary. The message which he derives from the Jesus story, and which he wants to detach from unhelpful baggage and express in modern terms, is that we come into the life of God when we are fully human. When we drop tribalism, prejudice, and boundaries between people, we can “step into a humanity that opens to all people the meaning of life and thus the meaning of God” (p247).

Overall, I found this a good read – it’s dense but clear, and contains a lot of material, especially in the first part. For people who are interested in whether/how Christianity can reform itself into something for today and tomorrow, it’s got a lot to offer. For those who are interested in the history of Christianity and the relationship of the New Testament texts to the Hebrew Bible, this book lays out one common and scholarly approach in an accessible way. Those who have already made many of Spong’s early moves, such as rejecting a supernaturalist reading of the New Testament and embracing a more poetic approach, might find some of this disappointing in that it covers old ground, but also reassuring and at times illuminating of details. In particular, Spong’s positioning of the Jesus story as a continuation of the Elijah/Elisha and Isaiah/Zachariah stories, and his continued and respectful attention to Judaism, are helpful.

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One response to “Book review: Jesus for the Non-Religious, John Shelby Spong

  1. Pingback: B is for Bible | Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

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