Book Review: Jesus for the Non-Religious

Bishop John Shelby Spong’s controversial demolition and (hopeful) rehabilitation of Jesus of Nazareth.

[Originally posted February 10, 2008 at]

Jesus was born in a perfectly natural way in Nazareth. His mother was not the icon of virgin purity.  His earthly father, Joseph, was a literary creation. His family thought he [Jesus] was out of his mind.  He probably did not have twelve male disciples. He had disciples who were both male and female.   He did not command nature to obey him. He did not in any literal sense give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf or wholeness to the paralyzed and infirm. He did not raise the dead. There was no stylized Last Supper in which bread was identified with his broken body and wine with his poured-out shed blood designed to symbolize his final prediction of death. There was no betrayal and no romance connected with his death, no mocking crowd, no crown of thorns, no words from the cross, no thieves, no cry of thirst and no darkness at noon. There was no tomb, no Joseph of Arimathea, no earthquake, no angel who rolled back the stone. There was no resuscitated body that emerged from that tomb on the third day, no touching of the wounds of Jesus, no opening by him of the secrets of scripture.  inally, there was no ascension into a heaven that exists above the sky.

Sounds reasonable to me. But this is no Dawkins or Dennett or Hitchens or Harris writing such a scathing dismissal of the veracity of the New Testament. These iconoclastic words are from no less than John Shelby Spong, author of over twenty books, and retired bishop of the Episcopal Church. Sure, Episcopalians gather on the left side of the religious spectrum, but surely Spong’s conclusion goes too far even for most of them.

Spong is a man who openly scoffs at the idea of the Bible as the inerrant word of God, but at the same time he states his unflagging devotion to Jesus Christ. But how is it that Spong can reject nearly everything historical and supernatural that surrounds the story of Jesus, and still recognize Him as someone who can inspire religious devotion?

The first half of Jesus for the Non-Religious, when viewed through skeptical eyes, is both refreshing and encouraging. Finally, an actual Christian not only admitting, but supporting through thoughtful analysis and gritty common-sense, what those who have left the church have thought all along: that while the human Jesus is someone to be admired, the supernatural fairytales surrounding him are just so much folderol.

Indeed, Spong exposes Christianity’s dirty little secret – that what biblical researchers almost universally take for granted never makes it to the pulpit on Sunday mornings (e.g., the existence of the theoretical “Q” document, deduced from the similarities amongst the gospels, the fact that the gospels provide information on the date of Jesus’ birth that flatly contradicts solidly known history, and the infamous mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 from Hebrew to Greek that enabled the myth of the “virgin” birth).

Spong also makes a case that the story of Jesus, if not the actual man himself, can best be understood when viewed through a Jewish liturgical lens.  Jesus didn’t actually heal the sick, or restore sight to the blind, but he so impressed his disciples that after his death they wove such miraculous accounts into their remembrances of him. Jesus frequently stars in vignettes that connect him directly to the superstars of the Old Testament like Moses and Elijah. Spong also dissects the trial and crucifixion narrative to reveal a convenient 24-hour structure that to Roman era Jews would have been obvious liturgy, but to their Gentile heirs of a century later sounded like detailed history. In fact, Spong wryly refers to this long-running misunderstanding by Christianity of its own scriptures as the “Gentile captivity of the Church.”

Spong takes a solidly “I’m from Missouri” approach on all miraculous claims found in the New Testament – including the physical Resurrection of Jesus himself. “I am convinced that a God the mind rejects will never be a God the heart can adore.”

Which forces the question: Who is God to Bishop John Shelby Spong? For that matter, who is Jesus? Spong tries to answer the latter question in some detail. He argues that Jesus represents a radical break from the tribal, patriarchal, xenophobic Judaism of the first century. Jesus welcomed women as well as men as his disciples. He preached to Gentiles as well as Jews, and many of his parables (like the Good Samaritan) sought to universalize human compassion and personal obligation. If Jesus didn’t literally heal the sick, he certainly showed deep concern for their plight. He commiserated with the outcasts of Jewish society. In short, the “real” Jesus, in Spong’s view, was a revolutionary lover of all mankind who wanted to teach us that we’re all human together and that what matters most is loving one another and being good to one another.

So. Jesus lived such an exemplary life that his disciplines weaved superhero stories about him.   He wasn’t God, or the Son of God, but still Spong insists that God was “met and engaged” in the person of Jesus. But what does that mean exactly? Spong’s cryptic explanation will scandalize Christians (who will see his entire book as both heretical and destructive) and frustrate the non-religious (who will wonder how Spong can so decisively dismantle the myths of Christianity, yet still cling to so much of it). The good Bishop resorts to vague, New Agey handwaving that leaves no clear idea who or what “God” might be. Is He a personality? A concept? The symbolic embodiment of love and goodness? An idealized human being? Spong tap-dances furiously around this very important (to traditional theists, at any rate) idea. He promises a more thorough examination of this in his as-yet-unpublished book, one that he readily admits, given his advanced age, will probably be his last.

Finally, Spong makes the bold claim that “Christianity is dying” – and if one looks to Europe this certainly seems true. Europeans are overwhelmingly secular compared to the rest of the West, and the state-sponsored churches of the Old World are fairly well defanged. But in the New World (the United States especially), and in evangelized places like Africa and Asia, the very form of literalist, infantilized Christianity that Spong so despises is thriving. (It would also be fascinating to hear the Bishop’s take on how his evolved form of “religionless Christianity” fits into an enlightened, secular 21st century, and how it will fare against the looming influence of that other literalist, infantilized theology – Islam.

In the end, Spong’s message is one that most secularists will see as, at the very least, a halting step forward. Spong seeks to decouple the message of Christ from dangerously hidebound conceptions of inerrancy and absolutism. Some of what he says is puzzling, but his goals are laudable and his intentions benign, so it’s hard not to see him as a fellow traveler, at least in part.

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