Jesus for the Non-Religious: A book review

Bishop John Spong has published another book. This one is entitled “Jesus for the Non-Religious”

Ben Myers has a review of the book, pointing out the good intentions and the admirable desire of the book to bring modern biblical scholarship to the common reader, but also pointing out the numerous ways in which Bishop Spong relies on out-dated scholarship when he does so.

Myers however finds the key problem with this book – and with so many others lately – when he makes the following observation about the Jesus presented to the readers of the book:

“[According to Spong] Jesus overcomes our prejudices and stereotypes, so that we can be inclusive and tolerant towards others. This, in a nutshell, is ‘the new reformation’; this is Bishop Spong’s Jesus.

And for all Spong’s iconoclastic claims, there is something strangely familiar about this Jesus. A Jesus who champions inclusiveness and tolerance is a Jesus who looks suspiciously like – well, like ourselves. Presumably Spong’s readers will already identify with the Western liberal values of tolerance and inclusiveness. We did not learn those values from Jesus, but, thanks to Spong, we discover subsequently that Jesus himself is also committed to the same values.

The function of Spong’s Jesus is thus simply to maintain the social and political status quo. He takes our own most cherished and self-evident Western values, and he provides them with a theological justification. Thus our own values are made absolute and unimpeachable – they are elevated to the status of ideology. Simply put, Spong tells us that political correctness is correct, since even Jesus was politically correct.

This should give pause to any reader of the Gospels. After all, the Gospels consistently depict a Jesus who is radical and confronting and unsettling – a Jesus who challenges the status quo, who hangs out with the wrong people and antagonises the establishment, who resists every attempt to domesticate his message, refusing to allow his actions to be calmly assimilated into any existing religious framework. And for just this reason, the Jesus of the Gospels is finally executed. In contrast, however, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would be offended by Bishop Spong’s politically correct Jesus. A Jesus whose sole commitment is to tolerant inclusiveness is simply not the kind of Jesus whom anyone would want to crucify.”

This danger of finding, upon careful study, that Jesus is actually telling us that we should be just like we want to be anyways, is not unique to Bishop Spong or to modern inclusivist theological thought. It’s pretty trivial to observe that within the right-wing of American theological teaching, a claim that careful reading of the biblical accounts of Jesus show him to be a prototype model American citizen who’s imprimatur supports most any action the present American administration undertakes.

Nor is this projection of ourselves onto Jesus unique to our particular moment in history. It was the recognition that ultimately any attempt to uncover the “real Jesus” by getting “behind” the gospel accounts would end up creating a figure who was a projection of our most cherished beliefs that finally derailed the “Historical Jesus” movement from serious scholarly pursuit.

Albert Schweitzer said of the whole enterprise, (something to the order of) “When we peer down into the wells of history to see the truth, what we ultimately end up seeing is our own face reflecting back up at us.”

Read the rest: John Shelby Spong: Jesus for the Non-Religious

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

5 thoughts on “Jesus for the Non-Religious: A book review”

  1. There are a lot of people who are in the Episcopal Church pews who are there precisely because in Spong’s writings they met a Jesus they didn’t know or had not been presented with, even in Christian traditions that are much more Bible-training intensive (memorization, Bible studies, etc) than the Episcopal Church traditionally has been. They may be very familiar with the gospels, but not in the way Spong presents. Perhaps Spong’s gift to us is that he allows us to know it’s okay to think, question and even search instead of swallowing the Jesus many of us grew up with, a Jesus who is more interested in who’s going to heaven than who’s working to bring heaven here-and-now.
    Spong isn’t for everybody, including theologians. But for some, he has opened the church door so the voices of other theologians can be heard.

  2. I would say that those who are moderate also have versions of Jesus that look just like them. We need to stop this two extremes business in our observations of this type that tends to somehow suggest that our own moderate ones are perfectly compatible with our Lord. The truth is we all do this and the truth is there is often some truth in our doing so and also a great deal that leaves us unchallenged if left alone with those only like ourselves.

  3. Christopher – that’s exactly my point. We all turn Jesus in to the person *we* want him to be. The problem is that he’s most likely not that at all. All the people who met Jesus in the flesh discovered that he was nothing like they thought he would be. I don’t think that would be different for anyone today either, no matter what political or theological party they belonged to.

  4. Insightful post. For me, it is important to rely on my relationship with Jesus, on grace, rather than try to explain everything, as Spong is doing.
    At the same time, I agree with mumcat, because Spong gave me a new concept of Christianity at a time when I needed it. I feel I’ve been growing (or rather, God has been growing me) out of that in recent years, but it was still necessary in the beginning. You have to start somewhere, and if merely imagining a different Jesus than was presented to you in the past helps, then it’s a good thing.

  5. While I can admire Spong’s insightful study of the scriptures, I feel saddened that he readily rejects much of it. I realize that he has attempted to view Jesus in a scope that is new and different, but does that require the stripping of divinity? When move Jesus down to the ideal man instead of the ideal God, what have we created except an easier religion. His rejection of the scriptures creates a Christology based on his opinion and scientific values, in a world where these things are readily changing I don’t think his portrait of Jesus is any better, if not worse, than the one being presented by mainstream Christian denominations. His attempt to make Christ more understandable has taken the power out of the story and will ultimately lead to a conversion that is shallow and devoid of change of lifestyle. I am deeply saddened to see that Spong’s theology is so prevalent in today’s society. Instead of trying to encourage Christians to live out a Godly lifestyle, Spong tell us to spit it out if its hard to chew. Honestly, where in the Bible is that?

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