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Recovering the human from the car crash of the divine
on 25 September 2011
I was lent this book by a friend, and I had finished it within 5 days, having put aside other reading books to enjoy this one. It gave a great intellectual frisson, even a shock. This is a modern theological book that demolishes traditional religion, `rescuing Jesus from the church', as the dust cover proclaims it!
The detailed scholarship of analysing the gospels was most impressive and persuasive. Basically, Spong is arguing that much of what we read there is a literary construct, rather than an eye-witness account. Certainly he regards Jesus as an historical figure, born in Nazareth, and dying on the cross in Jersusalem. But he argues that the Bethlehem birth is a fiction, Joseph probably did not exist, the attendant stories about the Magi, slaughter of the innocents and so forth are made up, or built on Old Testament scriptures. The miracle stories are fiction (or embellishments). He has no truck with people walking on water or turning water into wine.
He carefully demonstrates how many gospel passages are built on previous Jewish texts and liturgies. He explains how Mark's account of the death of Jesus is split into neat literary 3-hour periods, and infused with Jewish traditions of the Paschal Lamb. He argues that the crucifixion probably did not occur at Passover. Many of the words supposedly spoken by Jesus (given that no disciple was there to witness the private interviews with the High Priest and so on) are quotations from Isaiah, Zechariah, Psalm 22 and so forth.
For instance, it is undeniable that close textual analysis shows that Mark lifted passages from Psalm 22 to write his account of the Crucifixion, for the Psalmist writes: `They divide my garments among them and for my raiment they cast lots.' These references would be well-known to the educated Jews and would resonate deeply. Spong argues later Christians have taken these accounts as literal descriptions of what happened, rather than poetic/literary interpretations of a shocking event for the followers of Jesus. He clearly states that all the disciples ran away the evening before, and were probably too afraid to show themselves in public again for a while.
Christians would argue that the prophets were given divine inspiration to foresee future events. A more honest appraisal would say that the writers of the gospels took these passages for flesh out and shape their interpretation of the life of Jesus. Most interestingly, Spong argues that the synoptic gospels were structured to fit the major Jewish festivals of the year, and certain sections were probably read out in Synagogues at the appropriate time of year. His detailed knowledge of Jewish religion and culture makes writers such as CS Lewis look very sloppy in their pronouncements about the bible.
The author enjoys his demolition work of much of traditional Christianity, as taught by the established Church. This is all the more remarkable given that he served as a priest and bishop in the American Episcopal Church for 45 years! I enjoyed this part of the book too, since he refuses to compromise his honest appraisal of the many contradictions within the traditional accounts of Christianity. It also articulated much of the puzzlement I have felt about unresolved issues within the bible. I used to take the view that the bible is peppered with metaphor and poetic truths, but had a large core of historical and literal truth. Now I perceive that hard core as shrinking to maybe 5% of the whole.
Spong, like other modern theologians such as Don Cupitt, then goes on to try and construct a new Christianity. This last quarter of the book is written in powerful language, with passionate sincerity. It also makes many good points about Jesus challenging tribal boundaries, fighting prejudice and widening our understanding of our own common humanity. However, overall, the attempt is ludicrous. He resorts to appeals to our `real' humanity and a wishy-washy life force. This kind of stuff would be logically and philosophically ripped apart by CS Lewis. What is the moral, objective basis for his assertions now? Lewis has demonstrated the problem in `The abolition of man' and `Miracles'. If our consciousness is 100% determined by nature / evolution, we have no grounds for making any moral assertions about right and wrong.
The author forgets his earlier sceptical rigour and picks out stories that he thinks represent the core message of love in the message of Jesus. Now he is simply selecting parts of the Gospel story that suit him. Just to embrace `Christpower' is not enough, for life is constantly interspersed with moral dilemmas. The ineluctable fact is that statements of right and wrong must be accompanied by concepts of punishment. We cannot just embrace a warm wish for love and friendship amongst all mankind. There are perennial evils and failings which Christianity faces. He wants to reject the core Christian message of `salvation'. Without that I don't think he can claim to be a `Christian'.
However, his attempts to create a modern 'Theology' make me uneasy. Demolition is easier than construction.