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4.0 out of 5 stars
Jesus as he was, 19 Nov. 2010
Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Selby Spong
reviewed by Walter Emerson
Having read the book I still do not understand why the author gave it the title he did. He systematically demolishes all the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, from the Nativity (Mary was no virgin, Jesus was not born in Bethlehem) to the Resurrection (no empty tomb) and Ascension (no lift-off). For most thinking Christians the `facts' presented in the Gospels, that is all the supernatural goings on, are and were just impossible. He is pushing there at an open door. But we have to reconcile that admission with our repetition of the Creeds, Sunday after Sunday, when most of what we say `we believe' we don't in fact believe. Some of us try to rationalise it by saying to ourselves that the first-century Christians were locked into their culture to believe that all these myths had to be true, either because they had been `foretold' or because it was unthinkable to believe in a prophet or messiah unless he had a solid portfolio of miracles on his c.v. Human experience and understanding has moved on since then; we don't have to believe in miracles to accept the extraordinary nature of Jesus. We repeat these ancient creeds, not because they are factually and historically correct but because they helped the early Christians in expressing their belief in the essential natures of God and Christ: a belief which we have in common with them.
A large part of Bishop Spong's book is devoted to explaining how the myths came about and their essential Jewishness. Saint Paul himself, a thoroughgoing Jew and almost the inventor of Christianity, was steeped in the Jewish belief in atonement for Man's past sins; in God as fearsome and ruthless in punishment of those exciting his wrath, to be placated by sacrifices in atonement and endlessly praised and worshiped. It is a very different view of God from his present-day representation as a loving and forgiving father; yet our liturgy is still full of endless pleas for mercy; we are still `miserable offenders' who, while grovelling, `acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness', reminding God that he has shown mercy on occasions in the past and imploring him to do so again. For Saint Paul and later for the evangelists the humiliation of Christ on the Cross could be explained only as a triumphant and supreme act of atonement for all men's sins, past and present. Few now would really believe that such atonement was desired or necessary, or indeed made any sense.
Many Christians reading the book, while acknowledging that it states starkly what they accept as true, must be left with an empty feeling that, stripped of all old beliefs, going to church must be now for them no more than a farce. Yet we are reluctant to put aside the perceived closeness to God, all the beauty of the liturgy, the music, the singing, the wonderful biblical stories, the fellowship, the great architecture. But what is the point of it all?
Well the author of this book does not leave it there. He stresses throughout, with tedious repetition, his own belief in what he calls the Jesus experience. Jesus was, for him, a perfect man. He displayed a humanity which had an astonishing effect on all who knew him, an effect passed on throughout the world and through 2000 years. Spong is not an atheist, but he rejects traditional theism. For him Jesus is more than a humanist saint. He is not divine in the theist sense of divinity; he is the man whose perfection can inspire us all. What Spong does not attempt to explain is how the Jesus phenomenon arose in a `man born of a woman'. Was such perfection in his DNA, and if so, did some mighty mutation of his parents' genes bring it about? A chance mutation? Nor does he really explain what he means by `humanity'. The word's most obvious meanings are the human race and all its attributes, which must include a readiness to quarrel, to go to war, to exercise cruelty and greed, to disobey all the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments, to love and to perform acts of generosity. His definition must refer to the last two, which is probably that of humanists generally; but he does not call himself a humanist. And whence do those criteria of `good' humanity come?