Thursday 30 August 2007

John Shelby Spong: Jesus for the Non-Religious

John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 316 pp.

John Shelby Spong has been touring Australia to promote his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. The Uniting Church (an Australian denomination) asked me to write something about this book for the September issue of their newspaper, Journey. Here’s a copy of my article:

Spong’s Jesus: Not Radical Enough

John Shelby Spong, the controversial Episcopal bishop, has always regarded himself as an iconoclast. Throughout his long career, he has vigorously attacked Christian doctrine, and has called for “a new reformation.” The main themes of his prolific writings have now been brought together in this new manifesto, Jesus for the Non-Religious – a book which Spong himself describes as the culmination of his life’s work. So what should we make of this book?

In the first place, we can appreciate Spong’s desire to communicate the findings of biblical criticism to a wider audience. A vast gulf still separates scholarly biblical research from everyday devotional Bible reading – and this is one of the great pastoral crises of our time. So Spong is on the right track when he tells his readers that there is a difference between the historically authentic elements in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus, and the later layers of liturgical and theological interpretation which have embellished the Gospel stories. And he’s right to point out that the Gospels give us not a straightforward historical account, but “a magnificent interpretive portrait” of Jesus (p. 115).

Admittedly, Spong’s interpretation of the Gospel texts often rests on outdated research and flawed interpretations of the scholarship. And he misses the mark when he insists on a rigid dichotomy between faith and history. He tells us, for instance, that the Gospel stories are sheer “make-believe” (p. 20), and that the texts “are not the chronicles of a remembered history, but the proclamations of a community of faith” (p. 84). But presumably the stories about Jesus were also attempts to make sense of something that actually happened. In any case, regardless of such shortcomings, Spong’s desire to promote a historically informed understanding of the Gospels is commendable.

Further, one can only admire the bishop’s sheer enthusiasm for his work. He regards his own interpretation of Jesus as a uniquely radical gesture, and he is remarkably optimistic about the impact of his book. He assures us that the book will free us from “the prison of religion” and will usher in “a renaissance and a reformation” (p. 290), unleashing “a new burst of energy and power that has not been seen for hundreds of years” (p. xiii).

Unfortunately, however, such rhetoric sets readers up for disappointment, since the book’s entire argument amounts to this: 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.

So in spite of Spong’s characterisation of his own book as radical, “shocking” and “audacious” (pp. 10, 290), the real problem is that this book is not radical enough. The Jesus who emerges from these pages is ultimately indistinguishable from any other respectably innocuous, politically correct member of the Western middle classes.

Instead of provoking a challenging political or theological response, therefore, this Jesus serves to justify our own values and assumptions. To adopt such a Jesus is like the new tendency of consumers to purchase “carbon offsets” as compensation for their own greenhouse emissions: one makes a seemingly radical gesture precisely in order to ensure that nothing changes! Like purchasing a carbon offset, Spong’s Jesus – far from challenging us or provoking us to action – simply reassures us that all is well.

Bishop Spong’s Jesus may be useful and consoling, then, but he is not especially interesting, much less unique. He poses no threat, no challenge. He makes no demands. He tells us nothing that we didn’t know already. And for just that reason, it’s hard to see why “the non-religious” – or anyone else, for that matter – should have any special regard for this Jesus.


Anonymous said...

Clever review, Ben. I am reminded of a review Helmut Gollwitzer wrote on J.A.T. Robinson's "radical" Honest to God in 1964. It was entitled "Christianity Made Easy?" Déjà vu or what!

I once spent several days at a Ministers Summer School with Spong. He's a great guy. I'd aleady read several of his books, and admired his courage, if not his theological acumen, but I really knew he was a screwball when, over lunch, he described Walter Brueggemann as a fundamentalist, which struck me as not just outrageous but also rather paranoid.

Coincidentally also over lunch - there is nothing like table-talk theology! - Rowan Williams once described Spong as a "theological menace". Rowan, as usual, was right on the money.

However, I gather that a well-known Australian church leader is barring Spong from preaching in his area - which strikes me as cracking a nut with a sledgehammer.

michael jensen said...

I would have thought rather it is like using a pop-gun to stop a Sherman tank! Well, he isn't allowed to preach in Anglican churches in Sydney, no. But he will be in Sydney, at a major conference organised by another denomination. If lines are to be ever drawn in this way, then this is a good case for drawing them, surely... Spong actually sells more books in Oz than anywhere else outside the US, I hear. And he gets lots of media coverage.

I am interested in this terrific review that you don't address Spong's revision of or attack on traditional orthodox theism...I guess this is more a book about Jesus and the NT. I love the way in which you show how boring Spong's Jesus really is.

michael jensen said...

You aren't becoming a name-dropper now are you Kim?


Anonymous said...

Michael Jensen - quelle surprise!

I hardly think Spong calls for a "Here I stand!" Softly, softly catchy monkey. Strategically, you will give Spong more media coverage by barring him; I would go for pubic refutation - like Ben's review.

As for name-dropping - yes, in the singular: Rowan William's is about the only one I've got! :)

michael jensen said...

Well there have been at least a couple of articles by Sydney Anglicans posted on the Anglican Media Sydney Website and one published in the Sydney papers by NT historian and evangelist Dr John Dickson. He argues that Spong is going against the broad consensus of scholarship - not just conservative scholarship by any means - on Jesus.

Actually, I don't know if Spong was actually 'banned' (he might have been, I just don't know, but it is like the media to say that he was because they imagined it). Was he actually invited by any Anglican church in Sydney to speak?

Steve Martin said...

Wonderful review. Whoever thought Joel Osteen and Spong were preaching the same gospel. Seems like all the sheepfolds have wolves in them.

Kyle said...

He might have barred him just in case the former bishop of Newark thought about celebrating Mass in a parish church.

I work in a bookstore, and we stock Spong in the religion section, frankly because he sells. While I couldn't get rid of him, I stocked Penguin's Early Christian Writers on a shelf display next to his new titles, and while we sold 24 of Spong's book, about 16 people took the apostolic Fathers in their hand for what was probably the first time.

I considered it a victory. :0)

Robert Cornwall said...


Thanks for the review and Kim thanks for the anecdote about Spong's view of Brueggemann. I think Spong and Sam Harris would gete along famously!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, Ben. It's very nice and puts Spong in helpful perspective.

What I appreciate most is your comment, "A vast gulf still separates scholarly biblical research from everyday devotional Bible reading – and this is one of the great pastoral crises of our time."

I would love to see more about this regarding Biblical research and theology. Most folk at my church do not know the name "Barth" nor would they agree the Genesis prologue is "myth." (I'm working on them! It's helpful to remember that Christ's name is the saving one :) )

Nor have the seminaries nearby been of much help. As the research in the academy deepens, the connection to the everyday world has diminished, and we seem to have created a new demographic of well-meaning-yet-personaly-ineffective educated-ones with no place in the church, leaving A Purpose Driven Church (no malice intended) to lead the local church.
/sigh/ I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter.

After you get a nap, of course :)

Unknown said...

At the risk of sounding anti-intellectual (or even picking a fight), I'd say that if you think, erin, congregants need to know who Barth was or that the creation narrative contains (what we would now call) mythic elements, then the "ineffective-educated-ones" critique might be the pot calling the kettle black!

Really enjoyed the review, Ben.


Anonymous said...

Very nicely written review. For Kim, there is a nice written comment by Rowan on Spong at


David W. Congdon said...

Superb review, Ben! In a lecture on the various "quests" for the historical Jesus, my professor at PTS made some of the very same criticisms you make here about Spong. I recall, in particular, a criticism (by someone I cannot remember) of the modern "quests" for the historical Jesus which essentially said that the "historical Jesus" these quests come up with ends up looking like a mirror image of the scholars. (I think the actual quote said that the quests were like looking down a well and seeing your own face in the reflection.)

In any case, one of the things my professor said in response has stuck with me. He made the comment that Jesus is always "in front of" the text, not "behind" it. Jesus Christ is the "coming one," and for that very reason, he is never an object to be archealogically uncovered. He is rather an eschatological event who always comes to us anew in the word of the kerygma.

Thanks again for the review.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I think this review is quite harsh,but it is a good representation of Spong's Jesus:)

Anonymous said...

I find this review Spong’s Jesus for the Non-Religious raises a number of important issues.

It has become commonplace, among evangelicals, to criticise Spong’s latest book as being based either on outdated scholarship or on a poor understanding of contemporary scholarship. This criticism is reiterated by the current reviewer. Yet whenever, I have asked evangelical friends espousing such views for examples of this, I find in most instances all they have read are some newspaper articles by or about Spong, or some other slim secondary source. What they tend not to have done is to have read his books. In addition, when this statement appears in print about his latest book it is not backed up with any examples. It would seem, therefore, that such statements function primarily to alleviate anxiety. To counter such a perception I encourage the current reviewer (who most certainly has read the book) to support this criticism with evidence.

On a different note, a key point made in this review is that Spong’s portrait of Jesus is “not radical enough”. It is argued that the key values of tolerance and inclusiveness, which Spong believes are central to Jesus’ message and way of relating, are more likely to reinforce the social and political status quo of western middle class society, than to challenge and confront it. Moreover, it is argued that “he (Spong) provides a theological justification” for these values making them “absolute and unimpeachable”. So if I am understanding this critique correctly, because Spong establishes a high degree of resonance between Jesus’ message and contemporary values, this means that his portrait of Jesus is unlikely to be an accurate reflection of the historical Jesus. This is a problematic argument, because it looks suspiciously like a re-contextualised deployment of the “criterion of dissimilarity” which evangelical NT scholars normally take such delight in dismantling. In other words, if we can find in contemporary scholarly accounts of the historical Jesus anything that could reflect and/or reinforce the values of contemporary society then it is unlikely to belong to the life and ministry of the historical Jesus. This, it seems, is the inadequate methodological basis on which this criticism of Spong is based.

In fact, it can be argued, that to live out the values of inclusiveness and tolerance is extremely dangerous, takes a high degree of courage and could well get you killed. For example, I can imagine if Jesus was telling the parable of the good Samaritan in the Middle East of today, it would probably be called the parable of the good Palestinian and it would be a powerful and dangerous message to espouse.

Anonymous said...

On Spong's reference to Brueggemann as a fundamentalist, I am reminded of something Brueggemann said about truth-telling. We should, he said, tell the truth
(1) without pious protectiveness;
(2) without ideological reductionism; and we should
(3) stay close to the text (cf. "The Sabbath and the Voice of the Evangel" in Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church).

Spong does a fine job of avoiding "pious protectiveness" and I think that he would deny the charge of "ideological reductionism" (although I think it is an accurate charge). Consequently, I think Spong's issue with Brueggemann is most fully related to the issue of "staying close to the text." Despite Spong's reputation as a biblical scholar, it seems to me that he hardly takes the texts seriously, whereas Brueggemann takes the texts deathly seriously -- and this, I suspect, is what makes him a "fundamentalist" in Spong's eyes.

Agkyra said...

Thanks for the helpful review.

I'd just like to respond to Theodotus' thought-provoking comment. With respect to the criterion of dissimilarity, the problem is, as with many things, not with its use but with its abuse. It's not that the criterion doesn't help identify authentic sayings of Jesus, it's just that when those are the only sayings used to interpret the life and thought of Jesus, you will end up with a very distorted picture if, in fact, other sayings that the criterion discarded are also authentic. There's always risk of distortion if you try to interpret a whole by its parts, especially if you don't have all the parts.

I don't think the criterion of dissimilarity is germane to Ben's review of Spong, however. The point of the criterion isn't that Jesus is contrary to every culture, no matter its particulars, it's that Spong's ideas about Jesus (if Ben represents them correctly) are historically implausible because they wouldn't have sufficed to get him executed in his own day. So, since Spong isn't getting his ideas from what we know about Jesus and the 1st century Roman world, where is he getting them? It sure sounds a lot like liberal modern western culture to me!

Again, this all depends on whether Ben's portrayal is accurate, which goes to your first point.

Anonymous said...

Spong has always struck me as a twentieth) (and now twenty-first) guy whose mindset is basically eighteenth century liberal Christianity. It was radical when the likes of a Wollaston said it in the 1800s, but it's quaint now. It's as if Spong fell asleep during the Enlightenment and suddenly awoke in the postmodern era. Ah well. One of the more endearing characterisics of my Anglican faith tradition is that it births and tolerates eccentrics like Spong.

Anonymous said...

Philip Yancey called his book The Jesus I Never Knew. Sounds like Spong's could have been titled The Jesus I Already Knew!

bls said...

"In fact, it can be argued, that to live out the values of inclusiveness and tolerance is extremely dangerous, takes a high degree of courage and could well get you killed. For example, I can imagine if Jesus was telling the parable of the good Samaritan in the Middle East of today, it would probably be called the parable of the good Palestinian and it would be a powerful and dangerous message to espouse."

I find Spong boring - I can't remember anything of his that I've read for longer than 5 minutes after I put the book down - but I do think Theodotus the Tanner has a good point here.

It is dangerous to oppose the status quo, almost always, and especially when it comes to the "unclean" and the cast out. Human fear of contamination is very deep and difficult to dislodge - and we can also think of the Girard scapegoating mechanism in remembering what violence lies just beneath the surface.

Guy Davies said...

Great, incisive review Ben! Who wants a Jesus shorn of his unsettling uniqueness?

unkleE said...

I appreciated the review too, but I thought this comment was questionable:

"So Spong is on the track when he tells his readers that there is a difference between the historically authentic elements in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus, and the later layers of liturgical and theological interpretation which have embellished the Gospel stories."

My reading of the historians is that they can identify the probably authentic elements and the probably unhistorical elements (based on consistency, other sources, etc), but they cannot tell us, as historians, whether other parts are historical or not. Some stories may be later interpretation, but that doesn't make them necessarily unhistoric, just unable to be determined by the historical method.

I think this distinction is very important.

Thanks and best wishes.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently attending St Matthew-in-the-City's Conference for Progressive Christianity. Here, Spong is guest speaker, basing his talks on this book.
You are spot on with your assessment of Spong's Jesus.
Regarding Spong's treatment of Scripture as layered myth superimposed on a lost, Jewish Jesus of the 1st century.
There is no disagreement that the Scriptures were written from a point of view. No material is written from a neutral point of view. I'm not sure Spong knows this. So it is not surprising that the Gospel writers were pursuing their take on Jesus life.
Among his deprecating attitude to other New Testament and Biblical scholars, Spong purport to have stripped away the layers of male, chauvinist, patriarchal bias from the Gospel record.
However, he only succeeds in adding his only middle of the road, humanistic and naturalistic layers.
For example he contends that the crucifixion did not take place in the northern spring (March) of 30CE. He claims, that the reason it was recorded as happening at passover is that the early church wanted to equate Jesus with the Passover lamb of sacrifice. And why not in spring? Because the people would not have had leafy branches to wave on Jesus procession into Jerusalem a week before his death.
For someone who claims to be in touch with the world, who holds to the current popular, humanist worldview, he has little understanding of biology. It is the first month of spring here in New Zealand and outside most trees are sporting new, leafy branches! He claims that the type of branches used would have been myrtle and palms. Both these trees are evergreen!
In addition, he claims that the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree at that time of the years is strange, spurious and shows jesus to be cruel. Spong want to claim that fig trees don't bear fruit in spring. Well, Mr Theologian, figs bear fruit for up to 9 months of the year and often hold their fruit over winter, and develop fruit before the leaf. It would have been easy for Jesus to see the the fig tree he cursed, was unfruitful and displayed no 'faith' in the summer to come.
And so on he goes.

Unknown said...

You wrote:

A Jesus whose sole commitment is to tolerant inclusiveness is simply not the kind of Jesus whom anyone would want to crucify.

I agree. If commitment to tolerant inclusiveness got you killed, then Martin Luther King and Gandhi would have been shot instead of living to a ripe old age; politically motivated shooters would be targeting Unitarian congregations and citing their inclusive views as a reason; right wing talk show hosts would be talking about killing liberals, putting them in chains, and choking the life out of them rather than the other way around; and attendees at a political rally would aim the words "kill him" and "traitor" at the liberal African-American candidate rather than his white conservative opponent.

Oh wait. They were; they are; they are; and they are. Hmmm. Maybe people WOULD crucify Spong's Jesus - - - - .

Michael said...

I have a simple suggestion, like one a kid would make. Why not ask the Holy Spirit, Jesus, your questions and open your mind enough and forgive enough to find enough peace to find your answers. Michael @

Anonymous said...

"Well, he isn't allowed to preach in Anglican churches in Sydney, no." Jensen.

That brittle, brittle faith you have just couldn't risk it?

myleswerntz said...

again, thanks Anonymous, for not thinking enough of your comment to claim it.

Anonymous said...

This review says nothing of the fact that Spong wisely recognizes the Gospels as Midrash, Jewish writers conveying a message to Jews about who Jesus of Nazareth was in stories they would recognize. I didn't get anything about a libreal Jesus in all this, Spong is pure Christian. He doesn't say Jesus isn't Jesus, just that the Gospels are communicating this without being literal. Spong's "Liberating the Gospels" is also a great book.

Dorky-Alan said...

Spong is one of the only moral, truly tolerant and logical Christians around. I am not surprised that most Christians take issue with his views as most ignore history (there isn't really much evidence for the whol birth story, Nazareth didn't exist until the 2nd century A.D. and Herod would have been dead at the time), and believe that people will be burning in hell for an eternity because they chose the wrong faith in life.

Christianity as a whole comes across as quite immoral and intolerant and thus needs to change, becoming more universalist and logical, or die out like a lot of arguably more logical and tolerant faiths.

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