Reflections on Bishop John Shelby Spong’s 2016 book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy
It's a fast read. First, Spong writes simply, and second, Spong’s readers have a good idea what he's going to say even before we read it. He repeats himself from one book to the next and then from one chapter to the next. That makes it easier to keep up.
I think he "writes down" as if we need to be convinced rather than well along on the path to progressive understanding of scripture and faith. But I suppose an author needs to begin each new book with the assumption that readers are starting anew with him.
It's interesting reading. Spong's really startling revelation is already in his earlier book where he lays out the idea that the Gospels are composed to be a Jewish-Christian Midrash, read in conjunction with the Jewish scriptures during the Jewish liturgical year. This book is a repeat of that, based on a section by section argument that each bit of Matthew fills the bill.
I have one criticism which is basic but not necessarily a fatal flaw. His main purpose is divided, it seems to me. First, he is determined, once again, to hammer away at how destructive biblical literalism and Christian fundamentalism is to the future of Christianity. Second, he believes that literalism is built into Christianity from the moment Christians began to separate themselves from Jews and lost track of the fact that the Gospels were written to be read along with the Torah and Prophets as part of weekly Sabbath services in an annual cycle. In that context of worship the Jewish Christians would have understood the use of metaphor and symbolism and would not have thought of the Christian readings as historical accounts of actual events, but as "portraits" of Jesus the Messiah fulfilling the Messianic roles of his predecessors, Elijah, Moses, David and the Suffering Servant talked about by Isaiah.
Now, Spong must say a hundred times that Gentiles cannot get this, so they revert to a literalistic mindset about the Jesus stories. On the other hand Spong has gotten this, and he's a Gentile. He has managed to figure out that maybe Jesus didn't actually say those very words and do those very deeds. So how has the Church survived so long? Well, Spong says, up to now we put up with this cognitive dissonance, knowing people can't walk on water but going along with the idea that Jesus could.
What I want Spong to tell me is, if the Jewish Christians could deeply resonate to the expanded news that Jesus had fulfilled the Messianic roles of Moses and the rest, and if this additional set of readings was what it took to make Jesus relevant to Jewish Christians, but Gentiles could not do it, what does Spong suggest? What is the solution? Christianity must change or die, Spong has harped for the past 20 years. The Bible is being misread and this is rendering Christianity irrelevant. But Spong, I think, is avoiding saying that "of course, we can't go back and become Jewish Christians with a deep heritage of Torah readings and the rhythm of the Jewish festivals.”
What Spong is trying to do is to deconstruct the picture of Jesus that Christians have fabricated. We have decided that Jesus did walk on water. Period. We have missed the implication that this was far more significant than Moses and Joshua parting the sea and the Jordan and crossing over. When Jesus walked on the sea in the Gospel of Matthew he was bridging the gulf between the Jewish and the Gentile world when he did that, he was uniting humanity because on one side he fed the Jews and on the other side it was the Gentiles. Unless we read the Gospels with Jewish eyes we miss that. And come to that, Moses and Joshua didn't literally cause the waters to part either, there was something symbolic being alluded to.
So, if you deconstruct the pictures and demythologize the stories, what do you require of your Christian people-movement? You need to deconstruct the whole enterprise, buildings, sacraments and all.
It's religious anarchy he's proposing.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.