Jesus for the Non-religious

Jesus for the Non-religious

Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human

Book - 2007
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Writing from his prison cell in Nazi Germany in 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian, sketched a vision of what he called "religionless Christianity." In this book, John Shelby Spong puts flesh onto the bare bones of Bonhoeffer's radical thought. The result is a strikingly new and different portrait of Jesus of Nazareth--a Jesus for the non-religious.

Spong challenges much of the traditional understanding that has for so long surrounded the Jesus of history, from the tale of his miraculous birth to a virgin, to the account of his cosmic ascension into the sky at the end of his life. Spong questions the historicity of the ideas that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that he had twelve disciples, and that the miracle stories were meant to be descriptions of supernatural events. He also speaks directly to those contemporary critics of Christianity who call God a "delusion" and who write letters to a "Christian nation" and describe how Christianity has become evil and destructive.

Spong invites his readers to look at Jesus through the lens of both the Jewish scriptures and the liturgical life of the first-century synagogue. Dismissing the dispute about Jesus' nature that consumed the church's leadership for the first 500 years of Christian history as irrelevant, Spong proposes a new way of understanding the divinity of Christ: as the ultimate dimension of a fulfilled humanity. Traditional Christians who still cling to dated concepts of the past will not be comfortable with this book; however, skeptics of the twenty-first century will not be quite so certain that dismissing Jesus is the correct pathway to walk. Jesus for the Non-Religious may be the book that finally brings the pious and the secular into a meaningful dialogue, opening the door to a living Christianity in the post-Christian world.

Publisher: New York, N.Y. : HarperSanFrancisco, c2007.
Edition: 1st ed.
ISBN: 9780060762070
Branch Call Number: 232 Spong 03/2007
Characteristics: xix, 316 p. ;,24 cm.


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Jun 01, 2008

Spong's angry tone continues in this somewhat tired treatment of Jesus. In the early part of the book he chooses phrases and words that almost alienated me. If we understand that people build their lives around their beliefs then care must be taken to bring light, rather than just a big stick.

What Spong says about the liturgical influence on the gospel stories, is interesting and well argued, but I wondered why he attributes all the creative story telling to the gospel writers and not to Jesus himself. Is it possible that Jesus himself was living his life according to the suffering servant images he found in his own study of his scriptures? This is just one of many questions I had from readings Spong's presentation.

I think he is more interested in telling his own gospel, than laying out information for people to think about.

I was also particularly disappointed that Spong does not present relevant information from the many new gospels that have emerged in the last few years such as Thomas, Judas, Philip, and Valentinus. These gospels give very different images of Jesus, and by not referring to them I wonder if he is unaware of them. I find this hard to believe, but for example, Elaine H. Pagels' thesis that the gospel of John was written in response to the movement behind the Gospel of Thomas is very enlightening to the discussion.

I was also surprised that Spong does not seem to be aware of the concept of mimesis. In his discussion of the Jewish scapegoat ritual, I was expecting him to show how Jesus put an end to that mimetic mechanism, but he didn't quite complete the picture, causing me to wonder if he is unaware of Rene Girard's work. I serious lack of research if true, a serious oversight if not.

Finally I was surprised that with his relationship to Progressive Christianity, he seems unaware of the theory of Spiral Dynamics, which is very popular in PC circles. I think he would reach very different conclusions if he had been exposed to that framework of understanding human development.

For example, Spong says that the idea of Jesus saving us from our sins is, "totally inappropriate" because it produces guilt and gratitude but not wholeness. He never really does explain what he means by wholeness but goes on at some length about how theism is a response to fear, that religion is a system to relieve anxiety, and essentially pooh poohs this. It becomes clear in the final chapters that he is deeply discontented with his own religion but seems unable to let go of a romantic idea of Jesus.

If, instead of trying to suggest an alternative way of viewing the gospels he were to do a little more research and meditation on the role of religion in human affairs, he might have seen that barbed critiques of orthodox Christianity are unhelpful and only serve to discredit his message. After all, after he has roundly beaten to pieces the idea that the gospels are historic narratives, why then should we consider the message of Jesus at all? In one breath he is dismissing (his word) the literal or historic credibility of the gospels, and then quotes heavily from the same document to support his ideas.

My feeling after finishing this book is that the message of Jesus may be adjusted for the non-religious, but so what? I am much more interested in authentic religion than in a secular version of Jesus. Spong does a good job of showing the "tribalism" that defines much of human affairs, but demonstrates his own boomerism by not offering a full picture of how an individual deals with the anxiety of a loss of faith.

If you found this book as wanting as I did, consider reading the work of Rene Girard and also of Don Beck, and definitely listen to Margaret Visser's 2002 CBC Massey Lecture called Beyond Fate available on Audio Book from the Library. Much more insightful and scholarly.


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