Literary But Not Literal: Spong on the Gospel of John

The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, John Shelby Spong (HarperOne 2013)  $26.99

fourth gospelJohn Shelby Spong is something of a legend within the contemporary Christian thought leadership. Through a 24-book writing career and two-and-a-half decades as bishop to New Jersey Episcopalians, Spong is known for trenchant comments in interviews, dismantling the claims of evangelical orthodoxy, and furious pushback from those who deem him a heretic and a threat to the Christian flock.

A Gentle Testimony

Given Spong’s reputation for boundary-pushing and dangerous thinking, I was a bit surprised to see this gentle testimony in the preface:

Jesus walked beyond the boundaries of his religion into a new vision of God. I think that this is what I also have done and that is what I want to celebrate. God is ultimate. Christianity is not. The only way I know how to walk into the ultimacy of God, however, is to walk through Christianity. I claim not that the Christian path is the exclusive path, but that it is the only path I know and thus the only path on which I can walk. (x)

This sentiment, not wolf-like at all, represents the book’s deep, non-creedal commitment to Christianity as “the way of Jesus” that inspires life. It’s also a foundational component of the book that might resonate with readers who want to hear more from non-literalist Christian writers, teachers, and lay members. The Fourth Gospel is designed for that audience; it’s a thoroughly Christian literary reading of John, and emerged from a five-year study of the gospel text, translations, and all major commentaries on John’s gospel published since the 1800s.

The Fourth Gospel is based on two premises:

  1. John’s gospel is a Jewish book, written by a Jewish author, drawing on Hebrew scriptures, symbology, and mysticism; it is not a Hellenistic hybrid indebted to or dependent on Greek or Gnostic philosophy; and
  2. The gospel’s writers and redactors created or amplified characters that were literary but not literal and who are shown playing distinct roles in the developing story of Jesus; these roles also represent the life and concerns of the nascent Christian community that told and retold Jesus’ story over time.

I can imagine with Spong that John’s gospel was not intended to promote written scriptures over the living Spirit; to reinforce a hierarchical authority chain that flows down from God through political leaders, religious teachers, husbands, and fathers alone; or to reinforce our traditional preoccupations with law, sin, or transactional salvation: “I have come that you might have life, life in all its fullness” is what the gospel represents as Jesus’ concern and the concern of the community of believers. Each story and major character described helps Spong to illustrate how abundant life helps people of faith to transcend literalism, fear, and the isolation of limiting group identities.

Structure

The book has five parts that track the gospel’s 21 chapters and make it easy to read the gospel in one hand and Spong in the other:

  1. an introduction to the gospel, its authorship, historical context, and relationship to Jewish wisdom literature (John 1);
  2. a chapter-per-story section on the miracles or “signs” described in John 2-11, from the Cana wedding to Lazarus’ resurrection;
  3. a review of Jesus’ final teachings, goodbyes, and prayer for his disciples (John 12-17);
  4. reflections on key figures in Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion (John 18-19); and
  5. a study of the mystical significance of resurrection and the inspiration buried in John 20’s four resurrection narratives.

Content

Throughout these sections, Spong acts as a teacher as well as a storyteller, mixing commentary on characters and scenes with summaries of important stages in Christian history. For example, in Part 1, he describes how the early church developed from a movement hosted by Jewish synagogues into a marginal sect operating outside synagogues or in conflict with them; eventually that movement became a discrete non-Jewish community though it retained many ethnically Jewish members. Spong argues that John’s gospel reflects these stages as it uses stories about Jesus and his contemporaries to represent community issues during the 1st Century CE.

In Parts 1 and 2, he reviews the evolution of the major Christian creeds and now-traditional Christology, and also presents an evolutionary model of religions that have emerged since the hunter-gatherer era (animism, fertility/goddess, “tribal” or national, and universal). “Universal” religion is represented as religion’s most recent evolutionary phase, a needed response to fundamentalist idolatry and anti-religious atheism. Spong sees that universality in John’s gospel and describes it as well as our resistance to it in a powerful passage in Part 2.

Inspired by the official who seeks healing from Jesus on his son’s behalf (John 4), Spong notes that faith inspires courage, compassion to meet needs, and connection with others across group, ethnic, national, and other limiting boundaries. He writes:

How difficult it has been for religious people to embrace an unbounded God. We have through our history sought to define God as particular being, albeit one possessing supernatural power. With God defined as a being, we then had to locate God in a place. Ultimately that place was thought to be somewhere above the sky in a three-tiered universe. Then we had to build for this God earthly dwelling places that we called ‘houses of worship.’

Next, we began to assert that God’s very words were captured in the words of our sacred scriptures. Then we convinced ourselves that God’s very nature could be defined in our creeds, doctrines, and dogmas…

When these ‘sacred idols’ began to be destroyed by the expansion of human knowledge, we acted as if God had died. The God who lived above the sky was rendered homeless when we began to embrace the infinity of space; yet we continued to address God as ‘our Father, who art in heaven.’ Next, the scriptures, which we once thought of as God’s literal words, began to be understood as tribal tales and as human interpretations… Then the creeds, the doctrines and dogmas—which, we asserted, had captured God’s revelation—began to be understood as political and cultural compromises… That was when theism, the human word one adopted to refer to God as a being, began to die and we either had to become a-theists or search for another God definition. (113-114)

That other definition, approached through mysticism, forces readers to seek meanings beyond immediately accessible surface detail. It also challenges readers to tie biblical stories first to the community that passed the stories down instead of leaping from the text to the 21st Century. I found many but not all of Spong’s proposed meanings inspiring and valuable. I also found that Spong’s application of mysticism (i.e. “Not everyone can bear this vision…”) sometimes conflicts with his claim that Jesus’ “new life” collapses old barriers and opens to the whole world. The implication is that even though abundant life contrasts with exclusivist tribalism, it too becomes exclusive because not everyone who is offered it will choose it.

Given this conflict between universalism and mysticism, it wasn’t until Part 4 that I understood why Spong insists that John’s gospel must be viewed as Jewish. He argues credibly that “the Word” is a native Hebrew concept and that mysticism is also authentic to the text. And yet he describes the gospel community’s conflicts with “the Jews” and their challenge to the Jewish tradition in ways that make me wonder how Jewish readers might respond to his calling “the Jews” who reject Jesus “lost,” or him seeing Judas the betrayer as a symbol of those Jews “who cannot embrace the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (224)

Spong explicitly dissociates from Christianity’s traditional anti-Semitism and suggests that Judas himself may be a literary construct. But he never clarifies how mystical supercessionism that uses the Judas-Jew symbol meaningfully differs from traditional theology about the Church replacing Israel or Judaism. Nor does he reckon with what it means to represent the mystical Jesus path as the latest and best stage in human spiritual evolution. As much as he sees arrogance in literalism and fundamentalism, Spong fails to see that same arrogant potential in mysticism and a universalism that only a few can enter into.

Food for the Church in Exile

When I’ve heard peers mention Spong in our conversations, it’s been as a religious teacher who speaks for them or addresses the questions they have, who encourages them to take a respectful and thoughtful look at the religious beliefs they hold, who doesn’t encourage suspicion of science or scholarship, and who still finds deep faith meaningful in our time.

Spong refers to the “Church Alumni Association” in this book, but I do not think this book is written with the Association’s members in mind. It’s much more likely to draw readers who would like to return to the stories of the scriptures and the insight they contain, and for whom a narrative approach is a viable path back. It may also benefit those exploring the boundaries and limits of exclusive religious identity and fellowship: if a person feels called beyond the borders of their denomination, what and who else might they meet outside those borders?

Overall, The Fourth Gospel is a tremendously rewarding read. I’ve not marked up and argued with a book this much in at least 3 years, and I leave it with several big questions, not all of them raised in this review.[1] But I also feel inspired to return to the scriptures, reread them again, and “entertain vastly new possibilities” for what the bible’s writers wanted to communicate to other disciples of Jesus in their day and the generations to follow them.

 

Keisha McKenzie, PhD, lives in Maryland and supports public sector organizations, non-profits, and educators in and beyond Washington, D.C. She studied technical communication and rhetoric at Texas Tech University, consults in communication and nonprofit development, and can be found at mackenzian.com discussing leadership, education, philanthropy, social justice, technology, the arts, and the Three Taboos: politics, religion, and sexuality.


[1] For example: If Spong is right and all of the major characters around Jesus can be read as non-literal symbols, why can’t Jesus himself be read as a non-literal symbol? Is “the spirit that empowers us to be the body of Christ doing the work of Christ in every generation” merely a metaphor for peer group motivation, or does it represent something more trans-human or … literal? (cf. p. 305)

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2 thoughts on “Literary But Not Literal: Spong on the Gospel of John

  1. “Walking beyond the boundaries of religion” and “an unbounded God”–what a liberating change from the homophobia and theories of “just discrimination” that we get from some Bishops.

  2. Jayana Clerk says:

    John and his audience were all Jewish, as was Jesus. His active inherent human/divine confluence, dormant in most others, made him different from others. In other words Jesus reminded others they could do what he did. John, the disciple saw this and wrote about it. John Spong, the bishop, like many other thinkers before him, elaborates it here. Such mysticism should have been clear to all, if tradition had not named that principle “God” – and then separated us from it.

    What was perhaps clear to John’s audience, uncluttered by logic, science – the hallmarks of the age of enlightenment — and untouched by later Christian history of violence and domination — would have been clear to us all along.

    It would not have made mystics of all of us, but we would have evolved as human/divine, believing Jesus’s words: what he did we could too! In short, we would have been ‘sort of’ mystical more than Ms MeKenzie envisions.

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