Friday, February 26, 2016


I've never been a big fan of Shelby Spong (and what's a blog post for if you can't complain about what somebody else said, amirite?).  So I rise to semi-praise him in this interview (even though I won't be reading the book) and to challenge some of his assertions.  Such as this one:

Then, by the year 150 or thereabouts, there were so few Jews left in the Christian church that Marcion wanted to remove any semblance of Judaism from the Christian scripture. The church officially resisted that, but unofficially they became quite anti-Semitic. What happens then, you have an audience of only Gentiles reading these Jewish stories and because they don’t understand the storytelling background they have to assume that the stories are literal.

“We imposed fundamentalism on the Bible. No one who has ever read the Bible could be a literalist.”

The literalization of the Gospels is not the result of the authors, it’s the result of a generation 150 years after the birth of Jesus who didn’t know the Jewish tradition so they couldn’t see these connections. They didn’t know, for example, that the feeding of the 5,000 was not a miracle. It was a retelling of Moses’ manna in the wilderness story heightened and applied to Jesus. That’s a very different perspective so the Jews never argued about whether Jesus actually fed all those people with five loaves and two fish. But, if you see it as a familiar story in the Jewish tradition where the food supply is expanded in the Moses story, and in the stories of Elijah and Elisha, then you can retell it about Jesus and magnify it.
I'll accept that literalism did distort the Bible and did do damage to a story Matthew's audience (probably Jews, and Matthew was probably Jewish; although, if we're going to get historical/critical, there probably was no person named "Matthew" who said down and wrote the gospel with that name appended to it the way we expect Stephen King to write his novels.  There are modern examples of this:  Carolyn Keene, "author" of the Nancy Drew novels, or Victor Appleton II, who took over for Victor Appleton and wrote the Tom Swift, Jr. novels I favored as a child.  Even today  Nora Roberts publishes several novels a month; does anyone really think one person named Nora Roberts writes all those novels?  Do her readers really care?.  We can get into the weeds quickly here, you see; then again, same as it ever was.  Safer to say "The Gospel According to Matthew" was written by Jews for Jews, and leave it at that.  Although "Jews" is an anachronism in this discussion, too.....

I'll be quiet now.)

Where was I?  Oh, yeah, Shelby and Biblical hermeneutics.  First:  the problem of Jews belonging to the early church is vastly more complicated than the attempts of Marcion to reduce the canonical gospels to his Thomas Jeffersoned version of Luke.  Frankly, I don't know how you get from Marcion to anti-semitism in the church without passing "GO" or collecting $200.00.  Second:  if no one who has ever read the Bible could be a literalist, how did Marcion become a Biblical literalist?  By being wholly ignorant of the Bible?  Or was it a problem of literacy in the Roman Empire? And did Biblical literalism arise with Marcion and become the only hermeneutic allowed until the Germans came along in the 19th century?  No; of course not.  Biblical literalism is far better attached to the fundamentalist movement of the 20th century, since whatever literalism was involved in the first centuries of church pales by comparison with that effort, and using the term unilaterally as Spong does is to engage in anachronism.  Marcion himself was considered a heretic.    We would today call him anti-semitic because he wanted to remove Christianity from its Jewish roots; but he did so by cutting up the Gospel of Luke and tossing the other gospels altogether.  He was denounced by St. Justin the Martyr, Ireneaus, and Tertullian, so the idea that we should start with Marcion is, let's say, distorted at best.

And the problem, as many scholars have pointed out, has more to do with Hebraic v. Hellenistic thought, than with anti-semitism in the post-Marcion church.  The very idea of an eternal soul is Platonic, not Hebraic.  The idea of history as a indisputable record of events (where even "indisputable" has to be, well, disputable) is Hellenistic, not Hebraic.  The roots of this conflict, in other words, were set down the minute Paul split with Peter over who to evangelize.  That the gospels were interpreted away from their Hebrew roots, and that the Hebraism of Jesus, Paul, Matthew, Mark, and John, as well as the letters of the New Testament, was all too easily lost, can't really be disputed; and that such a "divorce" lead to distortions in the interpretation of the gospels, I quite agree with.  To this day the common wisdom is that the "Old Testament" (actually, the Jewish scriptures) are fraught with war and death and vengeance and an "angry God," while the New Testament is full of love and fuzzy bunnies.  I presume this is where the "contradiction" lies that on-line atheists so often refer to.  The clash arises from ignorance, as Spong implies; not from necessity.

But to explain that any further I'd have to give you a short course in (at least) the work of Walter Brueggemann as well as Western philosophical history.

Take Spong's method and apply it around Matthew, you get (as he does, later) the correct context (IMHO, of course) for the Magi, as well as the flight into Egypt, as well as the Sermon on the Mount (it's more egalitarian in Luke's Gentile telling), and so on.  Frankly, it's come to matter less and less to me how much of this "literally happened."  I spent too many years with "eyewitness testimony" to believe that anything anyone told me was 100% irrefutably true and happened just that way.  You learn to live with a certain fuzziness; and then you learn that the fuzziness is a feature, not a bug.

So I'm not really arguing with Spong, so much as sort of wincing, again, and how he says it.  As when he defends his position, which I actually find kind of refreshing:

I happen to know the Bible pretty deeply and I didn’t reject the Bible when I rejected its literal frame of reference. I happen to be a believing, practicing Christian. I don’t go to church on Sunday mornings for show. I go because I want to be there and I need to worship. It’s not an option for me to sleep in on Sunday. My faith is deeper than that. I do not eat a meal that I don’t stop and say grace beforehand because that’s how I acknowledge the presence of God in my life at a regular time. I try to live a life of absolute commitment. I claim my Christian identity publicly.

This puts me at odds with my colleagues in the Jesus Seminar who are so scholarly but they are not devoted. They really think the church is a sick institution and they don’t want to be part of it. I think the church is the only place we’ve got, but we’ve got to transform and redeem it. If the church is not going to be the place where people encounter God and Christ I don’t see any other place in our society to do so. I work to transform the church. I don’t work to get rid of the church. I work to transform the meaning of what it means to be a Christian, not to get rid of that meaning.
I was never really taught to take the Bible literally.  On the other hand, I finally realized the generally accepted Nativity story made no sense the way we all agree it happened:  Magi and shepherds gathered with ox and sheep around a "manger" while Joseph and Mary look on, with a Star shining directly overhead and an angel hovering nearby.  (Yeah, like the picture.  That's cross-stitch, a set of patterns, and I'm actually working on it.  Had it for 25 years, finally getting around to finishing it.  I have the two left-hand panels finished, and the camel on the far right.  Working on the angels and star to finish the center panel, then the magi on the right to go.)  It's a mash-up of Matthew and Luke, who get the Holy Family to Bethlehem by very different means, and to Nazareth by different means, too.  And besides, the Magi didn't really show up until about two years later.   That mash-up is far more modern than Spong wants it to be, I think.  I've read some of the early mystery plays, including various "shepherd's plays," and they seldom include the Magi showing up to join the shepherds at the manger.  Maybe they took the story more "literally' than we do, or something.

Anyway, I stumbled over that second paragraph, if only because I know (or have met) some of the members of the Jesus Seminar.  The ones I knew didn't think the church was "sick" (one was my NT professor in seminary; he was training people for that institution, and his seminary was sustained by it).  I'm sure some of the members are of that opinion, but scholarship and devotion don't have to go hand in hand.  They don't have to be opposing magnetic poles, either, though.

Spong says he wants to work to transform the church, and that's fine with me.  I have to say the way he used to do it was fairly similar to the way he criticizes now:

But when your agenda is to convert someone to your way of thinking, it’s hostile. You’re saying, “My faith is better than your faith, which means I’m better than you, and if you don’t accept my faith there’s something wrong with you.” That’s hostile and you can’t communicate the love of God through hostility. That’s what we’ve got to break open.

The love of God can never be communicated with human hostility. What we’re to preach in the world is not conversion. It’s to preach the Gospel, which is the infinite love of God for all that God has made. That’s a very different gospel than what I hear going on in places that believe you have to convert or you’re going to fry in hell. I think I’d rather fry in hell than spend an eternity with people who think that way.

The primary issue in the Christian church today is to get away from original sin and to see the story of Jesus not as saving the sinful but as expanding their humanity. I look out not on original sinners but on incomplete human beings yearning to be made whole and that’s what the gospel is all about. It’s not about saving sinners.

I agree with him, there.  But I really like what he says here:

Do you think your view of Christianity will become the majority view at some point?

No, and that doesn’t worry me, because every image in the Bible is a minority image. The Christian church is to be the yeast in the bread, the light in the darkness, the salt in the soup. It’s never supposed to be Christendom running the world. We are to give a flavor to life. We’re remnant people walking into the mystery of God and we have to walk faithfully.
Although part of me has to ask:  if Jesus didn't really recite "the Lord's Prayer" (as Spong asserts in the interview), did Jesus literally say that about the yeast in the bread and the salt of the earth?

And does it really matter?

1 comment:

  1. I got tired of Spong when I heard him on the radio one time too many. I think he likes to get asked on Fresh Air or the equivalent and needs an attention fix every so often and what he says is determined by what will get it for him.

    The Jesus Seminar, though Crossan more than most of the ones who stuck with it, had a big effect on me about sixteen years ago, today, not so much. I don't have any problem with anyone who believes things in the Bible that scholars of one school or another don't believe "really happened", it's their actions and behavior towards people and other living beings that matters to me and my constant lapses in that, even more so. Admitting you've got a problem is the first step.

    Good question about the yeast and the salt of the Earth. If you're going to go down that road Spong took you'd better be prepared for that question.