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Personal Jesus: John Shelby Spong's "Nontheistic" Christianity

Jason Lee Steorts

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What's a religion good for, anyway?

That is the question retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong never gets around to asking, let alone answering, in his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. His title suggests an answer, and he has tried to lob his book like a hand grenade into the institutions of Christendom. The idea is to explode two millennia of traditional belief on which these institutions rest, thereby making room for a new Christianity based on a conception of Jesus that is palatable to "a twenty-first century person." What actually crawls out of the rubble is a Jesus for John Shelby Spong.

This Jesus would be unrecognizable to most Christians. The largest section of the book is an attack on "the supernatural forms of yesterday's Christianity." Spong executes this attack by means of a lengthy textual criticism of the Gospels, sprinkled with occasional undeveloped thoughts on the incompatibility of traditional belief with a modern worldview. ("The ability of anyone to walk on water exists in our world not in reality, but only in very bad golf jokes.") Along the way, he jettisons the following claims, among others: that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus's birth; that Jesus performed miracles; that Jesus atoned for the sins of mankind; that Jesus was resurrected; and that the resurrected Jesus ascended to Heaven.

Spong's analysis is interesting as far as it goes, though his tendency to dismiss all disagreement as "hysterical" -- his adjective of choice for traditional believers -- is unbecoming, morally and intellectually. I offer here no evaluation of his textual criticism, as literary sleuthing is rarely dispositive. Instead, let's assume for the sake of argument that his thesis is correct: Jesus performed no miracles, wrought no atonement, and rose from no tomb. When one is left with such a Christ, what does it mean to say -- as Spong says of himself -- that one is "a believing Christian"? What does one believe in? How could one persuade anyone else to share this belief?

Spong's attraction to Jesus seems to be rooted largely in the ethics Jesus taught and lived. Jesus was nice to Samaritans. Jesus didn't shun lepers. Jesus protected adulteresses from the stoning mobs. All to the good, as hysterical Christians would agree.

Read the entire article on the National Review website (new window will open).

Posted: 27-Apr-07



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