Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Reading John Shelby Spong

Note: This entry is a little long and a little different. I hope that you will bear with me and wade through it and, perhaps, offer your comments.

A number of years ago, when the Internet first began to infiltrate the common household, I became a devotee of emailing. I had penpals in Japan, Singapore, Australia, England, The USA, and Canada. This was in addition to any email that I wrote to people whom I already knew. I still keep in touch with one of those penpals, a woman from New Hampshire. Cuppa and I have visited with her and her husband more than once.

In that list, I didn't mention my penpal from Israel. Actually, he was never that, for we corresponded for only a relatively short period of time. He was an Hasidic Jew. That may not be the proper categorization or nomenclature, but it's the closest that I can come to representing him to you.

I remember asking him, that as an Orthodox Jew, at what point he took the Bible literally. Was it from the very beginning (the Creation Story), or after the flood, or at some other point? I never got a satisfactory answer because he didn't have one. The question was meaningless to him. He never even spared a thought for what scriptures might be literally true and what might be figurative or mythical (for want of a better word). I'm not sure that the meaning of this totally registered with me until just recently.

You see, we two approached faith, religion, spirituality, the scriptures with totally different mindsets. My evangelically formatted Westernized brain thought in terms of the quantifiable. We Westerners want to observe, measure, and weigh. We yearn to distinguish fact from fiction, literal truth from that which is not literal. I'm not sure whether most of us can embrace the concept that something that is not literal can be true. Perhaps that is why silly wars over the teaching of evolution are still being waged; for some good folk, if the Creation Story is not literally true, then it reveals no truth at all. This is how I perceive many to believe. Perhaps I am wrong. It would not be the first time and will not be the last time.

For this Hasidic Jew, however, all that mattered was the intent of the scriptures, what truth about God could be gleaned from each and every passage. Whether Noah really built an ark or not, the lessons of the flood would be the same for this man. As I understand it, to him, the intent of scripture was to reveal the nature and ways of the divine and not to record history.

Recently, I have come across the writings of John Spong, an Episcopalian bishop, who believes that the key to understanding the gospels is to read them, to the extent that we can, with Jewish eyes. He contends that they were never written to be factual and linearly unfolding chronologies of the life of Jesus. Rather, they were written by Jews, with Jewish scripture in mind, to reveal the nature of Jesus to (primarily, at first at least) Jewish readers. According to Spong, the gospel writers frequently revealed Jesus through the lens of allusions to the Hebrew scriptures.

I cannot begin to recapitulate or précis his works in this space. Truthfully, I am not up to the task. I understand much of what he says but in a vague and general way. I would do a disservice to try to elucidate his scholarship any further at this juncture.

Having been raised as an evangelical, I understand that mindset very well. I understand that some readers of this blog must despair of my soul for reading heresy that concludes that much of the gospel narrative is not literally true, that it was never intended to be understood that way. When Christians and Jews went their separate ways back in the first century, Spong holds that we lost the Jewish way of interpreting scripture. We got hung up on understanding the gospels as historical record rather than as teachings about who Jesus was.

Did any of you read Real Live Preacher's retelling of the Christmas Story? (Don't go, he takes it down after Christmas.) In his version, he speculates on how it could have been, what people could have said to Joseph, how they might have found a place to give birth, how the shepherds could have entered the picture. RLP wasn't telling a falsehood; he was narrating how it could have been. He was trying to make the story real to us by adding human touches. We all knew this when we read it, and we appreciated him for it.

Isn't it possible that the gospels were written in a similar vein? Isn't it possible that they were written to elucidate the meaning of the life of Jesus to those who had a firm grasp of the scriptures and how they had learned to interpret scripture in the past?

I find John Spong to be a man of incredible faith. While disbelieving the literalness of much of the gospel account, he believes very strongly that God was in Jesus and raised him into heaven. The life of Jesus changed the world because something powerful was at work in Him and through Him. Isn't that what Christians have always believed?

When I am presented with this alternative way to view scripture, I find myself responding positively and hopefully. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is where I can hang my theological hat. Like my former Jewish penpal, I find that the literalness of scripture becomes meaningless to me. Does it matter whether there was a man named Jonah who spent three days in the belly of a great fish? Does it matter whether God created the universe through the utterance of words in 4004 BC? Would it not be an even greater miracle if He created the Big Bang fifteen billion years ago, knowing what would evolve (and I don't particularly use that word in the Darwinian sense)?

I don't know if this is making any sense whatsoever, but if exposing your mind to alternative views of the faith scares you not, I recommend that you try reading John Shelby Spong. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes is the tome that I am referring to most directly.



Lynn said...

This is a wonderful article. It mirrors a lot of my thinking during the past month or so as I try to digest the Biblical scholarship I have been reading over the years.

I have never felt the Bible was a science textbook. It's a book about god and the meaning of life. Quite frankly, I get very upset with people who try to hijack the Bible so as to use it as a science textbook.

Anyway, I'll be checking out John Shelby Spong for my next book to read.

swamp4me said...

Well thought-out and well said.

Dora said...

the bible is not to be used as an idol and there are many (especially in these parts) that have missed that concept.

-epm said...

These are just my thoughts and I'm not trying to staple them to anyone's belief system...

I've never thought of the Bible as being a literal record of history. It's not what my faith teaches. That's not to say I think it's no better than a dime novel, or some sort of pulp fiction. The value to scripture is in its message, not its words, and as with any ancient writing that message is best understood when read from the frame of reference of the original writers and audience. That's the great value I see in the rabbinical and other extra-biblical writings and traditions. To assume, with no frame of reference, no context, -- in a cultural vacuum of sorts -- that a modern person can read scripture as if it were as literal and scientifically accurate as the periodic table of elements is, to me, a heresy in its own right. Yet this hasn't stopped any number of Abraham's descendants from claiming unerring knowledge of the will of God, and assuming for themselves the authority to act as the earthly arbiter of that will for all mankind.

To take all scripture literally is to miss the point completely. It's like reading the story of The Emperor's New Clothes, and then arguing over whether the emperor wore shoes with his new "clothes" or if he was completely unwrapped. The message, of course, is one of vanity, not of fashion.

Here's the way I look at literalists. God's message is like electricity: it has great power, and can be felt, but not seen. Scripture, is the wire through which God's message reaches us, but it isn't the message itself. The literalist will dote over the composition of the wire -- the purity of the copper, whether it's AWG 12 or 14 -- and miss the electricity all together.

But I could be wrong, in which case I'll pack for warmer weather. :)

Anonymous said...

In my recent Talmudic studies, I have had some insight into the "literalness" of text. For readers unfamiliar with Talmud, let me briefly explain. Talmud is a series of volumes of Jewish texts, based on the Mishnah (the oral Torah). The talmud takes a few lines from the Mishnah and then adds commentary from the Sages. Built around this commentary is additional commentary (from Rashi or Tosafot) and then additional commentary external to that. Reading Talmud is like peelng away layers of interpretation, in order to understand the original few lines of simple Mishnah.

During Talmudic study, it becomes clear to me that it is not the actual Mishnah in itself that bears so much meaning in my life. For example, in my recent encounter with Kiddushin - marriage - the Mishna simply commented on the the number of ways a man could acquire a woman (one of them being through sexual intercourse), an obviously sexist and heterosexist passage. However, being a feminist and Queer woman, I was able to find incredible value in the process of uncovering the Mishnah through the layers of Talmudic arguments. The process in itself is truely enlightening, challenging, and is analagous to many other struggles and process in my life.

To bring this back to your article, Anvilcloud, the Talmud could not exist without either the Mishnah or the commentary. The oral Toral (akin to the uninterpreted bible) is not meant to be examined on its own, but rather through many interpretations, and interpretations of those interpretations. My experience of Torah or Talmudic study through "Jewish eyes" involves reading original text, but then always referring to other texts and interpretations in order to extract meaning from the original text. The reward is often the process in itself.

So, no, I do not even think a "literal" interpretation is possible of any text (at least any Jewish text) but rather our interpretations and discussions make the original text (or bible, in your case) come alive.

To end, I will share with you an enlightening quote that I recently read on the back of a bathroom stall:

Roses are red
Violets are blueish
If it weren't for Jesus
We would all be Jewish.


Loner said...

Loved this post - well, I loved the chickadees too - but creation & Creator - they are my favorite topics!

This was well written and expounds upon something lots of Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, miss. The gospels were written by men who were Jewish - they had Jewish parents, had Jewish friends, and yet they followed Jesus. Hard to separate or accurately understand one without the understanding of the other.

If you enjoyed the Christmas stories might I also suggest Max Lucado who is phenomenal at painting a realistic picture of several event from the New Testament. And if you are really feeling brave, check out POEM OF THE MAN-GOD by Maria Valtorte. It positively changed my view of Jesus forever.

Christi said...

Well, I'll probably be ostracized for this, but I can not sit down and actually read any length of the Bible w/o totally zoning out. So, I depend on the scripture readings at church on Sundays. It's fun to me, b/c I get to hear parts of stories as they read them out loud. I always vow that I'll go home and read the entire thing, and, of course, I never do. However, I have never thought to look at the Bible as a literal piece of work. This came up not too long ago b/t my brother and I, who takes it quite literally. We were both talking to a friend of mine, who is feeling quite lost of late with her religious beliefs and whatnot. I told her that I view the Bible as a teaching tool. You must glean lessons from what you read, and try to get out of it how God would like you to live your life. I kinda think of them like myths, or fables, or whatever those stories are that teach you lessons. I mean, I'm sure that some of that stuff happened, and that those people lived, but who cares. Like someone above said, it's not a text book, and you don't need to know the dates and names of everything. What makes it hard for me to imagine people taking it so literally is that a lot of the stuff that the Bible has in it doesn't pertain to today's times. We don't primarily farm to survive anymore. Our world is full, it's not just in one little spot anymore. Our lives are full of technology, something that was entirely unfathomable then. So how can we take it literally? We have to learn from it by observing how the people acted, and how God and Jesus reacted to their actions. Well, that's my two cents worth.

A said...

Interesting post and following comments. I guess this goes to show how people can all look at the same thing (the Bible) and take a variety of perspectives on it. I'll offer my point of view here... I believe the Bible is historically true (in that there have been many archeological digs that have produced evidence which support specific claims of the Bible), allegorical (some stories which offer a larger point, such as Jesus' parables, for example), poetic (Song of Solomon, for one), etc.,... but the main two points of the Bible, if I can be so simplistic about it, are 1) that it all of human history points the way to Jesus as the means to a relationship with God, and 2) that a real, living, breathing personal relationship with Jesus is what life was created to be about, what heals the broken parts of my soul, what brings "redemption" to my life, and what allows me to be reconnected with God again. That's my perspective primarily because that's what I have come to over my lifetime to this point through my own experience. I can also recommend a book I'm almost done with, called Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller, it's a book that suggests that the point of Christianity is to meet our deepest need in life, which is relational, not rules-oriented. I couldn't agree more with his take on it.

-epm said...

There is no record, biblical or otherwise, that Jesus of Nazareth ever wrote anything. On top of that, virtually the entire canon of Christian thought was written by people who never heard Jesus speak. (Notwithstanding Paul's epiphany on the road to Damascus.)

Dale said...

This is really fantastic! I love this! I really enjoy hearing others express their spiritual beliefs. The older I get, the more I've come to realize that although we all believe the same essential dogma - A Supreme Being, the existance of a "soul", our innate need of relationships and community, etc., we all struggle at times with one fundamental question: What does it mean to be a Christian?

Do I have to go to church to be a Christian? Do I have to be evangelical and "spread the word"? Must I accept everything in the Bible as fact? (That's a tough one!) Must I even accept that Jesus Christ actually lived, performed miracles, healed the sick, and raised the dead? Was He really the son of God? Did He really die for our sins? How? What does that really mean? How come, if Jesus was such an important figure, was there NOTHING written about Him until after his death?

I am a Christian. I was born and raised that way. It bothers me a great deal that some Christians have come to be known as very exclusive in their beliefs. "Christianity is the only true religion." They quote The Bible as it suits them. And they especially love to quote from John 14 to prove their point:

I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

My way or the highway. To Hell with the Muslims, the Buddists, even the Jews. Come on now. That's just preposterous!

But like I said, I'm a Christian. I'm among the growing number of Christians who are beginning to ask questions. And I think that's just WONDERFUL!!!

God Bless you, Anvilcloud. Clearly, there's a lot of people out there who are awake and wondering. Great post, my friend!! Write on!!!

Heather Plett said...

I've decided that I want to spend a few days in your house, just perusing your bookshelves! Between Cuppa's recommendations and yours, I'm intrigued and wanna stay! A virtual book club anyone? :-)

Thanks for sharing this - I'll definitely look for this book!

Anonymous said...

From real live preacher,

JS Spong scares a lot of people, but he also has kept his eyes open and can still see what is radical in the gospels.

SquirrleyMojo said...

Thanks for redirecting me to this post, Anvil. It seems to me that we wrestle within ourselves trying to reconcile the spiritual teachings of our youth and the tangible "realitites" of our older years . . . I find myself desperately trying to find a path between my Christian up bringing and the "soiling" :-) of my academic training; ironically, my upbringing tells me that there is no path in between, just "hot" or "cold."
You mention those who must take the Bible literally, but alot of Christian teaching has built-in measures, so to speak, to ward off any thinking that might suggest any type of thinking outside of "their" gospel. You hint at that by recognizing some may think yo will even burn for this post . . . from my perspective, Jews have always had more freedom to explore their minds and thoughts (Job) than Christians . . . which *feels* ironic b/c Christ came to "free" all people from the laborous rituals of religion.

Whew! You made me think. The bottom line, much like your post suggests, I'm tired of debating the logistics, I just want my heart to be filled with love for God and all people. Further, I want my actions to sing of this.

Where have I lost my way?