Jesus has been taking it on the chin lately in the literary world. After author and scholar Bart Ehrman shredded the New Testament in his hit books Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them), edgy Christians have been hovering halfway out of the the church door. Ehrman was so thorough in his work that he not only is no longer Christian, he considers himself an atheist. Now there's a man who overdoes his research.
So, it takes a book like Bishop John Shelby Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious to set things straight. Only it doesn't. Bishop Spong, an Episcopalian, grew up in the Deep South seeing the worst of backwards "Christianity": the kind that supported racism, antisemitism, and sexism. It's a wonder he stayed with the church, much less became one its most eloquent gadflies.
The Very Rev. Spong does not believe in unprovable historical stories, fairy tales, gospels written by Nazarene fishermen who didn't know Greek much less write it, and he most definitely does not think that if Jesus were to come back today, he would recognize anything the fundamentalists have been saying about him. This is because after a lifetime of studying the Bible, Spong refuses to take it as a literal document and thinks the authors of the texts, whoever they may have been, didn't expect a literal understanding. That means no star over Bethlehem (no Bethlehem!), no Magi, no virgin birth, no loaves and fishes, no walking on water, and on and on right on up to the rock-hewn grave at the Resurrection. (As he pointedly asks, when did Roman felons get the luxury of their own grave?)
Readers, especially ones already worked over by author Ehrman, can hardly argue with Spong's logic. The exponential numbers of people in David's city of Bethlehem, if one is to believe the story of Joseph and Mary returning there for a census, is really a laugh. That's just the point, Spong says. You aren't supposed to think about it. This was all an overlay over something much grander.
The original Christians were Jews and they celebrated a mostly Jewish service, Spong says. One of the readings would be about Jesus. Eventually, more and more of the Jesus readings took place within the confines of the Jewish year. Eventually, the Jesus story was made to fit the Jewish year for liturgical — not historical — reasons. The details are too complex to explain here, but essentially every part of Jesus' life has a reading appropriate for some point of the Jewish year. Holy Week takes place during Passover; Easter has no Jewish equivalent, of course, but then Pentecost comes right about the time of Yom Kippur, when Jews make atonement for their sins. Christians say, "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us." The parallels are everywhere. It's to Spong's credit that he makes the the theory stick.
But the best part comes last, when Spong says Christianity will die unless it breaks out of the old tribal mentality upon which most religions are based. "Our God is better than yours." "We have better laws." "Our women are more dignified." You get the picture.
This was never Jesus' teaching. He spoke of the Good Samaritan — and Samaritans were hated and considered unclean by Jews. "Good" Samaritans? You must be kidding! Jesus spoke with women. He touched lepers. He healed the sick, at a time when the sick were considered to be possessed by demons. Jesus' message was that God is for everyone. Christians didn't hold onto that very long. Pretty soon they were oppressing blacks (while forcing them to become Christians), killing Jews, hating Muslims. What happened?
It's time to get back to that wholly human Christ, Spong says. That's what made Jesus divine; the fact that he was totally human. So human he could give his life away willingly.
Vacillating Christian, still bouncing nervously at that church doorway? It's tough. No fairy tales. (Although I still hold with some of the miracles.) No phony sayings. No scriptural errors. No flying down from heaven. Only truth. Only love. Can you live with that? Bishop Spong can.