Thursday, August 30, 2007

Is Spong's Jesus Radical Enough?

I know that a lot of progressives love John Spong and I hear he's a nice guy, but I must confess I find him to be just a bit silly. He lacks the sophistication of a Marcus Borg and makes claims about the Bible that on one hand seem extreme and yet seem to reflect what was radical in the 19th century. His scholarship is outdated and more in line with Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris, both of whom show little awareneness of the full spectrum of Christian scholarship.
Ben Meyers at Faith and Theology has written a review of Spong's latest -- Jesus for the Non-believer. I've not read the book but trust Meyers' judgment here, so I think I'll pass. What I find interesting is Meyers' judgment that Spong's interpretatin of Jesus isn't radical enough. What we have here is a Jesus who is the champion of Western values of inclusiveness and tolerance -- a sort of PC guide. Now I'm for inclusiveness and tolerance -- but the Jesus of the Gospels -- texts that Spong seems to place no trust in -- was deemed a radical in his own day.
Meyers writes:

The function of Spong’s Jesus is thus simply to maintain the social and political status quo. He takes our own most cherished and self-evident Western values, and he provides them with a theological justification. Thus our own values are made absolute and unimpeachable – they are elevated to the status of ideology. Simply put, Spong tells us that political correctness is correct, since even Jesus was politically correct.

This should give pause to any reader of the Gospels. After all, the Gospels consistently depict a Jesus who is radical and confronting and unsettling – aJesus who challenges the status quo, who hangs out with the wrong people and antagonises the establishment, who resists every attempt to domesticate his message, refusing to allow his actions to be calmly assimilated into any existing religious framework. And for just this reason, the Jesus of the Gospels is finally executed. In contrast, however, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldbe offended by Bishop Spong’s politically correct Jesus. A Jesus whose sole commitment is to tolerant inclusiveness is simply not the kind of Jesus whom anyone would want to crucify.

So in spite of Spong’s characterisation of his own book as radical, “shocking” and “audacious” (pp. 10, 290), the real problem is that this book is not radical enough. The Jesus who emerges from these pages is ultimately indistinguishable from any other respectably innocuous, politically correct member of the Western middle classes.

To read the whole review -- which I suggest you do --click here.
If you go down to the comments section you'll note the anecdotes by Kim Fabricius -- of a conversation with Spong who termed Walter Brueggemann a Fundamentalist. That should say what needs to be said.

11 comments:

Mike L. said...

Wow! That seems like a harsh review. I haven't read this book, but I did read 2 of his previous books and loved them. I would never have guessed from his other work that Spong would paint a non-radical politically correct image of Jesus.

From my reading, I don't think that I had picked up any real theological differences between Borg and Spong other than the fact that Spong's audience is atheists while Borg's audience is mainline Christians. The content is really the same but the language and perspective is intentionally different. I'll have to read this new book to see if this review is accurate or just a knee-jerk response to a book that was read by someone outside the intended audience. Maybe the differences never showed because Spong's books have focused more on God and the Bible in more general terms rather than Jesus in particular.

I have always felt that Spong does Christianity a great service by presenting it's stories in a format that can be inspiring to atheists. Isn't that a good thing? I wonder if the reviewer is reacting to the fact that Spong wrote a book about Jesus and the audience wasn't Christians?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Mike,

Spong is kind of an acquired taste, personally I've found him to be a bit of scatter shooter. His audience may be atheists, but if his goal is to invite them into the Christian journey they'll like what they find once inside.

I guess I'm just one of those guys who find Spong difficult to swallow.

Mike L. said...

I had the same intial reaction to both Spong and Borg many years ago. I could not read either without cringing but I also realized that my faith wasn't working in the Evangelical framework. I read a couple of books by Brian Mclaren and realized that maybe what he was hinting at was something detailed by those mainline liberals I never understod. So, I went back and read Borg and Spong a 2nd time. This time the lightbulb came on and faith suddenly was something I could swallow. I'm not sure I could go back even if I wanted to.

My own emerging faith has been furtile ground for many different authors in many different seasons. Spong has a place of importance but I realize he isn't for everyone. I hope this review isn't correct but there is only one way to find out.

Mystical Seeker said...

I flipped through Spong's latest book in a bookstore, and decided I wasn't interested because he didn't seem to say anything there that he hasn't already said elsewhere. I think he tends to repeat himself a lot in his books.

That being said, I am pretty offended by Ben Meyer's remarks. I cringe whenever anyone uses the term "political correctness" to disparage anyone else's views. I consider it a smear term that sneers at anyone who values justice, fairness, and inclusiveness. Criticize Spong if you will, but please leave the PC-baiting out of it.

It is hard to know what Meyers' beef is with saying that Jesus advocated inclusiveness and tolerance. Would Meyers prefer a Jesus who advocated exclusiveness and intolerance? If not, then his complaint has no merit.

It may be true that Spong's Jesus is not radical enough. I think that Crossan is right that Jesus challenged the collusion between the religious authorities and the Empire's political establishment. If Spong doesn't focus on that, then certainly Spong is toning down the message. But to suggest that inclusiveness is not radical, that is mere "political correctness", is nonsense. Jesus offended a lot of people by eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. Radically inclusive love was, in my opinion, central to his message, and it is a radical message--I can just consider how much the church after his death moved away from Jesus's inclusiveness by establishing rules and forms of authority that Jesus opposed. By sneering at inclusiveness as mere "political correctness", he degrades the power of part of Jesus's message.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I need to say that I've only clipped part of the Meyer review -- if you've just read my clip you should check the entire piece out.

The point isn't that inclusion is wrong, but that Spong seems to be doing what the old Questers were doing -- portraying Jesus as a 19th century European. As Schweitzer said -- the looked into the well and saw their own faces. This is what Meyers was insisting on .

By political correctness I took him critiquing that remaking of Jesus inot one of us!

calvin said...

You should read the book before you criticize it. Having recently returned to the church, being greeted by Spong, Borg, Crossan, and you and many other bloggers, I think Spong is perfect for those who aren't as up on the theological and historical stuff that all of you lifelongers are. JftNR was the third or fourth of his books I have read in the last year, and is his best work yet, updating and tying in more of his evolution in views in the best way he has ever done yet, IMO. He is a bit of a scatter shooter, I agree, but he makes great points in a very convincing and spiritually compelling manner.

The title is Jesus for the non-religious, after all, and is perhaps best left to those less-churched among us, newbies like me and those curious that we really need a lot more of in our fold.

Right with ya on McLaren, Mike, I just discovered him last week and am doing the opposite reading order of you. It's a great journey!!!

Heather said...

I haven't read the book that is being critiqued -- I think I've only briefly skimmed one of Spong's books. But I was surprised by the review saying that Spong's Jesus isn't radical enough, because he preaches tolerance and inclusion.

To me, that's exactly what Jesus preached, which is what made him so radical. I think the disconnect here is because of how each approaches those words. It sounds like the reviewer is using "tolerance" in the whole "anything goes/what works for you works for you, what works for me works for me" and "inclusive" as "you're okay just the way you are."

That's not how I approach either word. To me, Jesus was tolerant, because he embraced the mistakes, rather than browbeating people with the mistakes they made. He pointed them out, and then said, "You can be better than this." With the inclusiveness, he did say that people are okay the way they are -- but that there's a lot of untapped potential, because people are made in the image of God, and we've only seen glimpses of what that means.

However, I don't use tolerant here as "accepting anything." Tolerance means that you do speak out against racism, sexism, class-ism and so forth.

On the other hand, as I haven't read the book, the reviewer could've been picking up that Spong was using tolerance and inclusiveness in the way that I'm not.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Heather,

I don't think what Ben is criticizing is a message of inclusion and tolerance, but that Spong's Jesus doesn't do much more than that.

As I read the critique, I hear him say that Jesus was much more than that -- he was challenging barriers and bounderies, pushing buttons and calling for life changing decisions.

Again, we must all beware of looking into the well, thinking we're seeing Jesus, and in reality seeing ourselves -- nice 21st century civilized folk.

Heather said...

Pastor Bob,

**but that Spong's Jesus doesn't do much more than that.**

I suppose it still comes down to what one means by inclusion and tolerance, because I would see Jesus doing both of those by what you list: challenging barriers and bounderies, pushing buttons, and calling for life changing decisions.

I mostly say this because humans are very, very good at the whole us vs. them mentality, and staying inside the "safe" group. Inclusiveness, to me, means that we do challenge those barriers/boundaries, both within ourself and the world. Both tolerance and inclusiveness can mean going beyond what is safe.

But, like I said: it depends on one's perspective of those two words, because I do see them matching what you describe Jesus doing. However, if Spong doesn't see inclusive/tolerance as doing that, then I can see where the critique comes from.

Mystical Seeker said...

To me, inclusion is as radical as it gets. The ultimate expression of tolerance and inclusion is to break down the walls of authority that enforce the rules of intolerance and inclusion. Radical inclusion challenges authority--which is precisely what Jesus did. Radical love and inclusion is universal, which means that no elite gets to claim for itself the privileges and rights of authority. Radical inclusion inevitably challenges the prerogatives of Empire. Inclusion calls into question the very heart of the domination system.

I've read the review that Meyers wrote and I still don't get what his complaint is.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Spong's book but I did listen to a radio interview with him and he seemed very to the point. He believes in Jesus. I don't. I agree with him when he says the bible was written over 2 thousand years ago and the gospels were written in the "language" of the day. It was written to convey pictures and ideas of Jesus not necessarily the factual truth. Why do people get hung up on religion when life is about spirituality in all its forms. Fundamentalists are destroying the world.