Westar Institute has posted an update on the health of John Shelby Spong [link (https://www.westarinstitute.org/membership/westar-fellows/fellows-directory/john-shelby-spong/) no longer active: Neil Godfrey, 24th July 2019. Try: https://www.westarinstitute.org/membership/westar-fellows/fellows-directory/john-shelby-spong/) by Cassandra Farrin. Back in September Episcopal Café announced that he had had a stroke.
Spong’s book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism had a major impact on my understanding of the Bible at a time I was breaking away from belief in Christianity altogether. In some ways that book was my 101 introduction to critical studies of the Bible.
What I found of particular interest was learning how the differences among the gospels reflected quite different theological perspectives and how later ones attempted to amend deficiencies they perceived in earlier ones. I even wrote up a series of mock “newspaper reports” of the resurrection of Jesus as an attempt to put together what I had learned from Spong’s discussions. (This was all long pre-blog days.) So one paper reported the resurrection as a rumour based on the hearsay of an unknown guy sitting in a tomb (Gospel of Mark); later gospels added reports of the resurrected Jesus eating fish, etc; and so forth.
The same book also introduced me to the arguments that allowed for gays to be accepted into Christian fellowship. Until then I had no idea how anyone could make such an argument from the Bible, certainly not from Paul’s writings.
Around the time I was reading Rescuing I was moving towards atheism and when Spong came to visit the Anglican church near to where I lived (I think Spong was a friend of Gregory Jenks, another Jesus Seminar Fellow and the pastor (or whatever the correct title is) there at the time. I was blown away by the experience of a congregation of whom nearly all were as radically minded as Spong or anyone else on the very liberal end of the Jesus Seminar. What I simply had to do was personally thank Spong for his assistance in leading me out of belief into atheism — a destination where I felt far more at ease, comfortable, relaxed, than I had as a somewhat “uptight” Christian. We had a little discussion about the uptightness of believers in general: Spong volunteered that it was his sad experience that most Christian believers do have an uptightness about them. (I put it down to those who are serious enough about their faith to take the Bible seriously and always be striving to “put on the new man” — living the life of a “put-on”, in other words, as Edmund Cohen explained it in The Mind of the Bible Believer.)
Spong’s next book, Liberating the Gospels, introduced me to the main principles of Michael Goulder’s arguments about the gospels being written as lectionary readings for churches. What struck me about this book was his case for the “midrashic” rewriting of Old Testament figures throughout the gospels: see the Spong: Liberating the Gospels archive of posts. But what I found truly astonishing was that Spong could argue essentially for the “fictionality” of so many of the gospel figures yet not allow Jesus himself to have been just as fictional, even though the same types of arguments he used for Mary, Joseph, and others were many times more applicable to the Jesus figure. That’s when I learned that Spong’s Christianity is far more “mystical” than anything I was used to — perhaps not unlike Thomas Brodie’s (who does not accept the historicity of Jesus) or Albert Schweitzer’s (who did).
All in all, Spong has had a significant impact on my life and understanding of religion and the Bible. I welcomed the update on Westar’s site.
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