John Shelby Spong, the controversial Episcopal bishop, has always regarded himself as an iconoclast. Throughout his long career, he has vigorously attacked Christian doctrine, and has called for 'a new reformation.' The main themes of his prolific writings have now been brought together in this new manifesto, Jesus for the Non-Religious – a book which Spong himself describes as the culmination of his life’s work. So what should we make of this book?
In the first place, we can appreciate Spong’s desire to communicate the findings of biblical criticism to a wider audience. A vast gulf still separates scholarly biblical research from everyday people – and this is one of the great pastoral crises of our time. So Spong is on the right track when he tells his readers that there is a difference between the historically authentic elements in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus, and the later layers of liturgical and theological interpretation, which have embellished the Gospel stories. And he’s right to point out that the Gospels give us not a straightforward historical account, but 'a magnificent interpretive portrait' of Jesus (p. 115).
Admittedly, Spong’s interpretation of the Gospel texts often rests on outdated research and flawed interpretations of the scholarship. And he misses the mark when he insists on a rigid dichotomy between faith and history. He tells us, for instance, that the Gospel stories are sheer 'make-believe' (p. 20), and that the texts 'are not the chronicles of a remembered history, but the proclamations of a community of faith' (p. 84). But presumably the stories about Jesus were also attempts to make sense of something that actually happened. In any case, regardless of such shortcomings, Spong’s desire to promote a historically informed understanding of the Gospels is commendable.
Further, one can only admire the bishop’s sheer enthusiasm for his work. He regards his own interpretation of Jesus as a uniquely radical gesture, and he is remarkably optimistic about the impact of his book. He assures us that the book will free us from 'the prison of religion' and will usher in 'a renaissance and a reformation' (p. 290), unleashing 'a new burst of energy and power that has not been seen for hundreds of years' (p. xiii).
Unfortunately, however, such rhetoric sets readers up for disappointment, since the book’s entire argument amounts to this: Jesus overcomes our prejudices and stereotypes, so that we can be inclusive and tolerant towards others. This, in a nutshell, is 'the new reformation'; this is Bishop Spong’s Jesus.
And for all Spong’s iconoclastic claims, there is something strangely familiar about this Jesus. A Jesus who champions inclusiveness and tolerance is a Jesus who looks suspiciously like – well, like ourselves. Presumably Spong’s readers will already identify with the Western liberal values of tolerance and inclusiveness. We did not learn those values from Jesus, but, thanks to Spong, we discover subsequently that Jesus himself is also committed to the same values.
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 – a Jesus 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 would be 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.
Instead of provoking a challenging political or theological response, therefore, this Jesus serves to justify our own values and assumptions. To adopt such a Jesus is like the new tendency of consumers to purchase 'carbon offsets' as compensation for their own greenhouse emissions: one makes a seemingly radical gesture precisely in order to ensure that nothing changes! Like purchasing a carbon offset, Spong’s Jesus – far from challenging us or provoking us to action – simply reassures us that all is well.
Bishop Spong’s Jesus may be useful and consoling, then, but he is not especially interesting, much less unique. He poses no threat, no challenge. He makes no demands. He tells us nothing that we didn’t know already. And for just that reason, it’s hard to see why 'the non-religious' – or anyone else, for that matter – should have any special regard for this Jesus.
Benjamin Myers is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Centre for the History of European Discourses. He is the author of Milton’s Theology of Freedom (2006) and of many essays on the history of Christian theology.