Discovering Spong

The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, by John Shelby Spong
Review by Carlynne Nunn

As soon as you mention Spong in any Christian circle, it seems you meet with an opinion. Mostly everyone talks about how much everyone else talks about him. John Shelby Spong is apparently quite notorious.

The minister at my church told me stories of being very nearly whipped (figuratively speaking) after expressing a negative view of Spong at a former congregation after thoroughly underestimating the passion of Spong’s fans.

Having never heard of him before reading his latest book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, I thought I might be uniquely placed to offer my opinion, having no preconceived ideas. I also might be uniquely placed for a whipping, but here goes.

Spong’s introduction hurt me a little. Despite being impressed by his thoroughness – he spent five years researching only the Gospel of John – and willingness to admit his incorrect assumptions about a book he’d overlooked for the most part, it was a scarily dry beginning to what is actually a pretty readable book. Take note: perseverance is key.

He moves through the book of John systematically, dividing it into four parts based on the types of text and authorial intent.
These four parts explore the characters, the ‘farewell discourses’, Jesus’ death and the resurrection.

Having grown up fairly conservative, I am still new to the idea bandied about in certain circles that a literal interpretation of certain texts (or indeed all texts) is naïve to the point of lunacy. Thus, Spong’s straightforward leap into a complete dismembering of all I’ve ever really believed about the nature of Jesus and what he did or did not do left me stunned.

Readers of this book might be looking for Spong’s slash-and-burn approach to biblical assumptions and understandings and be ready to get behind him. I, however, was very nearly hiding under a doona, wondering when I was going to be found out. Spoiler alert: If you aren’t ready to read the words “Jesus, therefore, did not die for your sins”, I’d find another book.

I suspect the problems the book poses for me are similar to those of other critics; that of too broadly-brushed assumptions about the nature of the varied intentions of the many authors of John’s gospel. For instance, when Spong is explaining the crucifixion of Jesus as a nod to the idea of a Passover lamb, he points out that, similar to the Jewish tradition of the scapegoat, Barabas is let go into the wilderness, bearing the idea of our sins.

Though I found his ideas mostly breathtaking, this seemed to me to be a bit of a leap. That and a part that seemed to be saying that xenophobia is not exactly allowable, but an understandable natural human instinct, left me a touch uncomfortable. He does have a habit of leading you along with crumbs of solid contextual evidence to a sudden swamp of “this is what that means, just go with it”.

I may not be well-read enough to know if Spong is right on the money or barking mad and I don’t have five years to catch up. But oddly enough, after emerging from the doona, it left me exhilarated. I’m ready for ideas that have lain stagnant in my mind to be challenged, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring ideas of the Jewish-ness of the gospel and its obvious nods to the dangers of literalism.

Whatever he does to your preconceived notions, Spong clearly does this for the love of all of it. His view of God is one of adoration, layered with careful and – despite my criticisms – well-structured critiques of the narrative that so many of us have misunderstood. This book echoes with the sound of being the real deal and an enviable desperation to get closer to the heart of the faith we both profess.

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