The Common Lectionary invites us to spend the next year in reading, and preaching on, John's gospel. This can be a problem for many on the more radical end of the Christian spectrum. This version of the life and death of Jesus is clearly very different from the other three. You only have to look at it to see that. Instead of pithy sayings and parables about daily life, Jesus gives lengthy speeches,(written in Greek which he did not speak), containing very complex ideas and images. Much of the content is about himself, none of which appears elsewhere.
If Jesus said all this, how come the other writers knew nothing about it? How can his exact words possibly have been remembered in such detail? It is the latest of the gospels, written perhaps 70 or more years after Jesus' death. It feels like an 'extra', not part of the core material about who he really was and what he taught. The only logical way to address all these questions is to treat John as an entirely different kind of writing, not as any kind of reliable guide to what 'actually' happened. Even the other gospels were seen as versions 'according to' the writers, and they don't always agree. That is essential when it comes to John.
Spong has written what I find an immensely helpful way to approach it. Forget 'facts'. Forget 'literalism'. Forget whether or not these events really happened. Embrace the craft of the writer in weaving together a tapestry of symbolism, 'signs' and hidden meanings which tell us what this community now believed. Nothing is there by chance. It all makes sense once you understand why it is there. The people in the story are not real people but representatives of something else. The events are not real events but they provide a deeper understanding of the context, which Spong sees as not dominated by the Greek world but deeply engrained in a Jewish one. (The Prologue, which is Greek in context, may have been added later along with the final chapter. Jesus is never again referred to as the 'Word').
The book works through the gospel in sequence in a series of mostly short reflections so is best used alongside the text. It would make a fascinating structure for a daily discipline, a study course, or a series of sermons. I honestly believe that you would never look at John in the same way again and that your understanding of this amazing piece of literature will have been deeply enhanced by giving his approach a try. Mine certainly was.
John Shelby Spong, 'The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic', HarperOne, (2013)
Just before the first lockdown, over dinner with some friends who are Christians, we got to talking about the gospels. Almost in passing I mentioned that they were of course written after Paul's letters, not before. They are stories about Jesus looking back, reflecting the believers' contexts 50 or more years later, not just verbatim reports written down at the time. My friend put down his knife and fork and said, 'In over 60 years of going to Church and having an active faith, no-one has ever told me that before. Why not?'
He was genuinely interested to find out more and not at all threatened. The answer to his question seems to be that in many churches it is considered too risky to encourage people to think about faith and where it comes from. You won't get that kind of information on an Alpha course! It's 'what the Bible says' and that's the end of it, with no attention at all given to what the Bible actually is and how it came about.
Richard Holloway has spent years on a journey to dissect and explain. Of course it risks losing a simple trust in what we have always thought was true. Of course it can be considered controversial. But there will be nothing of Christianity left in our culture in future except the literal fundamentalist fringe unless we change our perspective on what we mean by 'truth'.
This book is a staggeringly good read. He has the happy knack of saying what I am already thinking, but so much better, clearer and with so much more kindness and depth. As always he draws on a range of sources to help us to see that 'religious' insights do not come from some 'Other' who tells us what to think and believe, but from us. They are our insights, but we have to be prepared to change them, not regard them as set in stone, scriptures or creeds.
There is no 'given' meaning to it all. Throughout human history we have told ourselves stories to try and create some sense of our lives. Science, philosophy, mysticism, drama, poetry, literature and film can all inform our thinking. Christianity cannot exist in a vacuum as if its claims trump all others because we have had nothing to do with creating them. So what is the story of Jesus all about today? Mere repetition of the way it was told 1700 years ago, (which is when most of its doctrines date from)? Or a new story for our time, with new truths to help us live well now? And in what sense do our own contemporary stories contain 'truths' (plural) that can guide us in his Way?
If you don't want to stay where you are, or where you have always been, I cannot commend this book too highly. I look forward to resuming my conversation with my friend in future!
Richard Holloway, 'Stories We Tell Ourselves', Canongate Books, (2020)
I have now retired from my school attendance training role.
This website now reflects only my other interest: Can Christianity and its central figure mean anything to those who are not convinced that conventional ideas of 'God' and religion take us where we need to go as modern, thoughtful human beings?
On this page you'll find details of how to purchase my book 'The Apostate's Creed'. PLUS a link to a page that explains why I am not 'a Christian' and another which sums up my approach to the Way of Jesus. Is there another way to engage with the Jesus story that doesn't have to take it all literally? Can it still make sense in a different way today? Book reviews suggests some reading ideas which I've found helpful.
In Study Resources you'll find a PowerPoint (with audio) on 'Who wrote the Bible'? PLUS discussion notes on the classic book from the 1960s, ''Honest to God' which still raises so many key questions that have never been answered. And my own reflections on the Psalms from 2011: 'Walking without God'. These are all free.
Friendly Feedback is always very welcome. Please let me know if you have found my ideas interesting and helpful.
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