Bishop Jack Spong died on 12th September 2021 aged 90. He was an inspiration to those of us on the radical end of the Christian spectrum. This book is masterpiece. John's 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. (As Ward writes in the book below, it is best to read John as 'Jesus is the Bread of Life' etc., 'not 'I am' etc., in order to catch the sense that these are not Jesus' own words but a later belief about him). Even the other gospels were seen as versions 'according to' the writers, and they don't always agree with each other about what 'actually' happened. 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'. Use your imagination. 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 more 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)
Other than Spong, I don't usually much like books that are too American in style, but this one is another glorious exception. If you want a book that will change almost everything you thought was true about what it means to be 'a Christian', this is it. Radical, open minded, very readable and, at the end both prophetic and hopeful. I think I too am beginning to see that the only hope for the Church is to focus on community, not creed. This is perhaps why I cannot entirely let it go. It's the people, stupid! To see the relationships with each other as central, not to seek a common 'faith'. Or that's what needs to happen if we are to get remotely close to being a follower of Jesus. I tried to say this, very inexpertly, in Chapter 6 of my own book.
Churches, on the other hand, since at least the C4th, have usually wanted us to focus on obedience and conformity; right believing not right being. When Meyer talks about 'God' as filling the spaces between us, and between us and our planet, I see how my own thinking can be developed. Not to believe in a 'God'; he is with Tillich on that one. But recognising the radical alternative way of living together that picks up on Martin Buber's writings about 'I-Thou' rather than 'I-It'. Religion as a welcoming relationship with each other, not about 'salvation' as an exclusive 'thing' to be desired.
I was in a church like this yesterday, thinking about this book. A poor inner-city area, a building in need of repair, white people in the minority, parts of the service in Kurdish or Farsi because there are so many refugees and asylum-seekers. I think Meyer would recognise it. The table is open to anyone including children and those of any sexuality; the language is generally inclusive. I can enjoy the friendly company, light a candle, listen to a song, Bible reading or sermon, sometimes in a language I don't understand and share in the Peace and the Eucharist to remember Jesus. Of course there is talk of 'God' but none about what must be believed to belong, beyond a commitment to our common humanity, justice and compassion. Then, for the first time in a long while, an open-air Iranian barbecue, in many ways just as important as the service!
'In the emerging church, faith will not be a transaction (benefits for beliefs) but a beloved community in which the rewards of I-Thou relationships are intrinsic. Love will be its own reward, and the church will stand by its most sacred duty - to slay the self in service to Something More'. If that rings true, I suggest you will find the rest of the book irresistable.
Robin R Meyers, 'Saving Jesus from the church: How to stop worshipping Christ and start following Jesus', Harper One, 2010
Just for a change, a book that I didn't find at all helpful or convincing. As a philosopher, not a believer, Baggini has attempted to extract the sayings of Jesus from the gospels, including even John. But then removing any reference to a God or anything supernatural, and turning them into a handbook of advice for living. It's Jesus as a moral teacher, (in the Authorised Version!), except of course that it isn't. Either he is ill-informed having strayed way out of his normal area of expertise, or he hasn't bothered to make himself aware of NT scholarship over the last 200 years.
These are not 'the words of Jesus' but the words of the gospel authors about Jesus generations later. Whatever sources may lie behind the gospels, and we don't have any examples of them, it is clear that the writers ordered, changed and even created their material with a specific purpose, looking back in the light of what they now believed. They are not newspaper reports, tape recordings or even biographies. He even tries to make a point here and there about a particular Greek word - which Jesus did not speak.
This is not the first attempt to uncover what Jesus 'really' said, which is largely impossible. Even those of us who reject traditional Theism and look to Jesus as some kind of human exemplar, know we have to be much more sophisticated than this. Any book by Alain de Botton would be much more useful. I suspect that if this book was by anyone else it would never have gained a publisher. Stick to the day job Julian!
Julian Baggini, 'The Godless Gospel', Granta, 2020
There is much in this little book to admire for those who are looking for an alternative to traditional Christian believing. Like me, the author deplores the failure of the Church to engage in serious debate about the content of Christianity, not just its presentation. What's the point of 'Fresh Expressions' if it's just about restating the same things? I recognise many of the guides who have directed my own (and my father's) journey: Harry Williams, John Robinson, Denis Nineham etc.
Robert Reiss, formerly a Canon at Westminster Abbey, (never perhaps orthodox enough to have been made a bishop?), retains a sense of the Divine, if not in the way it is usually understood. We can agree that what he sees as underpinning everything, I see as an element of our shared humanity - a quality of 'Godness' rather than 'a Being'. He is helpfully clear about the Bible and what it is (and is not); he recognises the difficulty in identifying the 'real' Jesus behind all the later layers of interpretation and he addresses head on the way our understandings need to change in the light of science, psychology etc.
Reiss is surely right to point out that this more reflective and questioning approach is not heard often enough from the pulpit or in open discussion for fear of upsetting the faithful. I don't agree with everything of course; and I would love to be a fly on the wall during his conversations with his atheist wife! Most of the time he presents a range of views from which the reader can choose, while making clear his own 'liberal' preference. I absolutely agree that if Christianity is to be anything more than a marginal sect in future, it must speak in ways that make sense to modern minds. Whether this leads to non-Theism or to a new understanding of 'God' doesn't really matter. As long as it leads somewhere other than what looks like becoming virtual disappearance or complete irrelevance.
I would recommend this very readable book to anyone who is prepared to open themselves up to modern thinking. It might help some to re-engage with the Christian story who have given it all up as a lost cause. If it makes you lose your current faith, then great: you're on the way to finding a better one!
Robert Reiss, 'Sceptical Christianity: Exploring Credible Belief', Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2016
Adrian Alker, currently Chair of the Progressive Christianity Network, has written an excellent book which I'm rather glad I hadn't read before I wrote mine or I could have been accused of plagiarism! In a much more elegant and comprehensive way, he surveys the potential landscape for a radical Church and comes to a gloriously hopeful conclusion.
He knows what he's talking about. In over 35 years of Anglican priesthood he has put it all into practice and repeatedly evidenced that a Jesus-shaped Church is both possible and essential. He's clearly read many of the same books as me and gives an extremely helpful and readable overview of the literature, with many suggestions of further follow-up reading, to demonstrate how a modern faith and compassionate action can be sustained today. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to see a Church that is not dominated by doctrines and tradition but open to the newness of a journey full of discoveries about ourselves and our world, with the person of Jesus at its heart.
Interestingly, he only gets to 'God'-talk in the final chapter. Because the classic Creeds start there, I started there, which may be a mistake. What matters of course is deeds, not Creeds. If 'Christians', of all persuasions, can recognise that it's all about outcomes, not process; about what we do with our statements of 'faith', not the content of the statements themselves, we might be able to worry less about what you 'have' to believe to belong and reverse the otherwise inevitable decline into irrelevance. Maybe focus more on the seeds of 'Kingdom' growing quietly among and within us? That would indeed be grounds for hope.
Adrian Alker, 'Is a Radical Church Possible? Reshaping its life for Jesus' sake'. Christian Alternative Books, 2016.
This is a challenging book for those who don't want to go as far as Spong or Holloway but who are willing to embrace a more questioning approach to Christianity. I hadn't realised that I had stolen my own subtitle from him, for which I can only apologise and recognise his much greater right to it. The book may only be available second-hand, but I had no trouble getting it through Amazon recently.
Ward, a Professor of Divinity, recognises that there are many 'Christianities' and, crucially, that there always have been. Combining thoughtful scholarship and academic rigour, he basically charts the history of the Jesus story, recognising that it has constantly changed over the centuries. From its Jewish Messianic roots to a modern world of plurality and multi-culturalism, he shows how the message has been adapted to suit ever-changing contexts in the light of new knowledge at the time. There is no one 'original' and therefore most authentic or 'true' version still on offer. Being a Christian is ' an invitation to enter into a community of diverse and continuing interpretations'. I couldn't have put it better myself! I'd like to think it is true but I'm not sure it is.
It's not always an easy read, especially in the second half where he particularly addresses the German 'liberal' tradition and a series of complex theologians and philosophers. My advice is to take it slowly. It's not called 'Rethinking' for nothing! Maybe even just read the final chapter which summarises the whole book! Ward is basically 'mainstream' in the sense that he, unlike me, still believes in a Divine purposeful reality as a 'fact', if one that needs to be constantly re-expressed and redefined. But if you have started to wonder whether what you have always assumed, or been told, is actually true, and are prepared to recognise that 'faith' is not an unchanging inheritance from the past but a constant journey of discovery into the future, this may be a helpful look at more 'liberal' ways of thinking, especially about the Bible and how we got to here.
Keith Ward, 'Rethinking Christianity', OneWorld, 2007. See also his website: https://www.keithward.org.uk for more recent publications.
Richard Holloway has spent years on a journey to dissect and explain religion. He retains his identity as a Christian, but only just! Of course asking questions 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 stimulating read, focusing primarily on the Jewish stories of creation, fall and the later Christian interpretation of them, but not tied to them alone. Finding a meaning to suffering is a recurring theme, though I did feel it got a bit lost in the middle sections about modern mysticism. But generally 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, traditions 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, drama, art, poetry, literature and film can all inform our thinking, not just faith systems. 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? This is the key question raised for me by the end. Mere repetition of the way it was defined hundreds of years ago? Or, as has actually always been true, a new story for our time, with new content to help us live well now? In what sense do our own original contemporary 'stories' contain 'truths' (plural) that can still guide us in his Way?
If you don't want to stay where you are, or where you have always been, I commend this book as well worth exploring.
Richard Holloway, 'Stories We Tell Ourselves', Canongate Books, (2020)
Is there another way to relate to the Jesus story that doesn't require you to sign up to the religion that others created in his name?
On this page you'll find details of how to obtain my book 'The Apostate's Creed'. PLUS a series of short essays, 'Updating the Map' on the different kinds of themes in the Bible and how we might engage with it today as historical human literature, not some kind of Divine instruction manual.
In Study Resources you'll find a PowerPoint (with audio) on 'Who Wrote the Bible'? This is so important and so often ignored. And some 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 first book: humanist reflections on the Psalms from 2011: 'Walking without God'. These are all FREE.
Book Reviews suggests some reading which I've found helpful.
Friendly Feedback is always very welcome. Please let me know if you have found my ideas interesting.
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