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Monday, July 29, 2013

RevGalBookPals: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of Jewish Mystic

Confession: I do not hurry out and read books that have (I assume) premises with which I do not agree. I don’t read books that argue against the ordination of women, for example, or posit theories on specific literal signs of the apocalypse. I don’t have the time nor the blood pressure medication. (I do read books about other religions/belief systems to gain insight and knowledge.)

However, I do occasionally read books that I know will push me in my own faith journey and experience with God. This was DEFINITELY my experience with John Shelby Spong’s new book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.* I purchased the book to read as part of my preparation for next year’s Narrative Lectionary, the gospel section of which will focus on John. My experience with Spong has been that he usually writes a little more than I can swallow, but my tastes are still
expanded (so to speak).

The Fourth Gospel, however, was beyond the challenge I expected. I was prepared to run a mental marathon, but once on Spong’s track… I discovered this work to be an Ironman event. I’m still panting- days later.

I hesitated to do another year of the Narrative Lectionary because I have very mixed feelings about the gospel according to John. Spong neatly sums up some of his prior objections to this gospel account and I agreed with this assessment:

Throughout most of my professional career I was not drawn to the Fourth Gospel; indeed I found it almost repellent. This gospel present, I believed, a Jesus whose humanity was no longer intact. John’s Jesus claimed pre-existence- that is, he said he came to this earth from another life in another place. He was portrayed as possessing clairvoyance- that is, he knew about people’s lives and their pasts before he met them. He was ever said to know what they were thinking while he was talking to them. The Jesus of John’s gospel also seemed to endure crucifixion without suffering… Because this book was thought to have spelled out “orthodox Christianity”, John’s gospel also helped to fuel such dreadful events in Christian history as heresy hunts and the Inquisition.” (19)

Exactly. I have always struggled with how “magic” Jesus seemed in John. Spong argues that this representation has stemmed from a chronic and willful misinterpretation of the origin of this gospel, its reason for being, and its mystical nature. Mysticism isn’t magic- it’s about a greater and broader understanding that cannot be attained through any literal application or interpretation.

Spong writes that the Fourth Gospel has been understood as an anti-Semitic polemic precisely because centuries of readers have not been trained to recognize the symbolism of the book and its specific Jewish character and characters. He makes this argument persuasively, but not always convincingly (to me).
Keep in mind that the followers of Jesus in the Johannine community were themselves overwhelmingly Jews. This talk of “the Jews” in the text of the Fourth Gospel did not mean ethnic Jews for that would have included the community itself. It meant rather those Jews who were the synagogue leaders and thus the people who had excommunicated the followers of Jesus. This split shaped the Johannine community dramatically and not surprisingly it also shaped the gospel narrative that this community produced as that text journey toward its final form. (33)

            Spong’s exposition of the Fourth Gospel as a mysticism is rooted in his revelation that John is not writing a historical account, but a theological framework for how the Johannine community can go forward. Many contemporary Christians have moved to a place of understanding the gospels as non-historical accounts, but I am not certain how many are prepared to accept that they are non-literal accounts. In particular, I do not know how it would be received in my current context if I put forth that everything in the Fourth Gospel is symbolic and did not literally happen at any point in the life of Jesus.  These latter two points are Spong’s.

One cannot be mystical in one’s approach to God and still be literal about the symbols one uses for God. Indeed the very idea of the mystical means that words cannot capture it. Mysticism expands words beyond their normal limits and calls the mystic into the ultimate experience of wordlessness. The best that words can do is point beyond themselves to a new reality… Literalism suggests that words, which are only pointers, can in fact be made concrete, thus establishing assumptions that can never be demonstrated. Literalism commits us to the presumption that any religious form can not only capture truth, but can explain it fully… Literalism is thus always the enemy of faith, which is ultimately the opposite of certainty. (72)

I appreciate the wisdom in this passage. I want to believe that I embrace its truth. Then, I consider what Spong will go on to say- that the resurrection of Lazarus is symbolic, the person of Judas is symbolic, the healings are symbolic, and even the resurrection account of Jesus’ own self is not literal. Suddenly I am wondering, with Pilate, “What is truth?”

 This gospel is not about God becoming human, about God putting on flesh and masquerading as a human being; it is about the divine appearing in the human and calling the human to a new understanding of what divinity means. It is about bring God out of the sky and redefining God as the ultimate dimension of the human. It is about the spirit transcending the limits of the flesh, not in some pious or religious sense, but in opening the flesh to all that it means to be human. It about seeing Jesus as the doorway into a new consciousness, which is also a doorway into God, who might be perceived as a universal consciousness. (77)

I have not even covered half of the book yet. Spong’s development of the characters and stories of John as symbols is fascinating, but I remained somewhat skeptical. The question would be then, in Spong-ian analysis, am I skeptical because I am unwilling to embrace the ultimate light? Am I willing to accept the vulnerability of trust in a non-literal account of Jesus and allow the Spirit to move me from self-consciousness into God-consciousness, into connection with the God of all being? Do I have the courage to be one with God in the way that Jesus was and in the way that Jesus promised to his followers?

I don’t know, but I do know that this book gave me a lot to think about. This might not be for your adult study group (or it might be), but I recommend it if your Johannine diet or exercise regime needs variety or expanding.

I purchased this book through iBooks and all citations are from that version.

* Full disclosure: I believe John Shelby Spong is related to RGBP Director Martha Spong, but I am not sure how and Martha does not choose or influence what I review in this space. She had no prior knowledge of this selection nor has she influenced the review in any way. 


  1. I remember one of my friends remarking that Jack Spong doesn't 'show his work,' And sometimes Jack's sheer genius is because he does approach the whole of Christianity as a mystical faith. I wouldn't worry if you can't take all of his book in. But the point of all of Jack's books is to open us to something that we have never touched upon before. I am going to pick this one up fairly soon because I need something new to approach John with. Thanks for this review, Julia.

  2. Wow. JSS always stretches me, and this one sounds like a doozy. I have some other things of his I need to read first. It definitely goes on my list! Thank you!!!

  3. Bishop Spong is indeed my Cousin Jack. Kathrynzj and I got to hear him speak about the book last week when he gave a series of lectures near here. I haven't read it yet, so I can't comment about the writing, but hearing him lecture particularly on the lamb imagery in John's gospel was fascinating. I always find he pushes my thinking, and I go a long way with him, although I am a believer in the Resurrection in a different way than he expresses his impressions of it. From my point of view, he has a deep faith, but a very, very low Christology. Maybe that's why UCC folks like him so much; many of us have that, too. (But not me so much anymore. Presbyterian influences, I guess.)


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