the gospel of John may be the world’s most loved and feared book. How could that be? First, there’s no question that the Bible is the world’s all-time best seller and Gallup polling of American readers shows John neck and neck with Matthew as the New Testament’s two favorite books. John is proclaimed in signs at football games and splashed across billboards on rural roads. However, John also is packed with confusing and dangerous references to “the Jews” and has been singled out, within the Bible, to fuel deadly violence over many centuries.
And the other John in today’s story? Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong certainly is one of the world’s most loved and feared religious leaders. He’s better known to readers around the world as the best-selling, controversial Episcopal “Bishop Spong”—or simply as “Jack” to his thousands of fans. Why is he feared? Jack also is quite comfortable as a firebrand foe of Fundamentalism, the still widespread belief that the Bible’s text is literally true. Fundamentalist critics fear that he is undermining Christianity itself. Now, in his 24th book, Jack Spong tackles his namesake book in the Bible—hoping to guide his readers in thousands of congregations to a greater appreciation of this sacred text while avoiding its lethal dangers.
If you’re looking for a great summer discussion series in your congregation, order a copy of The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic today from Amazon. As in many of his past books, the text here is welcoming as the retired bishop draws on his lifetime of Bible scholarship to teach about this beloved Gospel. This is a personal and passionate book.
Excerpt of John Shelby Spong’s The Fourth Gospel
How is this book “welcoming” in its teaching? Consider this brief excerpt:
I have wrestled with the Christian faith for all of my now 82 years, and I find myself at this moment, to the surprise of my traditionalist critics, I’m sure, more deeply committed to my Christ and to my faith than ever before. My commitment is, however, to a new understanding of both the Christ and Christianity. I am increasingly drawn to a Christianity that has no separating barriers and that does not bind me into the creeds of antiquity. It is a Christianity that cannot be contained by or expressed through traditional liturgical forms. I have no desire to find certainty or to embrace religious security. I choose rather to live in the unbounded joy of embracing the radical insecurity that is the nature of human life and by doing so to discover that I am in fact walking the Christ path.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm has known now-retired Bishop John Shelby Spong since the late 1980s, while reporting on Spong’s activist role in the worldwide Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference for American newspapers. They have spoken many times over the past three decades. Here are highlights of David Crumm’s latest interview with Jack Spong:
INTERVIEW WITH RETIRED BISHOP SPONG
ON RETHINKING JOHN, ‘THE FOURTH GOSPEL’
DAVID: The vast majority of Americans own a Bible and tell pollsters that they regularly read it but when Gallup asks them a few basic questions about the Bible, the majority of Americans can’t even name the four Gospels. Let’s start with why John is such a widely loved Gospel.
JACK: First, I agree with what you’re saying: The majority of the American population cannot identify a book of the Bible if a passage is read aloud. Most people can’t distinguish between the four gospels.
So why do we know John? Most people know the Gospel of John because we encounter it many times throughout our lives. John is among the favorite passages read at funerals: “Let not your hearts be troubled …” has comforted so many people. That’s John 14:1. People who do crossword puzzles know it, because John 11 contains the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” John is the only gospel that gives us all of the “I am …” passages like “I am the vine …” in John 15. Ask people to recite a verse of the Bible they know by heart and many of them will give you “For God so loved the world …,” which is John 3:16. And, of course, we see people waving those John 3:16 signs at sports events. The Gospel of John has permeated our culture from top to bottom.
DAVID: No question, it is one of the most beloved books in the world. But it’s also a dangerous book. It has been quoted in witch hunts, in heresy trials, in anti-semitic rampages. This is likely to surprise many of our readers, so let’s explain why this book has such seemingly angry language slamming the actions of “the Jews,” which becomes a shorthand reference for Jesus’s enemies. If we properly understand the first century, though, we know that Jesus and his followers all were Jewish. Your book puts the whole Gospel of John in much deeper context. Give us a brief explanation of all the seemingly anti-Jewish language in John.
JACK: Yes, John is overtly quoted in anti-Semitic literature because of these references to “the Jews.” But we have to remember that this was written as the Jewish people were suffering through an era of war with Rome. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. There was conflict between Jewish groups about who controlled the synagogue—about their future. Eventually, the followers of Jesus, who were primarily Jewish, were excommunicated from the synagogue. So this revisionist party who followed Jesus referred to the Jews still within the synagogue as “the Jews.” It is confusing to readers today, but what actually was happening was: Jews were arguing with Jews in a very turbulent era.
What we are reading about, in those references, was an internal Jewish debate. If you go back and recover the history of the early church in this era, you’re seeing Christians emerge from within Judaism and trying to separate themselves from other Jews. Today, people might experience this kind of conflict in a church where there may be a liberal group and a Fundamentalist group vying for the future of the church.
Through the centuries, John also was widely quoted as the standard for what came to be known as orthodox Christianity. The Christian creeds were based largely on John and, along with the creeds, came things like the heresy hunts and the inquisition. It was as though this one gospel gave the world the final rules for our faith.
DAVID: We should say that the tragic history of anti-Semitism draws on a whole lot of sources, including other passages in the Bible. It isn’t just the Gospel of John that’s problematic.
JACK: That’s right. There are other passages manipulated by these people. Matthew 27 has the line, “His blood shall be on us …” that shows up in anti-Semitic literature. I believe that we all need to be clear in saying that the deepest stain on Christianity is our history of anti-Semitism. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was directly shaped by the horrors of the Holocaust. The Christian church largely stood by and ignored the horrors of the Holocaust as it was happening. Yes, today, we still hear about the heroes like Dietrich Bonhoffer. But the fact that we remember this handful of heroes really shows how exceptional it was for Christian leaders to take action.
BISHOP SPONG ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN:
DON’T TAKE THE TEXT TOO LITERALLY
DAVID: We’ve talked so far about why the Gospel of John matters so much. We’ve talked about why it’s unique and why it’s potentially confusing. In your book, you take readers through a complete rethinking of what John means. At least, I think, most American readers will find your interpretation of John fresh and inspiring. One of the first points you make, as you start your interpretation of John, is that this gospel should not be read literally.
This gospel is spiritual; this gospel tells stories that illustrate major themes about Jesus’ teachings and the birth of this new Christian movement. This gospel is a sacred masterpiece, but it wasn’t written for every detail and every story to be read as literally true. That’s what you argue and I should say, for the benefit of our readers, that this is the same general point that a lot of other Bible scholars have made about John. It wasn’t meant to be literal, 2,000 years ago.
JACK: People will never understand the true message of John’s gospel until we stop regarding it as literal history. In fact, John keeps telling readers not to be too literal.
Early in John, we read about Jesus himself making fun of people who take things too literally. We read the story of Nicodemus. Jesus is saying that people must be born again, but Nicodemus is a literalist. He asks Jesus: “How can I climb back up into the womb again?” Jesus makes fun of him. Jesus says: You’re supposed to be a teacher, yet you don’t understand what I’m saying? I’m talking about a new birth.
DAVID: In your book, you point out that literalism continues to be a problem for millions of Bible readers. Most of us take too many things in the Bible literally.
JACK: That’s right. Today, I don’t know how many people still believe that the earth is square because the Bible refers to “the four corners of the earth,” but I do find that people widely believe in things that just aren’t in the Bible. And people believe the Bible says things, based on a literal reading, that just isn’t what the Bible is trying to say.
BISHOP SPONG ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN:
OPENING UP INSPIRING INSIGHTS
DAVID: Let’s talk about a couple of examples from your book where you open up inspiring new interpretations of the stories in John. One example is the way John begins the gospel. John starts with the famous “In the beginning was the Word …” and then immediately Jesus is choosing disciples. There is no Nativity story here. No “Christmas” story. Then, right away, in John 2, we see Jesus as an adult at a wedding in Cana where his mother pretty much orders him to make wine out of water. Jesus says he’s not ready for this. She insists. You say, in the book, that this story represents a lot more than a miracle of changing beverages.
JACK: This story is important for a lot of reasons that I explain in the book. This wedding is where the mother of Jesus is first introduced in John. There is no birth narrative in this gospel. His mother acts as the one who gets Jesus into the action—and then she doesn’t appear in John again until the foot of the cross at the end. I think Mary is meant to be a symbol of Judaism in this gospel. The story John is trying to tell is that the limits of Judaism are being expanded by Jesus. This gospel was the first time that the wedding story appears. It isn’t in the other gospels. And we shouldn’t think of this as a literal story. In fact, John has Jesus turn the water into a measurement that is 150 gallons of wine! It’s a huge—ridiculously huge—amount of wine.
John is telling us that we shouldn’t read this wedding story as a literal account. Then, at the end of John, Mary appears again at the foot of the cross and Jesus commends her to the beloved disciple. You can read more about this in my book, but I’m basically arguing that Mary stands for Judaism in the gospel and Jesus is saying to the beloved disciple—the ideal believer—to bring the mother, Mary or Judaism, with him. The ideal Christian becomes the caretaker of Judaism in this reading of the gospel. If you begin to read past the literalism of the story, this becomes so much more powerful.
BISHOP SPONG ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN:
THE IMAGERY OF VINES AND GOD’S PRESENCE
DAVID: We are talking, here, about entire sections of your book that take many pages to explain to readers. So, I’m sure readers of this interview are likely to have many more questions about Mary within the Gospel of John. We can say: Read the book. Then, let’s touch briefly on one more example: the grape vine and vineyard imagery in John.
JACK: This vine image is a very Jewish image. You’ll find a lot of places in the Hebrew scriptures and the Prophets in which Israel is referred to as God’s vineyard. And, as he makes so many references to this imagery, Jesus is trying to talk about where we experience God. He’s saying God is not—out there. Of course, most modern people realize that God is not a deity sitting on a throne up above the dome of the sky. We haven’t believed that since the modern scientists have begun charting the cosmos for us. We now know that there isn’t a dome over us. The universe is vast. Light travels for millions of years across the universe. So the notion of God sitting up on a throne above the dome of the sky—an ancient image of a deity—doesn’t make much sense to people.
But if you see God as a permeating presence—and I think John does that over and over again—then this vine imagery takes on new meaning. Jesus is saying that, if we stay attached to the God presence, then we become bearers of God. We are the branches of the vine. God permeates all that there is. I can say that God was in Christ but I can also say that God is in you, David, and God is in me. What Jesus is calling us to do is to break the old boundaries of humanity. Jesus is calling us to break out of the barriers that separated Jew from gentile, men from women, wealthy from poor. We have to break out of the boundaries that separate Protestant from Catholic, gay from straight, all the boundaries in which we seek to wall off people to this day. This is a different Christian message than the old Christian banner that marched around the world for so many centuries—all about conquering and dominating the whole world in the name of a deity on a throne above the sky.
In writing a Christology today, I would say that, as we experience God in the life of Jesus, we realize that every barrier falls in front of him. As Christ lives more deeply into humanity, he becomes the humanity through which we see the ultimate meaning of God. Jesus is not to God what Clark Kent is to Superman. Jesus is not God in disguise. Jesus is a human who transcends the limits of humanity so God can dwell in him and he in God. That’s a very powerful mystical experience.
BISHOP SPONG ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN:
LEGACY OF THE BISHOPS AND ‘HONEST TO GOD’
DAVID: Finally, I want to put on record in our interview, here, the big tribute you pay to Anglican Bishop of Woolrich John A. T. Robinson. I invite readers who recall Robinson and his landmark manifesto, Honest to God, to click on the blue-“f” Facebook links at the top and bottom of this interview today—or to use the email links at top and bottom—to share this with friends. Jack, in your new book, you make a connection with Robinson that I think readers will find moving. (And I also will tell readers that, if they are interested in rediscovering the huge turbulence of theological debate Robinson touched off, the SCM Press book The Honest to God Debate is still available in used editions on Amazon.)
Journalists who know the history of freedom of speech consider Robinson a hero for his public defense of publishing freedom. He famously risked defending D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in court, for example. Most importantly, he courageously began breaking down barriers in Christian theology right after World War II. He was a mentor to you. And, by coincidence, his last book was—about the Gospel of John.
JACK: Yes, I knew John; I spent time with him and I was close to his widow after he died in 1983 as a relatively young man, just 64, of cancer. I’ve had the privilege of sitting at his desk while writing a little of my book—just so I could say that I had the experience. He was a gigantic figure and I thank you for asking about him. More people need to remember him and spread the word about what he was trying to tell us. I can remember reading his book as if was yesterday. I was rather snobbish when the book came out. I actually refused to read it at first. Then, when I read it—I couldn’t stop. I read it three times! My theology was never the same. I had to wrestle with how I could take the literalism I had picked up in Sunday school and put it into these new categories.
Yes, John Robinson was my mentor. We corresponded regularly. I had him scheduled to lead a clergy conference in my diocese when he died. At the Lambeth Conference in 1978, which was the first one I attended, John Robinson was there as a theological consultant. He was teaching at Cambridge, at the time. So, he and I would talk when things got boring at Lambeth. We would take walks in the woods in the English countryside, stop somewhere to have a pint and talk about the New Testament. That was a transformative experience in my life.
When he died, I felt absolutely alone. If you look in the opening pages of my book A New Christianity for a New World, I write about how much John meant to me. John and I are a generation apart but I tell readers in the opening of that book: I am trying “to reissue Robinson’s call for a radical reformation and to face the fact that the pre-modern biblical and creedal concepts communicate even less well today than they did when Robinson lived.”
There are not that many differences between us, as I think about it. Like John, I have lived my life inside the organized church. I’ve been a priest and a bishop and I have done all of my work within the context of the institution. I’m not a scholar lecturing to academics. I’m talking to people in the pews. In church after church, I put adult classes into the Sunday morning schedule and I teach the Bible the same way to people in the pews that I would teach at Harvard or all of the other universities where I have taught over the years.
Make no mistake: There is a vast audience out there of people who are modern, educated people and they can’t twist their minds into 1st Century pretzels, so they largely stay away from organized religion. They don’t engage with our churches. They simply don’t have time for Fundamentalist preachers anymore. But there is this enormous interest in our Christian story if we dare to talk about it in new ways, if we dare to break down barriers.
My hope is to bring the Christian church institutionally into the 21st Century and I really believe that this can be accomplished. People are eager—if we dare to be honest. That’s what John Robinson taught before me; that’s what I continue to teach today.
WANT MORE ON RETIRED BISHOP JOHN SHELBY SPONG?
MORE FROM SPONG HIMSELF: As a journalist, Read the Spirit Editor David Crumm has covered Spong’s career for decades. An earlier interview with Jack Spong focused on his book Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.
MORE ON BARRIER BREAKING AND PEACEMAKING: Read the Spirit Books publishes a series of inspiring books about forming friendships across religious and cultural barriers—and about peacemaking in today’s often-violent world.
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