“Think Different–Accept Uncertainty” Part XVI: The Story of the Crucifixion, Part One
6 September 2012: 1 Comment »
Somewhere between a third and forty percent of each of the four gospels in the New Testament is concerned with the last week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Clearly that was the focus of the gospel narratives – that was the emphasis of their message. Mark’s gospel has even been described as “the …
Question & Answer
First off, I want to thank you. I have read The Sins of Scripture and Jesus for the Non-Religious and truly enjoyed both works. Your progressive view of God and theology has certainly been inspiring to me. I admire your strength of character and integrity for standing at odds with your religious upbringing. You are a hero of sorts to me and I can't thank you enough. I know all too well what it is like to grow up and currently live in the buckle of the Bible belt. While my sociological and political views today are much more progressive, I grew up in Louisiana in a fundamentalist Bible church. My father was on the board of elders. After several years of doubting what he believed and following his divorce from my mom, he embraced atheism. For years I struggled with his conversion and felt so lost in my own spirituality. The old worn-out tenets of Deep South Christianity gnawed away at me. I felt like I would lose him to eternal hell. After a few years, my own search for what I believe and why led me to viewing YouTube clips of you and subsequently some of your books and essays. At this point in my life, I’m still charting my course on my view of a God and things of spiritual nature. I lean towards atheism, but could be considered agnostic or deist or even pantheist at best; I really don’t know how to characterize what school of thought I espouse. However, theism for me is dead or rather non-existent. It still feels really great to know that I don’t have to believe the Bible in a strict, literal sense anymore. I still struggle with guilt from time to time, especially the fear of death at times because of my apostasy. I would like clarification of the gospel writers. I know that Mark was the first gospel written around 70-72 CE shortly after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. I recently had a fundamentalist Christian state that her reasons for believing the literal account of the life of Jesus was because the gospel writers were “disciples” of Jesus. It would seem to me that obviously these were not first hand accounts of Jesus because the first gospel was written some 40 years after his death. And Paul gives us sparse details on the actual life of Jesus. Paul would seem to be a better fit for someone that actually “saw” Jesus. Do you believe that any of the gospel writers walked, talked with Jesus? Through reading Jesus for the Non-Religious, I realize that Matthew borrowed heavily from Mark and so on. Much of what was written in the gospels were filtered through the lens of Jewish heritage and the Old Testament. I just want to increase my consciousness on these points so that I can discuss cogently and truthfully with people I come across who are fundamentalist Christians.
First, thank you for your generous comments. Second, thanks for sharing with me some elements of your own faith struggle. It is not easy sometimes to move beyond yesterday’s certainties when you have been disillusioned by them. My advice is simply to engage those feelings and not to be afraid to talk about them. For many people religion is part of their security system and they hide within its defensive walls from any study or knowledge that might threaten them. When those walls don’t hold, that person feels exposed, let down and angry. It is not surprising that you now wish to hurl the whole system overboard.
Christianity is, I believe, far more than what you or I have experienced. Another path for you might be to decide to study Christianity, including the Bible, more deeply than you ever have done so before. To do this, however, you must be part of a church that welcomes such a dialogue. I hope you can find that.
To answer your specific questions, your fundamentalist friend is simply wrong. I doubt if any of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses to what they wrote about in their gospels. First, the gospels were written between 40 and 70 years after the crucifixion. That same time frame embraces between two and three generations. If the disciples were Jesus’ contemporaries, they would be between 70-100 years old, far beyond the normal life expectancy in the first century. Second, they were also written in Greek, a language that none of the disciples or indeed not even Jesus himself appears to have ever spoken or written. Third, the gospels reflect the background of the liturgical year of the synagogue. Prior to their having been written, the memory of Jesus had already been incorporated into the worship life of the synagogue and interpreted through the Hebrew Scriptures to those who were present in those synagogues. Paul does not seem to have ever interacted with the Jesus of history. He does claim to have “seen the Lord,” but that is apparently a reference to the conversion vision.
I wish you well in your conversations with your fundamentalist friends. I have never found that to be a productive avenue to pursue because religious discussions are not really about religion. They are about people’s personal security and anything that confirms their security becomes what they believe. People move out of fundamentalism only when they are ready to move, not when someone like you tries to push them. This was at least my experience when I was a fundamentalist. Most of the things I talk about in Jesus for the Non-Religious have been available in the world of biblical scholarship for almost 200 years. Fundamentalists have simply ignored these discoveries and insights if they could and they have denied them if they could not. I suggest that you simply love your fundamentalist friends but don’t try to argue with them.
~John Shelby Spong
Read what Bishop Spong has to say about A Joyful Path Progressive Christian Spiritual Curriculum for Young Hearts and Minds: "The great need in the Christian church is for a Sunday school curriculum for children that does not equate faith with having a pre-modern mind. The Center for Progressive Christianity has produced just that. Teachers can now teach children in Sunday school without crossing their fingers. I endorse it wholeheartedly."
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