Book Review: Jesus for the Non-Religious

By Bishop John Shelby Spong


Copyright 2010 Lynn B. Savage

I think that I finally have figured out Bishop Spong’s message in his book “Jesus for the Non-Religious”.

At first, the message is elusive and confusing. He thoroughly deconstructs the Gospels until only a sparse, thoroughly humanistic shell remains. He reduces all traditional religion to “Theism”, which is human-conceived explanation of God. He develops a theory that the Gospels evolved as a portrait of Jesus painted on the canvas of traditional Jewish prophetic expectations concerning the Messiah, and thus are meant to be interpreted as liturgy, not literal history.

When Spong pronounces Christianity as dying, the reader is left to wonder why he is not now promoting Buddhism or Atheism – what on earth could be left in Christianity to be a follower of? Yet Spong stubbornly proclaims and defends a new, “Non-Religious” belief in Jesus that he claims is suitable for the 21st century and beyond.

Why this seeming grasping at straws to retain and reshape a form of Christianity?

Spong offers clues in the chapter titled “Who is the God met in Jesus?”. First he summarizes a thoroughly materialistic and Darwinistic understanding of the Origin of Life. He proposes that theism originated in the moment that primates became self-aware, when they began pondering the existential dilemma of life.

While understandably rejecting theistic notions of God as inadequate, Spong hints at his own seeker’s journey in a later chapter, “The Cross:A Human Portrait of the Love of God”. He speaks of Life, Love and Being as indications of a “transcendent reality”.

At this point it finally dawned on me what Spong was trying to say: From the heart of a confirmed materialist and existentialist, springs the pining of a seeker who suspects there is a larger, transcendent truth about life to be discerned.

So join the seeker’s club, my dear Bishop. You are in good company. My only question is, why not just be honest and put it all on the table? I applaud his deconstruction of orthodox theism, and insightful analysis of the messianic-based liturgical thinking that guided the Gospel authors. I even respect his spirited defense of the historicity of Jesus, despite my own serious doubts on this.

What I would call into question is what appears to be Spong’s own personal version of theism – selectively constructing a “historical” view of Jesus from the very Gospels, which he has painstakingly dismissed as “liturgical” and not to be taken as literal narrative. His attempt to project his own transcendental truth on this Gospel story character known as Jesus falls painfully short – and begs the obvious question: why?

I hesitate to speculate as to Bishop Spong’s internal thought process in an attempt to answer this question. Could it be his years invested as a clergyman making it difficult to completely renounce his traditional faith? Could it be something else entirely that he could not or would not articulate? In any case, it seems likely to entail something beyond what was addressed in the book – the incongruity is simply too large to ignore.

I can only suggest that he give some thought to letting go of the last shards of traditional religion, and turn his search inward, to consider the true spirituality of the Soul. A good place to begin is with Bernard Haisch’s book, “The God Theory”. (also reviewed here)