Stopped Clock Right Twice a Day
You may want to sit down for this, but flamboyantly apostate Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong actually thrilled me with a prescient bit of insight into Scripture! How is this possible?
Well, there is a basic principle at work in the universe called the Gomer Pyle Axiom of High and Low Expectations. It works this way: when you expect great things from somebody, then merely above average performances are often denounced as disappointing failures. So, when PIXAR, whose worst movies still tower over the junk Hollywood emits, makes Cars, people groan at what a weak effort it is, even though Cars still dwarfs 99% of all other movies and 99.9% of all other animated films.
But when a guy like Gomer Pyle, from whom nobody expects anything at all, bursts forth in a voice of not-awful-but-certainly-not-very-good tone and talent, he is hailed as a New Caruso because we weren’t expecting anything at all from him.
It’s that “Wow! He didn’t utterly suck!” thrill that I am currently experiencing, because John Shelby Spong has, albeit briefly, scaled the snowy summit of common sense. Addressing the fools who blindly insist that Jesus never existed, and therefore appearing smart in comparison to them, we discover:
"He was no myth," says Spong, who came through Toronto recently to promote his latest book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. "He really existed."
Why does Spong think so? He gives three eminently sensible reasons:
Spong doesn’t go into it, but there are lots of other aspects to the gospels that make it obvious to anybody familiar with ancient literature that the entire story of Jesus is something nobody would have invented in the first place. For the simple fact is, we've got oodles of hero stories from antiquity. They don't look like the story of Jesus. If you are inventing a god, you don't have him asking questions as though he really doesn’t know the answer, or professing blank ignorance about “that day and that hour” when the world will end, or being unable to work miracles. You don’t have him do “back to the drawing board” miracles of healing when his first one only gets the job half done (Mark 8:22-24). Nor would you call, as your first witness to the Resurrection, a woman “out of whom seven demons had been driven” (Luke 8:2). If you are just making crap up, you have Jesus know all about the end of the world—but be unwilling to share his knowledge with the unrighteous. You would show him as absolutely in command and totally together at all times and not sweating blood. You would have him killed in battle with the forces of Evil, not lynched like a common criminal. You would not have awkward figures like the apostle Paul, who is not part of the Twelve, who is quite manifestly an historical figure, and who knows personally of five hundred eyewitnesses to the Resurrection who live not in Cloud Cuckoo Land with Osiris, but in Judea, where you can book passage and go talk to them (1 Cor 15). These, and a thousand other telltale details make it obvious that the gospels are quite obviously artefacts of a community that has a real historical memory of an actual human being who really lived.
Tragically, after his brief spasm of common sense in which he nearly veers into Christian common sense, the rest of what Spong has to say sinks back to his customary level and ends up being an elaborately dumb misreading of the gospels, due to Spong's application of his own distorting assumptions to the documents. Capable of seeing that the evangelists are being truthful about Jesus’ residence in Nazareth, Spong remains incapable of contemplating the possibility that they are truthful in stating that Jesus was in fact born in Bethlehem. This reportage by the evangelists is, for reasons he never bothers to document, “a way to explain away the Nazarene roots of Jesus”. How does Spong know this? He doesn’t. But his commitment to the proposition “There’s no such thing as prophecy or the Virgin Birth” obliges him to say it was simply impossible for Jesus to be born there.
Likewise, aware that the gospels are honest in telling the truth about Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist, he remains committed to the notion, based on nothing whatsoever, that Jesus was a disciple of John's who somehow overshadowed his old Master like Anakin Skywalker overshadowed Obi-wan Kenobi.
Most spectacularly, committed to a radically de-supernaturalized Jesus, he issues a diktat which transforms the Resurrection into ex post facto psychobabble concocted by the disciples. Why? Because “the fact that [Jesus] was executed like a common criminal needed to be turned, somehow, into a victory.” So the apostles go to brutal martyrdoms for the world’s most successful act of PR (meaning they are liars) or because they somehow manage to convince themselves that Christ is risen bodily (a state of mind most of would call “massively delusional”). How does Spong know this? Answer: he doesn't. But his preconceived narrative of liberal apostate Episcopalianism commits him to those doctrines. The supernatural can’t have occurred. It just can’t have.
Still, we must give credit where credit is due. For a fleeting moment of lucidity, even a Spong knows more about the reality behind the gospels than the mere dumb negations of the "Jesus never existed" crowd of Know-Nothing Atheists. May God grant him the grace to take up again the little thread of truth he briefly fingered and let drop, that he might follow it to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Copyright 2009 - Mark P. Shea