One of the pleasures resulting from an obsession with the Bible is the opportunity to read some of the superb writing about the Bible that is produced every year. This summer, for example, we have seen a very good book about Jesus, Reza Aslan’s Zealot:The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, climb to the top of the best-seller lists. But more importantly for me, it has seen the publication of a remarkable new study of the Gospel of John, John Shelby Spong’s The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.
The Fourth Gospel was my introduction to the writings and perspective of Rev. Spong, the long-time Episcopal bishop of Newark, now retired. But following my discovery of this refreshingly down-to-earth cleric and scholar, I have been voraciously devouring his works. The Fourth Gospel is his 23rd published book, and I look forward to reading them all, because this one has altered my perspective in way that few written works ever have.
John can be a troubling gospel for those of us who question the supernatural content of the Bible. For us, it can be relatively easy to read the other three gospels, called collectively the synoptics, for their philosophical wisdom, focusing on the brief, pithy, parables and beatitudes as evidence of Jesus’ incomparably beautiful philosophy, and to gloss over the recounting of miracles as so much filigree added unnecessarily to embellish His brilliant teachings. But the gospel of John is a different animal; it is distinguished by what is called its “high Christology,” its insistence on the godly and timeless nature of Jesus, characterized as the “only begotten son” of God. There are no parables in John, and few brief statements of wisdom. Instead we get that gorgeous prologue, a poem of unsurpassed beauty, followed by a narrative of Jesus’ ministry that focuses on seven “signs”, in turn followed by several lengthy chapters of monologue known as the “farewell discourses,” and finally the passion, crucifixion and resurrection. Much of what is told in John is told only in John, and the telling has an altogether different feel than do the other three narratives (which are called synoptic because they view Jesus “with the same eye”).
The new John in my consciousness, Rev. Spong, has blessedly corrected my view. Indeed, Spong says, he had to correct his own view of the gospel, which he had often found “repellent,” due to the creeds and dogmatic thinking and abuses done ‘in the name of the Lord’ for which he blamed John.
“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. As the centuries rolled by, John’s gospel seemed to make meaningful discourse on the nature of the Christ figure almost impossible.”
He goes on to say:
“Throughout most of my career, both as a priest and as a bishop, I saw John’s gospel more as a problem in ministry than as an asset. So my tactic was to avoid it, if possible, to ignore it whenever I could not avoid it, and simply to resign myself to the reality that it was in the canon of scripture. Sometimes I walked around this gospel. At other times I attacked it or at least attacked those I thought misunderstood and/or misused its message. I certainly never wanted to spend much time on it.”
The change in his thinking came about, Spong says, when he began to view the fourth gospel as a Jewish book and to examine its connections to Jewish experience, Jewish history and, especially, Jewish mysticism. He describes his journey in some detail, but the climax is this:
“I began to rethink and ultimately to dismiss the theistic definition of God and started moving away from an understanding of God as ‘a being’ to an understanding of God as ‘Being itself,’ or as Paul Tillich, the formative theologian of my early training, would say, as ‘the Ground of Being’ … John’s gospel began to unfold before me as a work of Jewish mysticism and the Jesus of John’s gospel suddenly became not a visitor from another realm., but a person in whom a new God consciousness had emerged. Now, seen from that new perspective, the claim of oneness with the Father was not incarnational language, but mystical language.”
And, because I can’t keep myself from quoting this amazing volume that has resulted from Spong’s years of study:
“John’s gospel is about life – expanded life, abundant life, and ultimately eternal life – but not in the typical manner that these words have been understood religiously.”
From what I have gleaned so far in his writings, Spong has built his notable career on an effort to free Christianity from a literalism that he believes imposes first-century thinking on contemporary life, to no good end. A heaven that is above the sky and disease caused by demons are not concepts we can tolerate in the face of today’s science, but a literal reading of the Bible – an atrocious insistence that the words and events of the gospels are “literally true” – demands that we accept what we know to be nonsense.
Thus, it is no surprise that his new approach takes on the issue of literalism. One of the most striking aspects of The Fourth Gospel is Spong’s illumination of the many passages in this gospel that speak directly to this issue, and which ridicule or dismiss the notion that its words should be taken literally. For example, when Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus, who in chapter 3 has come to visit him in the dark of night, that, “Unless you are born from above, you cannot see the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus’ response is a comically literal reading of Jesus’ words:
“How can one be born when one is old? he asked. “One cannot enter a mother’s womb a second time and be born.”
In the next chapter, the Samaritan woman at the well reacts in a similar manner to Jesus’ statement that,” Whoever drinks the water I give them will not be thirsty again. The water I give them will become in them a fountain of water springing into eternal life.” Taking His words literally, the Samaritan woman sees the “living water” as a great labor-saving innovation:
“Sir, give me this water so that I won’t be thirsty or have to come here to draw it up.”
Once Spong has pointed it out, it’s clear from these passages that those who apply literal meaning to the words given to Jesus by John are meant to be seen as foolish, misguided. The Samaritan woman, whose visit with Jesus happens in the light of day, comes to understand what Jesus meant and goes on to convert her townspeople, while Nicodemus chooses to retreat back into the darkness from which he briefly emerged (and from which he will make additional brief appearances).
So, if we aren’t meant to take this gospel as literal history, what does it mean? Does it have any meaning for us? Oh yes, Spong says. The meaning derives from Jewish mystical tradition. The magnificent prologue to this gospel, which I consider to be among the most beautiful words ever written, is often said to reflect Greek thinking, but Spong argues that this tone-setting poem reflects instead a deep understanding of Jewish spirituality. The prologue is shaped, of course, by reference to Genesis 1, the priestly creation story in which God creates the world entirely with words. Since this gospel, like all of the others, appears to have been written in Greek, the word “logos” has been given primary importance, and with it all of the connotations in Greek thought and Greek usage that come with it. But Spong urges us to look at the Hebrew word for word, “dabar,” and to understand that, “The Hebrew concept of dabar indicated that this ‘word’ had power to shape the world, to reveal the presence of God, to call people to a heightened sense of selfhood, a heightened consciousness.”
And so it makes great sense for John to say that, ”What came to be in the word was life, And the life was the light of the people.”
The equation, then, of the word to life and to light and to Jesus tells us that Jesus brought the light of life to the people he encountered, that in fact his mission was to bring this light in the form of a new consciousness that allows us to experience life fully, abundantly, gloriously.
The wedding at Cana, a story specific and unique to John’s gospel, takes on a new cast in this new light. A wedding marks the beginning of new life, the life of a new family. This wedding takes place significantly on the “third day,” a reference that may seem mysterious because we have just been told about three preceding days, which would make this at least the fourth. But again, don’t take the reference literally. The third day is, as we know from all of the gospels as well as from Paul, the day of resurrection, the day when new life is given to something or someone that has died. So we can understand this a symbolic setting, one that is about the moment of new life, a reading which may help to explain why in this wedding story we are told nothing of the bride and groom or why Jesus, his mother and the disciples have all traveled to attend.
We see that the wedding has run out of wine. The old wine is gone. After his mother’s urging, Jesus directs the servants to a set of six large jugs meant to hold water for ritual use. But the jugs are empty. Not only is the old wine gone, the ritual water is gone. Jesus tells the servants to fill the jugs with water (the jugs are said to hold two or three measures, an amount equivalent to 20 or 30 gallons each) and then to dip from them and take the liquid to the master of the celebration, who congratulates the bridegroom effusively on his brilliance in serving a superior wine late in the celebration. The new wine, brought on by Jesus, is a superior wine as well as a transformation of old, empty ritual into new life. Jesus, we are being told, is bringing new life to replace old, tired traditions and rituals that have lost their meaning.
I’m going to end this post here, because I know I will write about the Rev. Spong and his wonderful books again soon. And I can’t tell this story with anything like his brilliance.
Read The Fourth Gospel. Buy it, borrow it, steal it if you have to. But read it.