Christian Art: Reinforcer of a Dying Literalism

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 21 May 2008 0 Comments
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Although I did not read it until adulthood, I have found the words
in the Gospel of Thomas to be true all my life.

V.3 Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look the (Father's)
kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you.
If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede
you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside
you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will
understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do
not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the


V. 77 Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things. I am
all: from me all come forth and to me all attained. Split a piece of
wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

What is your take on the Gnostic view, the Gospel of Thomas and
others? I know you try to avoid describing God, for God truly is
indescribable, but what you said sounded similar.


I have read the Gospel of Thomas several times and believe it to be
the most authentic of the non-canonical gospels. Your letter has
captured two of its insights with which I too resonate. The Jesus
Seminar actually elevated it into the canon in a seminar-published
book called The Five Gospels. The best work done on it is by
Elaine Pagels in her book Beyond Belief and by Bart Ehrman in
his book Early Christianities.

The Gospel of Thomas and other Gnostic gospels offer us a
new angle on Jesus and I think we honor that. When orthodox defenders
of traditional religious formulas attack alternative understandings,
it is because they have assumed that their view has captured truth.
That is little more than idolatry.

We walk into the mystery of a God who is beyond words, concepts or
human perception. Jesus is for me a doorway into that mystery.
Christian language in such concepts as Incarnation and Trinity is
designed to put rational shape into that experience. I do not reject
that language, but I also do not literalize it.

Thanks for writing.

John Shelby Spong




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