The Origins of the New Testament, Part XVIII: Mark, The First Gospel

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 1 April 2010 0 Comments
Please login with your account to read this essay.


John from Llansadwm, Wales, UK, writes:

There is a great deal in the liturgy that cannot be taken literally. How can someone recite the words with a good conscience?


Dear John,

Literalism is not the only way to understand words. Words are also pointers to a truth, which they cannot articulate. Words are symbols designed to free the mind from culturally imposed straitjackets. Why is it that religion's quest for security seems to dictate that if something is not literally true, it is not true at all?

Is the story of Little Red Riding Hood literally true? Of course not. Isn't it an attempt to translate a human experience that is profoundly true in a story form? Of course. The experience is puberty. The Red Riding Hood is the symbol of the menstrual flow of adolescence. The pubescent young girl is instructed to keep on the "straight and narrow" path through the woods or the wolf will get her. Is that not a way to address a true experience in non-literal story form?

I doubt if Humpty Dumpty ever sat on a great wall only to fall and be shattered in such a way that all the king's horses and all the king's men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again. I do think it is literally true, however, that some human actions have irrevocable consequences, which can never be overcome, so this nursery rhyme points to truth that mere words cannot capture.

Much of the religious language of both the Bible and the liturgy is this kind of communication. No, Jesus was not born of a virgin, but people met something in him that they did not believe human life by itself could ever have produced. No, Jesus did not ascend into the sky of a three-tiered universe, but people were convinced that since he had come from God, he had to return to God, and so the ascension was the way they chose to communicate this truth.

Liturgy is a series of pointers to that which words cannot embrace. That is why liturgical words are expanded, puffed up and not capable ever of being literalized without being falsified.

Take off your blinders, John, and listen to the liturgy with your heart and your emotions. They constitute a song, which I, for one, still find great meaning in singing.

– John Shelby Spong



Leave a Reply