Unbelievable - Part I

Essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 4 January 2018 4 Comments

he book has elements about it that have bordered on the miraculous. I was not sure I would ever be able to complete it. I had written about ninety per cent of this volume before I had a stroke in September of 2016. The stroke immobilized my right side. It was not clear that I would recover. I could not lift my right hand, nor walk without a walker, dragging my right leg. These symptoms, however, began to fade in about six weeks and all my limbs have returned to functioning, a bit weaker, but functioning nonetheless. My tread mill was a valuable aid. I had used it daily for many years, but now it became important in my rehabilitation. My rule was to use the track for one hour a day. Once I did twelve minute miles or five miles an hour. Today in that hour I do three and one quarter miles, not a jogger’s pace, but steady as strength has flowed back into my body. One symptom, however, has remained resistant to my efforts at recovery. I cannot make my right hand write legibly enough that I can read it. I could use the computer, but that is not natural to me. I never learned to type and hunting and pecking takes so much time. People suggested that I get a program where I talk into my computer and it converts the words to print. I tried that, but perhaps I was undone by my southern accent. Every time I spoke the word “career” the computer would write “Korea!”

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Why is it so important to you to view the Gospels as "midrash" rather than as history?


Dear Ginny,

It's not so much that it is important to anyone personally to view the Gospels as midrash as much as it is that careful scholarship rather strongly suggests that viewing the synoptic Gospels as such puts us much closer not only to their original intent, but also closer to how they would have been received by Jewish ears of the day.

The reality is that it is very difficult to read the Gospels as history through modern eyes. Having just passed through the Christmas season, let's take the stories of the first Christmas as an example.

The first thing to notice is that I said the “stories,” plural. We have two very different stories of the first Christmas. If it were history you'd expect them to match more closely. Not necessarily perfectly match, but you'd expect them to have more in common. Also, for such remarkable stories it is even more remarkable that the earliest writing in the New Testament either found the birth of Jesus to be somewhat unremarkable (Paul) or didn't even bother to mention it at all (Mark). Add to all of that the reality that historical documents do not support several of the events mentioned in the stories (such as the census and King Herod killing the male babies in the area), it becomes increasingly difficult to see the events recorded as actual history.

That can seem somewhat devastating to those of us who grew up being told that the stories were real and shouldn't be questioned, but if we read it as midrash, we are very likely to find it packed with meaning every bit as important as it would be were it meant to be recorded history. Much like letting go of the story of Santa being real does not make the lesson of the joy of giving to others any less important.

For example, the virgin birth tells us that Jesus had a very special connection to the Divine. Let's face it, biologically it really does take two to tango and in that day and age they believed the entirety of a human being was held in the man's seed and women nourished and grew those seeds. A birth without a man involved? Both then and now, it would have been seen and should be seen as an impossibility. So, you dig for the deeper understanding and meaning.

Ultimately, midrash is a way of making a truth more timeless. It takes the present (in this case the historic Jesus) and houses it in the concepts and symbols of yesterday (the OT) in order to preserve the mean of the faith story for future generations. As Spong suggests in “Resurrection: Myth or Reality,” using midrash to relate Jesus to Hebrew traditions speaks to him being on a timeless, holy journey. The idea here is not simply to record the history of Jesus, but as Spong says, to “canonize” him on a more mythic level.

Ultimately, the Gospel writers were Jewish and, not surprisingly, used Jewish techniques to communicate their stories. The Gospels they wrote were mostly written for Jewish people who were very familiar with midrash and could recognize it and understand its purpose. As the Christian movement grew and included more and more folks outside of the Jewish tradition, it began to lose its connection and understanding of those Jewish techniques.

For some people, re-embracing midrash as a way to understand the Gospels can seem like it undercuts their importance, but quite the opposite is actually true. Midrash elevates the stories and places them in the realms of the holy. It packages them in stories that are so magical and unbelievable that it invites the reader to explore more deeply the hiding meaning, all the while, recognizing that they are stories of the extraordinary.

In the end, reading the Gospels this way should bring us closer to the way they were originally understood and in doing so should bring us closer to the way Jesus was understood in those days. For me, that is a remarkable gift that excites me, challenges me, and inspires me.

~ Rev. Mark Sandlin


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

Weeping Over the Grave of God

Part II of a series about the Tsunami


In a 20th century drama entitled, "Conversation at Midnight," playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay had her character Ricardo speak these words: "Man has never been the same since God died. He has taken it very hard...He gets along pretty well, as long as it's daylight...but it's no use. The moment it begins to get dark, as soon as it is night, he goes out and howls over the grave of God."

Those words have been very poignant for me through the years, rising every time I experience the tragic dimensions of life that in the past were cushioned by the traditional understanding of God. The earthquake in the Indian Ocean, which spawned the Tsunami waves killing more than 150,000 people, was the latest occasion for calling to mind these words.

Had such a tragedy struck our world 500-600 years ago, two things would have been quite different. First, the probability is that most of the people of the Western world would never have known about it. The world was so vast in that period of history. Oceans and language were great barriers. Communication systems were quite primitive. This Tsunami would have made its way only into the remembered history of the affected areas, entering the folklore of the people and producing perhaps another story like the one about Noah.

In the 21st century, however, the press covered this enormous disaster relentlessly. Pictures of its horror invaded our homes via television. The story journeyed with us through our car radios. It dominated the front pages of newspapers across this planet. There was no escape from the searing reality of the carnage, the cries of the victims or those newly bereaved. No one could avoid staring at the mass graves or trying to embrace what it means to lose so many lives so suddenly. People's emotions were numbed. This was not an attack by a foreign enemy to which people could release the frenzy of their pent up anger. It was the work of an impersonal force tearing up the earth miles beneath the ocean floor and unleashing waves of such height, power and fury that they destroyed everything in their path. Elderly people died. Babies died, sick and crippled people died, mothers died, fathers died. Rich vacationers died, poor peasants died. It had no rhyme, no reason and it lent itself to no rational process of thinking.

The second thing that was different was that in the past this tragedy would have been understood in the context of a religious worldview. Theories would abound as to what its meaning was and why God was so displeased that this divine punishment was hurled at the world. That was the way that Europe understood the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century and the way the storm that sank the Spanish armada in 1588 was interpreted. In the Tsunami coverage this religious dimension was totally missing at first, a clear indication that the religious worldview of the past no longer exists. Instead we were given geological lessons about the collision of tectonic plates. No one assumed that the victims were being punished. No one offered a rational explanation implying any purpose. Only after the passage of several days did the religious spokespersons begin to present their explanations on television and radio talk shows, but these voices were singularly lacking in both profundity and credibility. Larry King, interviewing not clergy but former Presidents Bush and Clinton, kept pressing both of them to say what this tragedy had done to their faith. President George W. H. Bush in response referred to the time he had lost a daughter and it "did cause me to wonder why...an innocent child." President Clinton referred to the unfairness of life at all times and urged Larry King to have on his program representative theologians from the religions practiced by most of the victims, Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist and Christian, to have them discuss how their faith helped them to understand this disaster. This tragedy simply did not lend itself to their pious but threadbare explanations. This was simply nature acting with the fury for which nature is well known.

Perhaps the last gasp of that traditional, pre-modern religious thinking occurred after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, when Jerry Falwell, appearing on Pat Robertson's 700 Club, offered the opinion that God had removed the shield of divine protection from America because its leaders had begun to tolerate "feminists, abortionists, homosexuals and the American Civil Liberties Union." The nation gasped at this level of religious arrogance and the current Bush administration distanced itself from these remarks, saying it did not want to be associated with that kind of response. Yet, years ago that was the typical and almost universal explanation. It is the common explanation that one encounters in the writing of the biblical prophets.

What has happened in the intervening years to change public perceptions? I think it is fair to say that God, understood as an external, supernatural, miracle-working deity has died. The death of this God was not sudden. The realization of this divine demise has slowly trickled down over the centuries from the intellectuals to the masses. The death of this God has spawned two seemingly opposite responses in our day. One is the development of a radically secular society. The other is in the hysterical rise of fundamentalist, evangelical religion that represents a denial that the death of God has occurred.

How did this death of God occur? It began in the 16th century with Copernicus and his later disciples Kepler and Galileo, who forced us to see that the earth was not the center of the universe and that God did not live just beyond the sky, engaged in the tasks of watching, planning, intervening, keeping record books, punishing and rewarding. This insight posed a mighty challenge to the God we met in the pages of scripture. This God was quite capable of splitting the Red Sea to liberate the Chosen People and of dictating the Ten Commandments to Moses. As the understanding of the universe expanded, we no longer knew where God was and more importantly who God was. The universe seemed very large and we began to feel very lonely. Then Isaac Newton explained how the laws of nature operated in this universe, leaving little room for miracle and magic. Next Charles Darwin challenged our assumption that human life was just a little lower than the angels, suggesting instead that it was just a little higher than the apes. Finally, Albert Einstein took away all certainty, replacing it with relativity. With each new insight, the traditional concept of God faded into the shadows.

The next step in the desacralization of our world came when we could no longer explain evil with our appeals to this supernatural deity. Life seemed more and more governed by chance and less and less by purpose. Analyzing who survived the attack on the World Trade Center, we discovered that it was the chance factor of whether they worked on the upper floors or the lower floors, not whether they were deserving or not. Passengers on the doomed 9/11 airliners prayed fervently but no divine hand reached down to give them aid. They were the chance victims who booked passage on the wrong plane. Then came the earthquake and the Tsunami. It erupted beneath the sea. It killed religious people and non-religious people. It killed Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. No God stopped it. When people thought about it they concluded that no God could stop it, which posed a provocative theological issue in such a way that it was inescapable. If God has the power to intervene and does not, then surely God is malevolent. If God does not have the power then God is impotent. Either way the traditional God explanation fails. What we had long suspected intellectually we began to embrace emotionally. There is no supernatural divine power that stands at our side to be our protector. Thus the traditional religious worldview died and people began to cope with what it means to be citizens of a lonely and seemingly empty universe. As the days pass and the world begins to return to its normal routines, voices will surely try to respirate artificially the old world view in order to make sense of this disaster, in an effort to preserve the remaining shreds of divinity to which we cling so tenaciously. Their words, however, will inevitably sound empty and hollow because they will be spoken out of a religious context that is no longer believable and is no longer ours.

Does this mean that there is no God? That is a common conclusion of those who today inhabit the 'secular city,' but I don't think so. I am convinced, however, that it does mean that the primary way we have thought about God for almost 10,000 years is dying or is dead. Since most people do not or cannot separate God from our traditional definition of God, it feels to many like there is no God or that God has died. God and the human definition of God are, however, not identical.

Perhaps God can be met and experienced in ways beyond the theistic definitions of the past. Perhaps it is still possible to encounter transcendence, otherness, holiness or timelessness without locating these realities in an external supernatural, miracle-working, invasive deity? That is where their inner quest has led many people in the modern world today. I stand with them. This means, I believe, that we stand on the edge of the most profound spiritual revolution in human history. It is dawning with rending power in the human psyche. We will, however, never be able to encounter this reality until we allow the traditional God concept from the days of our childlike humanity to die. For many that is a fearful transition to be avoided by all means including denial, but for me and for others it represents a new chapter in human history for which we yearn with deep anticipation. I will seek to open a door into that scary place next week.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published January 12, 2005




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