Chris Coffman's Reviews > This Hebrew Lord

This Hebrew Lord by John Shelby Spong
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Aug 23, 07

Recommended for: Grumpy ex-Christians, curious pagans
Read in August, 2007

Bishop Spong is in Australia at the moment promoting his latest book, and so a friend and I invited him to dinner last Monday. Bishop Spong (he immediately introduces himself as "Jack") only accepted our invitation on Saturday morning, so I ran out to a bookstore and bought two of his books to read before Monday night, and this was one of the two I found. My friend John read his latest one, which is called something like WHY CHRISTIANITY MUST CHANGE OR DIE.

Look . . . I guess I'm conflicted in trying to review this book because while Spong's scholarship is shoddy, his programme is by and large praiseworthy. THIS HEBREW LORD was his first major book, published originally in 1984, and it remains a very personal one for him. The book itself is one more addition to the tradition begun by the German scholar David Strauss in 1835 when he published his LIFE OF JESUS. Strauss was the first guy to make a distinction between the historical Jesus, a Judean peasant who caused an uproar of some sort but left no personal writings, and the Jesus Christ of Christian scripture, whose words and deeds we know from the writings of his disciples. Strauss believed in Jesus the Jewish peasant but not in Jesus Christ the son of God, and Spong agrees with him. Strauss's book changed history, causing several generations of Europeans to lose their faith in God (one of them, to provide an idea of the long term consequences of Strauss's influence, was Nietzsche).

Spong's agenda is very different, and on the whole it is an attractive one. Spong and his intelligent and poised wife are long time supporters of equal political rights for people of all races, genders, creeds and sexual orientations, and this attractive social agenda is well matched to their articulate and charming personalities.

My friend John, who hosted our little dinner party of six, has spent a lifetime in politics and diplomacy. I think of him as one of Dante's "noble pagans" like the poet Virgil, and John reacted very positively to the Spong book he read, and to Spong himself. My friend John, in fact, who feels at best thinly veiled contempt for religion in general, said that Spong's version of Jesus is the only one that has ever made sense to him, and they got along famously at dinner.

I guess the main point is that Spong is writing for two kinds of people: (1) conventional Christians who have never done any thinking for themselves about their faith--for example, people who have never reflected on the fact that almost everybody mentioned in the Bible is Jewish, and that Christianity is incomprehensible outside the context of Judaism, and (2) people with a distant knowledge of Christianity and who consider it responsible for most or all of the ills of history. To these groups, who are considerable in number, Spong reaches out with a message of love and personal freedom. And unlike traditional Christianity, the ticket for admittance to Spong's world view does not include belief in God, an acknowledgement of the reality of sin, or a profession of personal faith in Jesus Christ as a saviour.

In short, Spong's program makes his readers aware of much that is good in Christianity, and for many--Spong himself very much included--a person who accepts Spong's views need seek no further for the truth.

REVIEW CONT'D AS COMMENT #1
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Chris Coffman REVIEW CONT'D

It came as no surprise to me when, towards the end of our dinner, Spong said that his next (and last) book may be about the afterlife, which he considers unlikely to exist. Spong's materialism is evident from THIS HEBREW LORD, and is the more or less hidden foundation for his religious (a word he despises) views; but in this sense he is just an orthodox Straussian.

Spong has both political and personal reasons for the passions that motivated him to write so many books describing what he considers true about Christianity. The political reasons centre around his experiences growing up in Virginia during racial segregation, and his message is, in part, an answer to all the people he knew who quoted brief extracts of the Bible in order to defend racial injustice. Spong's motivation is clearly sincere, and my observation is that almost all protest movements originate in an authentic and legitimate grievance.

It so happens that when we invited Bishop Spong to dinner, I was already reading a very different book called GOD IN SEARCH OF MAN by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, which was also published in 1984. Rabbi Heschel narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis and many of his family were murdered during the Holocaust, but his response to his personal encounter with racial hatred and injustice could not be more different from Bishop Spong's, as I will discuss in my next review.


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