Even a Stopped Clock is Right Twice a Day

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong
Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong (photo: Image Credit: Scott Griessel, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

You may want to sit down for this, but once upon a time flamboyantly apostate Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong actually thrilled me with a prescient bit of insight into Scripture! How is this possible?

Well, there is a basic principle at work in the universe called the Gomer Pyle Axiom of High and Low Expectations. It works this way: when you expect great things from somebody, then merely above average performances are often denounced as disappointing failures. So, when Pixar, whose worst movies still tower over the junk Hollywood emits, makes Cars, people groan at what a weak effort it is, even though Cars still dwarfs 99% of all other movies and 99.9% of all other animated films.

But when a guy like Gomer Pyle, from whom nobody expects anything at all, bursts forth in a voice of not-awful-but-certainly-not-very-good tone and talent, he is hailed as a New Caruso because we weren’t expecting anything at all from him.

It’s that “Wow! He didn’t utterly suck!” thrill that I am describing, because John Shelby Spong once, albeit briefly, scaled the snowy summit of common sense. Addressing the sort of people who blindly insist that Jesus never existed, and therefore appearing smart in comparison to them, we discover Spong declared:

"He was no myth," says Spong, who came through Toronto recently to promote his latest book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. "He really existed."

Why did Spong think so? He gives three eminently sensible reasons:

  1. The gospels portray Jesus as being from Nazareth, a complete jerkwater town whom even the Evangelists regard as worthless and of no significance (John 1:46). If you are inventing a Messiah from scratch, you would never have him be from the first century equivalent of Bugtussle, Oklahoma. Why? Well, first of all, it’s aesthetically dumb. You have him hail from someplace cool, not someplace that evokes a laugh from your potential convert. Second, since you are writing within the milieu of a religious tradition that actually has certain prophecies about the Messiah like “He will hail from Bethlehem and not Bugtussle, Oklahoma” (Micah 5:2)) you would simply say he was from Bethlehem and leave it at that. The evangelists can’t leave it at that because they are dealing with a real historical figure who actually was known as “Jesus of Nazareth”. So they are stuck reporting the inconvenient facts, not the convenient fiction.
  2. The gospels make clear that there is a complicated relationship between Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist. This complex relationship is, if you are just inventing a God, an enormous waste of time, leading to problems such as sects who honor John more than Jesus (Acts 19:1-6). Why bother? If Jesus is purely fictional, why invent yet another fictional character with such a complicated relationship, much less make him the cousin of the Messiah? Further, if you invent him to give the unsolicited customer testimonial to your invented god, why then record him as having doubts about your invented God (Luke 7). The whole rigamole seems unnecessary—unless, of course, you are recording something which actually occurred. Then you are stuck with the facts as they happened, not as you wish to create them.
  3. Jesus is recorded as being crucified after condemnation by both Roman and Jewish civil authorities. Only over-familiarity with the gospels blinds people in the “Jesus never existed” crowd from recognizing how utterly ridiculous this story would be as a way of establishing prima facie credibility with the audience contemporary with the apostles. If one were going to invent a Messiah from scratch, this is absolutely the last artistic choice he would make. If a Herculean god hero is to die, you certainly would not have him make his exit this way, tied to the tenure of a Roman bureaucrat whose archives can still be examined. And you especially would not do so while recording him crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” If you do, you will be greeted with exactly the jeers the apostles received, because the immediate reaction of the average Roman was “If he died that way, Jesus must be scum like Spartacus and his rebel slaves” and the immediate reaction of fellow Jews was “Cursed is he who hangs on tree.” It’s precisely because that was the reaction that Paul has to spend rather a lot of energy making clear that Jesus crucifixion demonstrates, not that he is an accursed miscreant, but the fulfillment of prophecy (Galatians 3:13).

Spong doesn’t go into it, but there are lots of other aspects to the gospels that make it obvious to anybody familiar with ancient literature that the entire story of Jesus is something nobody would have invented in the first place. For the simple fact is, we've got oodles of hero stories from antiquity. They don't look like the story of Jesus. If you are inventing a god, you don't have him asking questions as though he really doesn’t know the answer, or professing blank ignorance about “that day and that hour” when the world will end, or being unable to work miracles. You don’t have him do “back to the drawing board” miracles of healing when his first one only gets the job half done (Mark 8:22-24). Nor would you call, as your first witness to the Resurrection, a woman “out of whom seven demons had been driven” (Luke 8:2). If you are just making crap up, you have Jesus know all about the end of the world—but be unwilling to share his knowledge with the unrighteous. You would show him as absolutely in command and totally together at all times and not sweating blood. You would have him killed in battle with the forces of Evil, not lynched like a common criminal. You would not have awkward figures like the apostle Paul, who is not part of the Twelve, who is quite manifestly an historical figure, and who knows personally of five hundred eyewitnesses to the Resurrection who live not in Cloud Cuckoo Land with Osiris, but in Judea, where you can book passage and go talk to them (1 Cor 15). These, and a thousand other telltale details make it obvious that the gospels are quite obviously artefacts of a community that has a real historical memory of an actual human being who really lived.

Tragically, after his brief spasm of common sense in which he nearly veers into Christian common sense, the rest of what Spong has to say sinks back to his customary level and ends up being an elaborately dumb misreading of the gospels, due to Spong's application of his own distorting assumptions to the documents. Capable of seeing that the evangelists are being truthful about Jesus’ residence in Nazareth, Spong remains incapable of contemplating the possibility that they are truthful in stating that Jesus was in fact born in Bethlehem. This reportage by the evangelists is, for reasons he never bothers to document, “a way to explain away the Nazarene roots of Jesus”. How does Spong know this? He doesn’t. But his commitment to the proposition “There’s no such thing as prophecy or the Virgin Birth” obliges him to say it was simply impossible for Jesus to be born there.

Likewise, aware that the gospels are honest in telling the truth about Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist, he remains committed to the notion, based on nothing whatsoever, that Jesus was a disciple of John's who somehow overshadowed his old Master like Anakin Skywalker overshadowed Obi-wan Kenobi.

Most spectacularly, committed to a radically de-supernaturalized Jesus, he issues a diktat which transforms the Resurrection into ex post facto psychobabble concocted by the disciples. Why? Because “the fact that [Jesus] was executed like a common criminal needed to be turned, somehow, into a victory.” So the apostles go to brutal martyrdoms for the world’s most successful act of PR (meaning they are liars) or because they somehow manage to convince themselves that Christ is risen bodily (a state of mind most of would call “massively delusional”). How does Spong know this? Answer: he doesn't. But his preconceived narrative of liberal apostate Episcopalianism commits him to those doctrines. The supernatural can’t have occurred. It just can’t have.

Still, we must give credit where credit is due. For a fleeting moment of lucidity, even a Spong knows more about the reality behind the gospels than the mere dumb negations of the "Jesus never existed" crowd of Know-Nothing Atheists. May God grant him the grace to take up again the little thread of truth he briefly fingered and let drop, that he might follow it to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.