My Very Quick Journey to the Abyss – A Review of John Shelby Spong’s Book Jesus for the Non Religious

I recently picked up Spong’s book from the library. I also returned it after reading it so this review will be taken completely from memory. I feel like it’s important to dive into what I both loved about the book and struggled with the book because it hits on some of the ways I think many areas of modern Christianity both gets right and wrong with how they reconcile faith within modernity, secularism, scientific evidence and scholarship. Spong wrote this book with the non-religious in mind, making the case that Jesus is still powerfully relevant even to those people who cannot accept him as the Messiah or believe in his resurrection. Therefore, I’m not sure the conclusions of the book completely reflect Spong’s positions, so this blog is my response to those conclusions, perhaps unfairly because I am religious and have had a lifetime relationship with Jesus so perhaps not the target audience. Nonetheless, onward.

The Good Parts

Spong spends the majority of his book deconstructing literalist and fundamentalist interpretations of the Jesus narrative. I’m not in the scholarly world of New Testament study, but I believe his core arguments to be widely accepted within academia if not broadly known by believing Christians. I’ll list a few from memory.

The four gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death and, with the possible exception of Luke, were not written by the people ascribed to them. As a result, none of the writers of the gospels were witnesses to the life of Jesus. It’s likely none of his followers were witnesses to Jesus trial and death because they all abandoned him for fear of their own lives. The earliest records we have written about Jesus are the writings of Paul who barely talks about Jesus’ life and vaguely describes his death and resurrection. Mark is the first authored gospel written around 70 AD shortly after the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem and likely written in response to the siege. Mark is the shortest gospel, leaves out Jesus’s birth story, begins instead with Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist. Additionally, the gospel of Mark can be mapped onto the Jewish holidays “from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) through Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) to Passover, about half of the year”. Matthew and Luke were written ten years later and expands Mark’s writings m adding further insights from the oral traditions that did not make it into Mark. They extend the Jesus narrative to include the rest of the Jewish holidays in the year, adding the Jesus’ birth narrative, the Sermon on the Mount and a more expansive resurrection.

Additionally, reading the gospels account from the last supper to the burial, you can see a very clean pattern of 8 events each taking three hours expanding through the 24 hours before his death. Beginning with the last supper, the journey to the garden where his disciples fall asleep, the betrayal, the Jewish trial, Peter’s thrice denial, the Roman trial, the crucifixion and burial. These events are exquisitely timed to make theological points, for example timing the betrayal right midnight, the darkest moment of the day.

Spong makes the clear case that these gospels were never meant to be taking literally historical. They were meant to be read liturgically, to instill faith in Jesus as a central figure in a new faith. Before the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem and the Jewish state, many of the followers of Jesus still lived and operated within the Jewish culture and tradition, remembering Jesus through their temple worship and Jewish holiday celebrations. The gospels became a way to solidify the story of Jesus theologically and carry his message to the world without the stability of a nation.

While I already knew some of these points, many of the details described by Spong were new to me. Most of this I found exciting. Religion does not have to be in tension with scholarship or science. Liturgy does not compete with science, nor should it. The miraculous healings, Jesus walking on water, raising people from the dead, cursing trees, casting out devils – all of the events described in the gospels that defy scientific explanations do not have to be taken literally because doing so paints someone into real theological corners. How can we believe in a God that has the power to heal sickness but yet fails to do so time and time again? Why don’t these things continue to happen today?

But this sort of repurposing the gospels away from literalism ultimately pushes the reader to a confrontation with the resurrection, death and the ultimate state of the soul and with it, our existential self. These questions lead me to the Bad Parts.

The Bad Parts

Once Spong finished with his deconstruction of literal interpretations of Jesus, he transitions to making the case for Jesus to a non-believer. But first of all, what does it mean to be a non-believer? Spong describes the scientific consensus summary of the deep history of time, from the big bang, the creation of the universe, the beginning of life, to the creation of consciousness. The beginnings of religion comes out of the deep insecurity humanity experiences when they develop the capacity to come to a deep understanding of our mortality. What happens after we die? The animal kingdom shows no capacity to even understand the point of asking this question. Humanity does. We develop relationships, we care deeply about our individual capacities, our abilities to develop and grow, to experience love, pain, sadness, and joy. We want deeply to be connected to the infinite realities of a universe that seemingly never ends. We want to be as infinite as the universe. And I say that in a literal sense. I want my existence to persist.

Spong gives me nothing to hold onto in this regard. For him the phrase “three days” from Jesus’s death to his resurrection was only ever meant to connote a period of time and could reflect the time taken for his early followers to come to grips with his death. The resurrection, in this sense, could be a metaphor for a Christ return into the lives of his early disciples who found a renewed vigor and ability to embody his teachings within themselves. In Acts, Peter and others show the same type of miracles Jesus performed.

What Spong is doing here is that he comes right up to the limits of science and stays with science. There is simply no conclusive scientific explanation for human consciousness, no clear answers for what happens to it after death, and no way to know if there’s anything beyond this life. Science looks at the vast story of deep time and offers no universalizing meaning or purpose behind it. It’s just a random accident all the way down. Our lives on this planet at this time was completely dumb luck. I understand that, science can’t go further. But religion can. And religion should.

I believe in the resurrection. I believe in miracles. I accept mystery. I absolutely accept that my life has a purpose that is meaningful and that will continue long after my death. I cannot accept any other possibility. After reading Spong I peered over the pit of disbelief and it filled with me with deep sorrow. I backed away. I can’t accept it. I can’t explain my rejection other than my commitment to walk by faith.


Tulsi Gabbard’s Reason for Leaving the Democratic Party Part 1

This post is my response to Tulsi Gabbard’s podcast to explain why she’s leaving the Democratic Party. She is promising future episodes to dive deeper into each issue so perhaps I’ll get more to respond to in future episodes, but for now let’s take this one issue at a time.

Accusation One (4:34) The Democratic Party is Dangerously Pro-War Leading Us to the Brink of a Nuclear Holocaust

“The pro war democratic party of today has led us to the brink of of nuclear war. This party is led by warmongers who firmly in the grips of the military industrial complex.” She goes on to accuse President Biden of risking World War 3. She claims that in 2020 she ran her presidential campaign on this issue. It’s possible that’s true but I don’t remember it. She was a marginal candidate at best and so didn’t get a lot of attention.

I can only imagine that she’s talking about Putin’s invasion into the Ukraine, the west’s severe sanctions imposed on Russia in response, the west’s willingness to help fund and arm Ukraine’s resistance, and the Ukraine’s success in preventing Putin from accomplishing his goal of subjecting Ukraine to his over-arching influence and control. As a result of Putin’s failures thus far, he has threatened to use nuclear weapons to get what he wants. If those are the facts of the situation, how are the Democrats, or Joe Biden warmongers? Clearly that label belongs to Putin. National self-defense is one of the reasons the vast majority of people believe to be a just reason to go to war. The United States and Europe, thus far at least, have meticulously avoided direct confrontation and have been careful to contain involvement within a tolerable level. We care about Ukraine, we would never go to war ourselves over Ukraine. But at the same time, we cannot allow the threat of a nuclear strike be a reason to concede to a tyrant. That kind of concession would only invite its use in the future, leading to a more not less dangerous world.

Gabbard leads off with an argument that is the most difficult for me to swallow. If she is going to take a position like this one, she needs to do a lot more work to explain and defend it. Additionally, to make the claim that its the democrats who are warmongers and this is the example is difficult to fathom. The Republican party would be doing precisely the same thing. Now, it’s possible the Trump Republican party would not be doing the same thing. This Republican party is not the party of Reagan, Bush Sr., and Eisenhower. The Trump Republican party admires and aspires to have strongmen leaders like Putin. It’s possible Trump would have wanted to concede to Russian demands. It’s more likely he would have been coerced into a response by pressure from his own party.

Accusation Two (6:21) Today’s Democratic Party Rejects the Rule of Law

Here she makes two points. First she claims Democrats have “weaponized the security state and federal law enforcement for their own partisan political ambitions” and second she claims Democrats have undermined police authority with calls to defund them. Both claims are in tension with each other. If a political party wants a security state to go after political opponents, chances are they wouldn’t want to defund them. Authoritarian countries famously have a really well-funded police state that they throw at political opponents in order to maintain power. Defunding the police state works against that ambition. I don’t think Gabbard is thinking too deeply here, though.

Democrats are Calling for Defunding the Police

This claim was true during the summer of 2020’s George Floyd’s protests. There were calls, largely by activists, to defund the police. In my conversations and deep dives, this mostly meant, diverting at least some of that funding toward mental health services and other types of first responders that could intervene without weapons for situations where weapons were not necessary. In other words, this was a slogan that didn’t actually reflect well the actual policy proposals. Nonetheless, the United States has the highest incarcerations rates in the world. During the heat of this issue, I read the book Injustice for All that described how desperately in need of reform our justice system is. Our country routinely violates the fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth amendments and the brunt of this abuse is felt by poor and black communities. George Floyd’s death opened the eyes for many of these injustices and calls for reform did lead to modest reforms but far more work is needed. Now, most if not all Democratic politicians and activists have stopped using “Defund the Police” slogans and the police were not, in fact, defunded. But conservatives continue to accuse them of doing so, as Gabbard does here, because they view it as a winning political issue. It’s pure cynicism.

She also talks about liberal prosecutors who refuse to charge violent criminals and then blames Democrats for rising crime rates and for rising firearm purchases. I’m not sure how accurate these claims are honestly. I would like to see examples sited by credible, non-partisan sources. To the extent they are true, they are happening in deep blue cities, within the democratic fringe. More broadly, crime rates have risen modestly after significant and longstanding decreases for reasons that aren’t deeply understood. Most notably the rise is happening across the country, in red states and blue. Rising gun purchases can credibly be pinned on conservative fearmongering.

Democrats are Using the Police State to Target Conservatives

She uses the following examples. 1) Obama used the IRS to target conservative groups. 2) Biden’s department of justice recently indicted 11 pro-life activists for blockading an abortion clinic. 3) Biden’s newly formed domestic terror unit are targeting parents who are vocally standing against radical curriculums in their children’s schools. 4) Biden gave a speech that Trump supporters were extremists threats to our democracy. 5) Elizabeth Warren is saying the supreme court is illegitimate because they disagree with their rulings. 6) Biden did nothing while activists protested outside the homes of Supreme Court judges after they overturned Roe.

This list is a rapid fire of anecdotal and disconnected cases woven together to make the broader claim. First of all, Warren calling the supreme court illegitimate is an unrelated example to that point. The Supreme Court clearly loses their legitimacy if they become clearly and obviously partisan. That is happening, but worrying about a partisan court does not undermine the rule of law. Having a partisan court undermines the rule of law. The rest of the claims can be disputed individually but notably they are anecdotes that even if true does not indicate widespread abuse.

But let’s take each one by one. The IRS is an independent agency. Obama simply does not have the power to control the IRS actions. What happened was the laws changed in terms of which types of political organizations can receive tax exempt status. As a result of Obama there was a surge of conservative groups filing for this status and the IRS did not handle the audits and approvals well.

Eleven abortion activists were indicted for breaking the law and face criminal charges. The charges are obstructing patients and medical doctors from entering an abortion clinic which apparently happened. This seems relatively straight forward.

Gabbard’s accusation that Biden is using a domestic terror unit to target parents is a lie. I need to find out more about where this comes from but according to Heritage, school boards were worried about increasing threats of violence at school board meetings over mask mandates and CRT curriculum and sent a letter to the FBI asking for help. There was some response that led some conservatives to react but in no way does this mean that the federal government are actively targetting parents for monitoring their school’s curriculum. A complete lie.

Biden, in his speech, made some effort to target the fringe of the Trump MAGA movement who call for violence to overturn election results. He wasn’t describing “half of America” Gabbard claims.

Garland’s decision not to arrest protestors protesting outside of SCOTUS homes is also not a clear cut issue. There is a federal law against it but there’s also a risk of enforcing this law too aggressively in ways that undermine freedom of speech. Intervening was a judgment call.

Now it’s fair to assume that a Democratically controlled executive in charge of the justice system may show some political bias and it’s trivially easy to find examples of crimes with a partisan tilt being prosecuted by the opposing party. To show an egregious pattern of using the police state in the way Gabbard describes requires far more evidence than she is providing here.

Accusation Three (10:17) Today’s Democratic Party Does Not Believe in Free Speech or Freedom of Religion

She accuses democrats of calling speech they dislike misinformation, hate speech or violent speech. Disagreeing with speech is not the same as suppressing it. Calling out misinformation is not speech suppression. She then accuses Democrats with working “hand in glove” with corporate America to “smear and silent political opponents”. I don’t really know who she’s talking about. Who is this cabal of democratic elites controlling all aspects of America. It’s certainly true that many leaders of our most notable corporations today are democrats and have democratic sympathies. But corporations are far more beholden to profits than they are to ideology and that is a simple fact. It’s true that in response to Trump’s January 6th’s attempts to overthrow election results, they responded by kicking off many who supported these efforts from their platforms. It was an extreme response to an extreme act. It’s also true that there is a lot of legitimate hate speech out there and social media platforms have to moderate it. It’s definitely true that because of the liberal bias, that bias comes through. That’s not a cabal working “hand in glove” with democratic politicians. Like many of these claims, Gabbard is exaggerates far beyond reality.

She then tries to make the case that Democrats are hostile to religion, using as an example, a case where “under God” was removed from the democratic convention which is another distortion. Religions and people making religious arguments are not protected from criticism and many deserve the criticism they get.