The famed retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, NJ, John Shelby Spong, gave a lecture yesterday at the Community Church in the remote desert town (very well-watered, though) of Rio Verde, Arizona. Think golf. Think retirement community. The drive there is gorgeous, thirty-five miles of slow climbing through the desert, the sun fading away to my left with the entire sky just a deep wash of azure blue with just the slightest hint of pink, punctuated here and there by lonely saguaros popping up along the way. It's a good hour drive. A good one. I gave myself time to arrive early, too much time, in fact. When I got there everything was all shut down. I checked all the doors, for I was thirsty and wanted a drink, but I found all of them locked. I walked around. All locked. The only door that opened for me was that of a little chapel across the main building, maybe a thirty to forty seater, with a pulpit, some tasteful modern art, and a baby grand piano to the right. Smiling, I set my bag down. I would play for a while to while the time until the lecture came. I had been looking for a water fountain, but at least the piano was a consolation that would make the waiting more tolerable. I started playing quietly, barely playing, just some simple explorations of quartal harmony in D. Simple progressions. After some time of this soft improvisation I heard the bells ring the hour somewhere nearby. Six o'clock. I noted it and continued playing. Middle C was rubbingly out of tune, so I tried to avoid that region, but the rest of the piano seemed OK. I'm not a piano player per çe but give me twenty minutes with a groove in mind and I'll come up with some music on a piano, once I gain more confidence in my fingers' stumblings and start to get into it, it becomes a cool mini-trance experience. Eventually, I dared to sing. I found my fingers figuring out the simple opening progression to one of my favorite innocence mission tunes, "Heyday", and started singing that tune, slow and careful. Though it wasn't a good-hair day for me, still I sang con ganas, willfully . It's funny, but a lot of my friends do church gigs on a weekly basis. I've envied that is has been a very lucrative source for many. I've always wanted to have one of those gigs, but I guess that my thing is so idiosyncratic that it scares people who are used to sleepy innocuous hymns in their liturgies. Too bad, I think people could use more spirited substance in their services. But what do you do when people have already fallen into a groove of their habitual repetitions? Hope that someone is listening. - and then keep feeling it, in whatever way it comes. It's the best one can do.
I stood up, pushed the bench back underneath the keyboard, picked up my bag and quietly walked through the little chapel and exited. Outside I found people already trickling into the main church. I went inside, found the water fountain, drank deep, went for a pee, bought a book at the AzFCT table that's usually there at all the events that they sponsor and took my place pretty much front row center, not wanting to suffer the straining of my hearing faculties that I had had to endure at the Schussler lecture.
Spong is famous. He has been a prominent figure in the current historical Jesus industry for many years (he is now in his 70's) and though he cites personal friendships with people like Carl Sagan and Desmond Tutu, he is considered a controversial figure, a threat to some contemporary fundamentalists who would view the scriptures as perfectly begotten, directly from God, without error. He is a fearless iconoclast of sorts and, as such, I admire him. Apparently so do some others. The church was about half-filled, mostly with retirees, though youth was slightly more noticeable at this lecture than at Schüssler's. In contrast to the weird rejection I experienced in that lecture and spoke about below, a lovely couple seated themselves to the left of me and immediately started to converse with me. Gentle people. It was cool.
The talk tonight basically consisted of his establishing a list of facts which lead him to the conclusion that it is because we are reading the first century symbolism of the Christian Testament completely out of its Judaic context, in most cases not even knowing what the original meaning of the symbols are, that we wind up misinterpreting the meaning of the theological truths these sacred texts try to convey. It's actually a very good case.
The opening list of facts generally have to do with the essential Judaic context of the texts that would become the sacred texts of the nascent movement:
- Jesus was Jewish
- Jesus' companions, his disciples, were Jewish.
- Paul was Jewish.
- *** The authors of the four canonical gospels were Jewish (he makes a case for Luke having been a Jew, not by birth, but as a convert).
From these simple facts it is fair to insist on the reading of the resultant texts against that which we know (which is surprisingly little, in fact) about the liturgical and midrashic traditions during the period of time that produced these texts, namely from about 50 C.E. to about the turn of first century, when the last of these were penned. When we read the NT in relation to the symbology used in that Judaic context, we find that the author of the gospel that bears Matthew's name, for example, was trying to paint Jesus as a new Moses, one who even surpassed Moses, in fact, in his revealing the nature of God. We find that the author of Luke similarly used Isaiah as his model. It is likewise for the symbology employed by Mark and John. The problem seems to have arisen once the emerging movement became decidedly gentile in its makeup and especially when it became antagonistic toward the Jews (after the 88 CE expulsion from the synagogues). Not only did these hellenic would-be exegetes misunderstand the symbology involved, for instance regarding "the lamb of God" (clearly a Yom Kippur symbol), they were uninterested in and reluctant to (and even hostile toward) reading it in Judaic terms. What were once scriptural allusions, once misread through an antagonistic lens (through a glass way darkly), now became historical words and acts to follow, interpolated into all of the subsequent creeds and liturgical formulations. I think Spong is pretty spot on on this.
*** My own study has led me to doubt that all of the authors of the gospels and the rest of the books in the NT were Jewish in the full sense that Bishop Spong (and a consensus of scholars) accepts as a premise. I think that the gospels, particularly Matthew's, are the reactionary products of heretic communities of wannabe Jews (they are usually called god-fearers) whose expulsion from their respective host synagogues was the catalyst which compelled them to set the story down on paper. Until then, all the scripture they had was that of the host culture, and in order to stay consistent with the pauline mysteries they needed to borrow Abram's bossom, so to speak, so they kept the Tanach (at least the Septuagint) - what good is a Messiah without David to vouch for it? - but had to supplement it with the new Jesus material to reflect their own "fulfilled Judaism" model . . . . but that's a huge topic which will require some exposition in its own post (if not in a big article or book).