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The source of His wisdom

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On days like today, hard as it might be to imagine, many Christians' thoughts return to the source.

American cleric John Shelby Spong insists jubilantly and contagiously that the Bible is "fun to read and even more fun to understand."

With 59 chapters and 400-plus pages, this book is his thorough, unusual attempt to document and share that ardent belief.

Spong, retired Episcopalian bishop of Newark, N.J., is perhaps the dominant public voice of radically liberal American Protestant theology. He has written and spoken voluminously and provocatively on matters biblical for decades.

Even at 80, he exhibits exactly zero signs of slowing down. The whirlwind force of Re-Claiming the Bible only reasserts and recharges those efforts.

What most characterizes his books and public talks are three things: (1) his unquestionably reputable grounding in modern, rigorous biblical scholarship; (2) his insistence on reaching "beneath the literal words of the text," seeking the "profound truths" that lurk below; and (3) his "boundless enthusiasm" for the Bible, especially the New Testament.

Re-Claiming the Bible's odd shape and structure makes sense once one digests that it emerges from a multi-year series of columns on not just the entire Christian Bible as a finished product but on the presumed mechanics of its compilation.

Each of the chapters of Spong's book are four- to seven-page ruminations on either individual biblical books or themes covering several of those books. So, he offers brief chapters on the Torah, on prophecy, on the complexities of the book of Isaiah, on the enduring magnetism of the book of Job, on the riddles of dating the historical Jesus, and on the frustrations of figuring out Jesus' crucial first interpreter, Paul.

The entire Christian Bible is discussed. Spong excludes absolutely nothing. On that score alone, this book is a feat.

He devotes fully half of his book to the New Testament, despite the fact that the New Testament is dwarfed by the size and number of texts in the Old Testament.

Emblematic of the sorts of themes and conclusions that Spong teases out of this vast roster of books are his chapters on the New Testament gospels. Over and over, Spong hammers home some of the peculiarities of that collection of four gospels.

For one, obvious, peculiarity, there are not one but four of these gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For another, they are both strikingly similar and strikingly contradictory.

For still another, rigorous scholarship tells us -- unanimously -- that they were written in the eight and ninth decades of the first century. Spong dwells on that word, "decades." It is crucial to his theological outlook: Jesus occurred, decades passed, and only then were stories written down about him.

Despite being bent toward metaphorical, non-literal readings, Spong does assert categorically that this Jesus existed. He lived. He died. Whether or not he actually rose from that death is the point at which Spong most dramatically shifts gears, opting for an understanding of the resurrection as an "experience" of Jesus.

In any case, Spong writes, again following good scholarship, that Jesus was born in about 4 BC and died in about AD 30. Those peculiar gospels, then, would stand unwritten for at least 40 years.

The trick is that since those gospels (as all the biblical texts) are composed generations after their subject, they therefore display all the characteristics of a prolonged oral tradition. Things were added. Things dropped out. Things were changed. Mistakes were made. Questions were answered. Meanings accrued.

The stories of Christmas that would become so massively significant and so hugely loved are part and parcel of that process. Of the four, only the gospels of Matthew and Luke include the stories of the birth and infancy of this historical Jesus.

And even there they do not agree. One gospel has Herod the Great and the slaughter of the innocents. The other has the shepherds and the angels. One configures the baby Jesus as the future Jewish Messiah. The other renders him the imminent conquering hero of the Roman Empire.

For Spong, this all makes perfect sense. He has worked his way through the Bible painstakingly. He has done his homework on what secular biblical scholarship has to tell us. He "gets" the significance of scholarly conclusions in a way that few believers/theologians do.

Moses did not write the Torah; "prophesy" does not mean "predict the future"; Jonah did not actually dwell in a whale's belly; Jesus wrote nothing; Christmas is a story told in different ways. For Spong, it's all good and all crystal-clear.

With its sprawling topic and segmented form, this book makes most sense as a resource for a believer who seeks trained, vigorous, elegant and entertaining insights into bits of the Bible.

Few will read it cover to cover, but legions will learn and be amused by dipping in and out of its lively offerings.

Laurence Broadhurst teaches in the department of religion and culture at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2011 A1

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