In his 24th book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (HarperOne, June), the always provocative Bishop John Shelby Spong takes on the Gospel of John, opening new windows of insight and challenging the ways the fourth gospel has usually been understood.
How did you come to write this book?
Well, I never really liked the Gospel of John because I never could find the humanity of Jesus in it. I thought it presented Jesus as a visitor from another planet; in addition, John’s gospel is and has been interpreted as a document that fuels anti-Semitism in the church. Then I discovered Aileen Guilding’s book, The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship, and she convinced me that the fourth gospel was a thoroughly Jewish document. It’s the only one of the four gospels, for example, that mentions all of the major festivals of the Jewish faith. So I spent the next five years reading the Gospel of John and every commentary on the fourth gospel from the first through the early 21st century. I discovered a fascinating gospel that is Jewish to its core, characterized by its boundless, mystical thought.
What are some of the misconceptions about the fourth gospel?
People think that it’s literal history, but nothing about it is historical. The gospel is not history, but an artistic and mystical interpretation of reality. The characters are total mythological creations on the part of the author; there was never a Lazarus, a Nicodemus, a Samaritan woman at the well, or a beloved disciple. In my mind, the characters have the same historicity as Sherlock Holmes or Wonder Woman. Moreover, not one word in this gospel was spoken by Jesus, and none of the miracles described actually happened. Instead of thinking of the writer as presenting a literal history, we discover an author who is a master artist painting a master portrait that leads us into a new Christian experience.
What messages would you like readers to take from your book?
First, this gospel doesn’t teach an atonement theology that focuses on God becoming human. It’s not about incarnation, but it’s about humanity being the vessel through which God works. Second, then, the way to become fully divine is to become fully human. Christian faith calls us into the fullness of our humanity. Jesus is the one who achieved oneness with God and who is the source of life and love and the ground of being. Jesus represents the possibilities of a new dimension of existence that transcends all the boundaries that restrict us from opening ourselves to God and allowing this source of love to flow through us. Finally, the cross, not the resurrection, is the climax of the gospel of John. The cross is transformative because the happiness of the beloved is more important than one’s own happiness. The cross reveals that we’re called to a deeper, fuller experience of what it means to be alive and open to new dimensions of life which our religious boundaries—creeds, atonement theologies—have kept us from experiencing.