THE FOURTH GOSPEL: TALES OF A JEWISH MYSTIC, John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, (2013), Harper Collins
Woe to the St. Philip’s preacher who prepares a future sermon on the Gospel of John without reading Bp. Spong’s new book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. Now that I have your attention, this is a wonderful read, rooted in scholarship, but directed for the lay person and clergy to come to grips with, I believe, one of the most challenging and at the same time spiritually rewarding Gospel rendition. Spong too is challenging, but also a deeply rooted and faithful Christian who inspires. The Gospel of John is based on the Book of Signs, probably with many authors. A sign is a mighty act that is public that points to something larger and more important. Spong again unpacks the doctrine of the Atonement as related to the Crucifixion, and reworks our understanding of the Resurrection as the result of his deep scholarly research. Spong shows how the Gospel of John is dramatically different from the early three Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke). John’s audience in the late 1st century is in a quite different place from those addressed by the earlier Gospel tellers. The Johannine Christian community has severed its ties with the Jewish Synagogue, a wrenching experience, and now is heading into the diaspora and the Gentile world. Unpacking the Gospel, Spong argues the following: “There is probably not a single word in the 4th Gospel that Jesus ever spoke … it is a journey beyond scripture, beyond creed, beyond religion itself. It will be a journey into life, into higher consciousness, into a permeating reality for which we have traditionally used the word ‘God’ as a symbol.” Thus the writer maintains that the Gospel of John is a mystical book, connecting the inner spirit of the self with the outer event of the Crucifixion which makes the “oneness” with God possible and total. John sees Jesus symbolically as the serpent (Old Testament reference) lifted on the cross drawing the venom out of human life, restoring wholeness. It is a powerful image. “The cross is to be Jesus’ revelatory throne”. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men (and women) to myself.” Spong concludes “[At the cross] … Jesus will reveal God as the portrait of expanded life, limitless love, and enhanced being.” A mind- and heart-shaking read. Well worth our time.
—The Rev. Paul Buckwalter