‘Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity’ by John Shelby Spong | Review

What Easter is all about

As a liberal Christian, I have always had quite a few unanswered questions about the event that is commonly known as Easter. Growing up in a conservative household, I was raised to believe that Easter meant a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ that occurred on the third day after he gave himself up to be executed for the sins of the world. Although I had long ago dismissed the theory that Jesus died for the sins of the world, Spong changed my opinions drastically as I read Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture.

In this previous book, Spong convinced me that a physical resuscitation of Jesus had never taken place at all. He argued that the resurrection stories are heavily symbolic and must not (along with the rest of the Gospels) be taken literally. Still, the event called Easter remained shrouded in my mind. It wasn’t until I read Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity that I began to realize what Easter is all about. Spong took me on a thrilling journey through history and beyond Scripture as I arrived at an understanding of why the resurrection stories were written, why certain symbols were used, and most importantly, what this all means to Christians today.

In order to reconstruct the Easter moment, Spong employs a Jewish literary device known as midrash. Much like a parable, midrash uses supernatural or otherwise incredulous events as symbols for a timeless truth. In essence, it captures the present inside the symbols of yesterday, preserving the inner meanings of the faith story for current and future generations. Midrash cannot be found in a literal reading of the text; one must read between the lines to capture the hidden (true) meaning of what is being said. When the traditional Easter story is examined under this midrashic lens, a whole new story emerges.

The story that Spong recreates is much more believable and appropriate than the traditional tale. Spong’s rendering of Easter begins when Jesus and the disciples travel to Jerusalem for Passover. During the Passover celebration, Jesus is recognized by the Jewish authorities as a rebel and a political threat, for which he is put to death. The disciples, shocked, flee to their homes in Galilee to mourn their loss.

Over the course of the next six months, however, Peter and his companions realize that there was something about the life of their rabbi that made him divine. They understood that the spirit of Jesus transcended death because the way Jesus died was exactly like they way he lived. He gave his life to others and for others. He loved wastefully and selflessly. In that living and dying, the disciples concluded that Jesus revealed the meaning of God.

God is not victory, their point of view stated. God is the presence of transcendent meaning in the midst of human defeat. God is not the promise of an infinite reward. God is the meaning that is present in the face of fate, tragedy, and undeserved pain. God cannot be seen in Jesus’ escape from death at Easter until God is first seen in the crucified one who gives life as he dies, who offers forgiveness as he is victimized, who shows love as he is hated.

Spong’s rendering of Jesus as one who gave his life away to others also reveals the true meaning of Easter. Easter is not about believing in incongruent stories that have been disproved by the laws of science. Easter is about realizing that Jesus is the meaning of God. It is Easter that caused the disciples to travel back to Jerusalem six months later during the feast of the Tabernacles to proclaim that “He has risen!” and “Death cannot contain him!”

Easter also caused the need for early Christian writers to capture the sentiments in subjective, non-literal words so that we, too, can enter the text and experience the moment anew every day. We, too, can proclaim that Jesus lives on in each one of us as Easter becomes a timeless invitation to enter the meaning of God by living for others, expecting no reward, loving wastefully no matter what the cost. When we do that, we are Easter people and resurrection becomes real.

I have the distinct pleasure of saying that Resurrection: Myth or Reality? is one of the most influential, spirit-giving books that I have ever read. Each time I read Spong, I marvel at the way that this one man can shatter all of tradition and yet make the new experience even more sincere and invigorating.

I highly recommend Spong’s books to all Christians searching for a new way to approach the Scripture. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? and This Hebrew Lord are the best two of the ones that I’ve read so far. But make no mistake, everything he writes is a gem and I can’t thank him enough for giving me a religion and a strong sense of spirituality that I otherwise wouldn’t have. All of Spong’s writing is nothing short of an extraordinary blessing.