CAFE NOIR » Tales of an atheist, anarchist, wannabe filmmaker of sorts, and father of three lovable little beasties

Re-imagining the Christmas Story with John Shelby Spong

Along my journey out of conservative Christianity, some of my most unexpected discoveries came simply by reading the Bible, with the help of an able guide or several. Trying to truly take the biblical writers seriously and on their own individual terms, rather than tortuously forcing them always to agree with each other and with conservative Christian doctrine.

Former Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong has been one such often-able guide for me. I read his book Born of a Woman several years ago and it shed incredible light for me on the birth narratives. The video below is of a presentation he gave at the Chautauqua Institution, speaking on these narratives and the virgin birth tradition.

One particular surprise for me was that only two of the New Testament writers (Matthew and Luke) appear to know and/or care anything about a virgin birth. And Mark, in fact, (writing earlier than they) seems quite unashamed about one specific detail (omitted by them) which almost single-handedly eliminates beyond a reasonable doubt the possibility of the virgin birth. Spong touches briefly on this beginning at about the 7:35 mark, and throughout the early minutes of his presentation he summarizes the various internal biblical evidences against the virgin birth.

And as the virgin birth began to appear to me no longer a very compelling or edifying motif, another surprise I stumbled across is that there’s actually a rather powerful and beautiful message hidden away within Matthew’s seemingly mundane Chapter 1 genealogy, of all places. Allow Spong to bring this to life for you in the second half of his presentation, with help of course from Saint Matthew himself:

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  • Jessica Scheberl 12.23.15 at 1:03 pm

    Hi Jeff. I hope you and your family are well. I discovered your website a while ago, and I’ve been quietly following your posts and resulting discussions in the comments for each. Every article hurts my heart. But this one in particular, maybe because I just got home from the practice for the kids’ Christmas Eve program, has me almost in tears. I’m not a philosopher, and although I consider myself intelligent, I wouldn’t describe myself as an intellectual. I do not wish to enter into a philosophical discussion about theology and the scientific evidence for or against any specific Biblical doctrine. At least not right now. But every time I read one of your posts, it weighs, heavily and unhappily, on my mind for days. I have a series of questions for you, none of which I expect you to answer in a reply to this comment. It’s enough that you read them and give them a thought.

    First of all, you refer to the journey of discovery that has led you from conservative Christianity to atheism. I know almost nothing about this journey. I do not know what life experiences led you to question your faith in the first place, and it’s not my place to judge what I neither know nor understand. However, were you objective in your search for the truth? Did you read the commentaries and essays of scholars who supported the truth of the Bible in addition to those, like Spong, who attempt to disprove its validity? Again, I’m not asking you to publicly defend yourself, just think on it.

    Second, why do you assume that what humans are capable of reaching and understanding ultimate truth? Is it possible that God exists, and that He is a Being far above and beyond what we are able to process? It is so hard to accept that there are some things we may never be able to understand?

    Third, there was a section in one of your essays where you discuss how the concept of hell used to terrify you when you were a child. Now, if you’re right, and I absolutely, to the very core of my being, believe that you are not, nothing happens to us when we die. We just sort of…wink out of existence. No big deal right? Make the most of life while we’re here? HOWEVER…what…if…you…are…wrong. Seriously, think about it. What if you’re wrong? What if there are things in our universe that cannot be explained or reasoned or dissected until they make sense? What if you, in your enlightened, atheistic state are, ironically, now in danger of the very thing that terrified you as a child?

    I read a Spong article that talks about the symbolic nature of the Bible, how stories in the New Testament mirror those in the Old Testament. He uses this to discredit the Bible as a accurate historical source. However, I’ve read Tom Bradford, who discusses something he calls the “reality of duality.” His essays discuss how God works in patterns (mathematics being one example), how some events and things on earth are faint shadows of something spiritual and/or heavenly, how he interprets some events in the Old Testament as being visual reminders of promised events to come. Much of it is personal interpretation, but he does translations from the original Hebrew, which makes for interesting reading.

    Anyway, I respect that you are always courteous in your articles, and that you seem to consider the ideas and opinions of others. I beg you to read what I’ve written with an open mind, and I pray for you. The God I wholeheartedly believe in is a God that has touched my life in so many ways. I hope you find your way back.


    • Jeff Kesterson 12.30.15 at 2:34 pm

      Hi Jessi, thanks for reading and commenting–I genuinely appreciate it! And as is my usual custom, I’ve gotta apologize for the slow response. To your questions:

      1. I tried my best to be objective in my search, although in retrospect I started out very biased toward my conservative Christian beliefs. I didn’t set out hoping to abandon these beliefs, I desperately wanted to confirm them. I don’t remember exactly where, but somewhere along the line I caught a glimpse of something related to these beliefs that looked very wrong, and I started digging frantically for the key that would make it right again. I read all sorts of apologetics literature, side by side with critical literature, and despite all my hopes and expectations I eventually realized that the critical perspectives made so much more sense of what I was seeing.

      2. I’m not exactly sure what the term ultimate truth is taken to mean. I assume as most of us do that there exists a mind-independent reality out there, but I’m not sure that we humans are capable of grasping this reality in a particularly objective manner, and I’m quite sure that there are profound mysteries that we haven’t yet (or ever will) grasp. It is possible (though very improbable) that God exists, and almost by definition such a being would be far above and beyond what we are able to process. In fact, assuming God does exist, it turns out that God’s “actions” “intentions” and “purposes” (if those terms even make sense when speaking of God) are so inscrutable to us that we can’t draw any justified conclusions about what God would be likely to do. This problem runs so deep that it undermines all knowledge of God, it seems to me. In other words, you can’t selectively apply so-called skeptical theism to skirt profound logical/evidential problems related to theism (eg, the problem of evil) and then turn around and say “but we do know this, this, this, and this for certain about God.”

      3. I sweated over the question of “what if I’m wrong” for a long time, and this fear kept me biased toward trying to retain my beliefs for far longer than the evidence warranted. Eventually I not only realized but truly felt the weight of “what if I’m wrong about Islam, or about Judaism, or even about ancient Roman religion?” [There’s a hilarious Edward Current video which sums this up pretty poignantly.] There are an infinite number of possible horrible-fates-which-might-be-averted-by-doing/believing-this-or-that, and we can’t attend to them all, nor should we. Only if there’s compelling evidence for any particular one should we take it seriously, and there certainly is no such compelling evidence that eternal damnation awaits those who disbelieve the claims of conservative Christianity. Furthermore, I realized it wasn’t a healthy or a godly way of life to be driven by this kind of fear, and the fear was a strong hint that I didn’t actually hold these beliefs anyway and so there couldn’t be any harm in simply admitting that.

      About biblical studies, I would simply encourage you to read as widely from the critical literature as you read from the conservative literature. And then draw whatever conclusions that appear to you to make the most sense of the evidence. The Spong video I’ve posted here is fairly compelling stuff, I think. He touches on the parallelism between Old and New Testament narratives and characters, but he includes quite a bit more than that. Again, the evidence from Mark 3 and 6 which he discusses beginning at the 7:35 mark is very intriguing, as one small example.

      Thanks and I hope to hear from you again!

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