Murder(ing) Mystery

Last night, Dear Friend and I attended a discussion of John Shelby Spong's book, Jesus for the Nonreligious. The discussion was sponsored by a group which bills itself as a cross-denominational, ecumenical gathering of "progressive Christians." There were about 25 people there, and the discussion was lively and interesting.

It was also something of a watershed moment for me. I can't even tell you the last time I was the most theologically conservative person in a room--but I'm pretty sure I was last night!

(I know, I know--you can pick your jaw up off the floor now... ;-)

Before I go on, I need to say a word about +Spong. As some of you know, it was +Spong's books Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism and Living in Sin? that brought the Episcopal Church to my attention. For better or worse, Jack Spong is responsible for my being an Episcopalian.

But these days, I tend to find +Spong annoying. It's as if he can never stop reacting to the fundamentalism in which he was reared. He's like a reformed smoker/drinker/gambler, who now has to lecture everyone on the evils of whatever it was he used to do. Everything is black or white--no grey allowed. It gets tiring after a while.

I grew up as a fundamentalist, too---and, to a certain degree, my current approach to the Christian faith will always be a reaction to the bad things about that experience. But, after well over a decade of wrestling with very serious theological questions, I have somehow gotten past the need to define myself in opposition to the literalists.

+Spong hasn't. In his own way, he is as dogmatic as any biblical literalist. He states categorically "This could not have happened," and we are expected to exchange our unthinking obedience to one set of fundamentalist beliefs for another, arguably more "progressive," one.

Worse, he blithely states that, if you don't agree with him, you are child-like and refuse to live in the modern world.

Alrighty then....

The discussion last night moved along those lines. My first uncomfortable moment came when the discussion leader used the word "brainwash." He was talking about telling children stories about the miracles of Jesus, and asked the group how we could tell those stories without brainwashing our kids into believing things that clearly were not true.

I asked him if he was uncomfortable telling children fairy tales? After all, those aren't true either---but most of us don't have a debrief with our kids after their nightly story time to explain that frogs really can't talk and they won't turn into princes if you kiss them!

In addition, I dare say that stories like "Cinderella" and "Beauty and the Beast" are at least as deeply embedded in our culture as any biblical story---and as the mother of a daughter, I would contend that they do infinitely more psychological damage to our children than stories of Jesus turning water into wine or healing lepers.

(On second thought...maybe we SHOULD debrief our kids after those stories! I know that the myth of the Prince and "happily ever after" harmed me in ways that have been much more painful and long-lasting than anything I learned in church...)

My next uncomfortable moment came when the discussion leader and a couple of others started putting clergy "in the dock." There were numerous assertions that clergy don't preach what they really know to be the truth because they fear offending parishioners--and a call for them to "tell the truth" to those people who still believe in things like the virgin birth and the miracle stories.

All eyes whipped immediately to Dear Friend...who had chosen to attend "in collar," and was, I suppose, "fair game." ;-)

At that point, I had to comment. I told them I was struck by the irony of a group of people who are unhappy because ministers tell people what to think....demanding that ministers tell people what NOT to think!

After 35 years in the ministry, Dear Friend has a much tougher skin than I do. I was really proud of him for the way he responded. He said that he didn't see sermons in the same way they did. He is a great lover of poetry, and he asked them:

"Do you 'believe' a poem?"

In his view, the Bible is a poem--not a scientific or historical treatise. The stories about Jesus are "poems" about God's love for us and God's way of interacting with us on a human level. To illustrate, Dear Friend recited this poem from Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
The Eagle
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

As he pointed out, if you read that poem "literally," you would have to say "An eagle is really a member of the Accipitridae family. It doesn't have 'hands,' it has CLAWS. And it is not close to the sun, which is between 91-94.5 million miles (depending on where we are in the orbit). And the sea is not 'wrinkled,' nor does it 'crawl."'

And if you did that, you would have ruined it. A poem and a scientific paper on eagles are two totally different things. Both have their uses, but it is a mistake to confuse the two.

Dear Friend observed that most people seem to yearn for transcendence, and that a sermon should speak to that yearning, rather than be an academic lecture on textual or historical biblical criticism. He does talk about scholarship in Christian Education classes, small groups, or one-on-one discussions with people--but he believes that to do so in a sermon is to exercise an abusive form of clerical power by telling people what to believe. And he talked about transcendence being largely a "right-brain" thing--one of elusive experience, rather than left-brained, factual knowledge.

(As an aside, I have never, in all the years I've known him, heard Dear Friend tell anyone what to believe. In fact, his sermons are almost always a series of questions, without any answers. This unnerves some people, but it appeals mightily to people who are seriously engaged in theological reflection.)

I don't know what the other participants made of that. My reaction was to spend the rest of the evening wondering why people want to murder mystery.


I run with a pretty well-educated group of people. I was trained in the social sciences, so I have a nose for methodology and I can read statistics and ask the right questions to see if they represent any shade of reality. I work with lots of people who have M.D.s or PhD.s in the hard sciences, and--even though I don't have a degree in science--I'm something of a science geek. I've got no problem with the prevailing paradigm for scientific research, which demands testable hypotheses and replicable results.

And I've also got no problem believing that Jesus actually turned water into wine or literally healed people. I can say the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers. I absolutely believe in the Real Presence in the bread and wine during Eucharist.

I suspect the people in the group last night would be flummoxed by my ability to reconcile all these things in my head. And a few years ago, I probably would have been too. I used to struggle, HARD, with the insane things that Christianity asks you to accept--a fully divine/fully human, sinless incarnation of God who was put to death, rose again, and ascended into heaven.

What kind of crazy stuff is THAT?!?!?

But for a variety of reasons (some of which I have shared here and some of which I haven't), I have come to feel the "truth" of those things. I have learned to open my hands, shrug, and say "It's a mystery."

For many people, that's a cop-out. I can understand that. But I have found that there is a role for mystery in my faith. I have discovered that mystery and Truth are not strangers, or enemies, but are engaged in an intimate--even erotic--dance. I have learned that leaving room for that mystery brings me much closer to that transcendence for which I long.

Every Sunday, I drink from the cup of Mystery, and am transformed.


The more I think about +Spong's title, Jesus for the Nonreligious, the more puzzled I become. Why would the "nonreligious" even be interested in Jesus? With only one or two exceptions last night, everyone in the group gave a religious affiliation. They weren't nonreligious--just not happy with traditional Christianity. THAT, I understand!

But if you take +Spong's view of Jesus and you remain in the Christian fold, I'd really be interested to know why. I confess that I am mystified by the lengths to which people will go to hang on to a Jesus who is really just another "good teacher." What is it about that Jesus that makes you want to hold on to him?

If you choose to look at Jesus in a way that strips away all of the mystery, you won't get any argument from me. I won't tell you that you are going to a Hell I don't believe in. I won't think you are evil or disobedient to God if you don't accept that Jesus was divine in some way (whatever that means).

But I will wonder why you bother. I'd really love to know.