For those who think I may be obsessed with Joe Paterno and his unceremonious exit from Penn State university, hear me out on this. Because it’s more about what people believe and proclaim and why than it is about a legendary football coach. And it’s more about what people think about Jesus than it is about what anyone thinks of Joe.
This post was prompted by two unrelated incidents from last week. First was a suggestion from Lisa Delay (now referring to herself as my muse) that I write something about the take on the Bible proffered by John Shelby Spong in a recent book; the second was the interview with Mr. Paterno conducted by Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins. A day or two after reading the latter I went back to the Post to read some of the questions asked of Jenkins by some of her readers and her responses thereto. At first, I was dumbfounded by what I saw.
My perspective was of one who really wanted to hear what the man had to say. Yes, the man in question is one I have admired for his longterm commitment to higher education as more than the backdrop for athletics. Enough has been written on that. When reading the Jenkins account, I tend to believe what he said, perhaps largely based on what I knew of the man prior to all of the unfolding drama of the past two months. When reading some of the vitriolic comments to the article, however–some of which seemed clearly to take Jenkins herself aback–it became evident that nothing was going to satisfy these critics short of an exposure of Paterno as a fraud from beginning to end. When this did not happen, even one of the more celebrated news reporters of our time was summarily charged and convicted of being blinded to “the truth” or being complicit in perpetuating a hoax. Why the venom? Is it solely, or even primarily, because of their righteous indignation over the horrible acts of Jerry Sandusky? I doubt it, not to say that they are not seriously bothered thereby. But I rather suspect that it stems from a prior impression of who Joe Paterno really is, one which is rather far removed from my own (which, by the way, is not in the category of sainthood).
And it’s this coloring of our reading by prior associations and attitudes that brings me to the former Episcopal bishop, Spong, known for his engaging manner with audiences–and for his denial of orthodox beliefs regarding the incarnation, deity, and bodily resurrection of Jesus. It’s not only evangelicals who wonder what sort of strange teaching this man has been offering, and how he derives it from what is universally acknowledged as the church’s source book, the Bible. What does one do with biblical data that seems irrefutably to affirm what Spong denies? Well, the short answer is to debunk the idea that the Bible is in any ontological sense the Word of God. This is what Spong attempts to do in his book, Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.
There are some ideas Spong is unable or unwilling (I don’t know the man’s mind to determine which it might be, or in what measure) to relinquish. One is his commitment to naturalism, according to which nothing happens which is not attributable to solely natural forces, keeping God from having any direct contact with the ongoing operations or decisions of this world. That includes the closing of the possibility of life beyond the grave for Jesus, or for anyone before, since, or yet to come. He is also fully committed to the ideas of liberal thinking about all moral questions, so that when Jesus or any other biblical spokesperson declares otherwise, it is merely due to the agenda of the one doing the reporting, which is obviously to present their preferred reading of Jesus in order to further their own interests. They certainly were not inspired in any meaningful way that would warrant an authoritative voice being attached to their writings.
One wonders what Spong’s prior association with God might be. What colors his reading of what is possible, and of how seriously the word of the reporters should be taken, what their agenda might be? And do these previous impressions about God determine what he is able to accept as words from Him, rather than from biased reporters.
What’s my point? Simply this: all of us are influenced by our prior associations or ideas when we hear something new. That is, there are things we want to hear and things we don’t want to hear; and we can–if we choose–place the words and reports we hear into the already determined framework we carry with us. For Spong or the diehard Paterno critic as for his most ardent supporter, we can allow those ideas to continue to determine what we will accept as true. Or we can allow the framework itself to be questioned. And Christians do not need to fear this sort of questioning if they have already had an experience of the One who describes himself as the way, the TRUTH, and the life. If we know Jesus, we know the truth, through which we can see, in an ever unfolding, always growing way everything else, since by him and for him everything has been made. We may–and at times must–change our perspective on the things in this world, maybe needing to give up cherished ideas. But it centers in our knowledge of Jesus, who doesn’t change.