Gretta Vosper's Without or Without God: Orange or Green?

I recently started reading With or Without God, a new book by Gretta Vosper. Normally I don't blog about books while I'm reading them, but this one is particularly relevant to progressive Christianity, which is what this blog was meant to be about (and sometimes actually is). I knew I was going to have to blog about it when I found myself doing something I never do to my books -- I pulled out a pencil and started writing comments in the margins. (I have this weird, almost religious reverence towards books, which is why most of the books on my shelves look like they've never been read, much less written-in.)

Vosper is the pastor of the West Hill United Church, here in Toronto. She is also the founder and chair of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity. She is, apparently, somewhat controversial even within her own denomination, the already-quite-progressive United Church of Canada.

I was hesitant to pick this one up, for two reasons. First, I read an article in Maclean's a few weeks ago (I think I blogged about it, actually), and I wasn't overly impressed with what Vosper had to say. Second, the book is dedicated to, and features a foreward written by, John Shelby Spong. I don't have anything against Spong as a person -- I met him a few years ago, and he's a real gentleman, and a good speaker -- but I find his vision for the Christian religion to be a little thin. I suspected Vosper might be offering more of the same (and, though I'm not quite finished the book, that is still my impression).

Today I read an interesting article by Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun, that was published on Saturday. It compares Vosper's book with Emerging Church: A Model for Change and a Map for Renewal, a new book by Bruce Sanguin, who, like Vosper, is a pastor in the United Church of Canada.

I haven't read anything by Sanguin before, but in his latest book he apparently makes reference to Spiral Dynamics, and specifically the work of Don Beck. My knowledge of Spiral Dynamics is limited to what I've read about it in works by Ken Wilber. I actually thought about it as I was reading Vosper's book, because it seems to me that she is writing from a strictly "green" perspective. (By Douglas Todd's reckoning, it's more likely the "orange" level, which is the stage before green.)

Todd says he prefers Sanguin's "option of exploring different ways of understanding God, not defaulting to only ethics," as Vosper apparently proposes. He writes, "Given all the expansive, multidisciplinary thinking going in progressive Christian circles these days, it's hard to understand why Vosper ignores so much of it." I've been wondering much the same thing.

I should have some time to finish her book in the next couple of days, so hopefully I'll be able to write something about it soon.

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Prophecies of Jesus

Today's gospel reading (Luke 24.13-35) features the story of a pair of disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus walks with them, but they do not recognise him. He asks what they are talking about, and they tell him about the prophet Jesus, who was crucified. A "vision of angels" had announced that Jesus was alive, but he had not yet been seen.
Then [Jesus] said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24.25-27)
There are a lot of Christians who are really impressed with the New Testament references to Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. If one forgets that the writers of the gospels had access to, and were familiar with, the Jewish scriptures, then I suppose the correspondence between some of the events in the New Testament and certain passages from the Hebrew Bible might indeed be very compelling.

When we remember that the evangelists actually knew the Jewish scriptures, the alleged "prophecies" become much less impressive, however. In an article entitled "Did Jesus Fulfill Prophecy?," Robert J. Miller explores the "proof-from-prophecy theme" in the Gospel of Matthew, the New Testament text that "carries it out most thoroughly and most explicitly."

This idea that the story of Jesus was foretold in the Hebrew scriptures, and that Jesus's status as Messiah should therefore be apparent to anyone familiar with said scriptures, has a long association with Christian anti-semitism, as the Jewish people have long been accused of "blindness" for having failed to recognised the promised Messiah in the person of Jesus.

I highly recommend reading Miller's article, which is available here.

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The Jesus Problem

In the cover story of this week's issue of Maclean's ("The Jesus Problem," March 31, 2008), Brian Bethune reports that some Christians have decided that the Church might be "better off" without Jesus. I've heard some curious ideas before, but this was a new one.

As evidence of this, the article cites the recent publication of With or Without God, by Gretta Vosper, the pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto. Bethune describes the book as "a passionately argued case for a post-Christian church" (40).

The article describes some of the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship, specifically the fact that many of Jesus' sayings are widely recognised as having been created by the early church. Some people, myself included, find the resulting "historical Jesus" to be a far more compelling figure than the gospel portrait of a man who went around claiming to be, among other things, "the light of the world" (John 8.12). Others, on the other hand, are less impressed, and Vosper is apparently among them:

When Gretta Vosper looks at the emerging historical Jesus she sees no rock on which to erect a church. "In trying to capture exactly what he said, we have found, quite by accident, that what he said has little power." (41)

If that's case, why bother with "Christianity" at all?
Vosper isn't so much prepared for the obvious questions she faces as inured to them. She's often asked, with various degrees of incredulity and indignation how, in the name of God or Love (if she prefers), she can call herself a Christian. Because, she replies, her Christianity...is more a way of acting than a way of belief. "Being a Christian is about taking out of my faith tradition those things that are of value in my effort to live right with myself, with my relationships and with my planet," Vosper says. "And removing those things that are toxic." (42)
I don't disagree with that. I've long felt that Jesus's message was more concerned with how we live than what we believe. Still, based on this article, I'm not convinced I'm going to find Vosper's vision of Christianity all that compelling. But I'll wait until I read her book before I make any final judgments about that.

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