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Commentary


Sweet Nothings: Deconstructing the amusingly inoffensive Mr. Sprague and his symbolic, self-centered universe

by James Gibson


Friends and foes alike have used many words to describe C. Joseph Sprague, episcopal leader of the Chicago Area of The United Methodist Church. “Amusing” is probably not the choice of many but, having read the transcript of Mr. Sprague’s January 28 address at Iliff School of Theology, I would suggest it is the most apt.

Before proceeding to deny some of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith, Mr. Sprague prefaces his comments with, “What follows will offend some.” Undoubtedly, the “offended” parties would be, in Mr. Sprague’s mind, those whom he refers to as “neo-literalists, persons who fail to understand the symbolic nature of religious language.” Such persons have, from time to time, “brought written complaints of heresy” against Mr. Sprague.

It should be pointed out, before we proceed further, that the most notable of such “complaints” was brought by a former United Methodist pastor who, largely due to the bullying tactics of Mr. Sprague and his henchmen in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, has since found greener pastures as a layman in the Byzantine Catholic Church—hardly a sanctuary for “persons who fail to understand the symbolic nature of religious language.”

Notwithstanding the integrity of most of his detractors, Mr. Sprague creates his own symbolic universe in which Christianity can be divided into two competing camps: “non-literalists,” such as himself, and “literalists,” such as anyone who disagrees with his “progressive” views. Proceeding from such a false dichotomy, Mr. Sprague can paint himself as the hero, nobly seeking “to encourage confused believers or those who yearn to believe” while the villains, those who “do not accept the progressive presupposition that words describing matters of ultimate truth are by necessity primarily metaphorical,” oppose him every step of the way.

Mr. Sprague’s creation of this symbolic universe, with himself at its center as the savior of a faith which is being hijacked by the “neo-literalists,” underscores the exaggerated ego made apparent in his aforementioned preface, “What follows will offend some.” Despite his further disclaimer, “This is neither my intent nor purpose,” the statement begs the question. If Mr. Sprague does not intend to “offend some,” why does he point out, from the very beginning, that he will? Obviously, this is a deliberate attempt on the part of Mr. Sprague to inflate the shock value of his subsequent comments. Perhaps never before in the history of the Church has any one man had such an overblown opinion of his own overblown opinions.

The only persons who might be even remotely offended by Mr. Sprague’s harangue against orthodoxy are those who naively interpret Mr. Sprague’s preface as a genuine warning to the feeble-minded rather than a disingenuous, self-serving bluster of false bravado. Mature believers (a much broader-based constituency than Mr. Sprague imagines in his symbolic universe) will find nothing “offensive” in Mr. Sprague’s remarks. But that is precisely the problem.

Were it not for the overriding concern for the state of Mr. Sprague’s soul, most mature believers would find utterly laughable his self-contradictory statement, “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but I cannot believe that his resurrection involved the resuscitation of his physical body.” Such a statement is amusing, but hardly offensive. Unlike the boisterous homosexuals, feminists and various other “oppressed peoples” of Mr. Sprague’s symbolic universe, mature Christians do not go about deliberately finding offense in every feeble rebuttal to their traditional beliefs. In fact, there comes a time when the rebuttal itself becomes so trite and clichéd as to be, in the oft-quoted words of Shakespeare, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It is, quite simply, impossible for mature believers to be offended by nothing.

In denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as well as his Virgin Birth and atoning death, Mr. Sprague has stripped the Christian faith of anything and everything that “will offend some.” As the center of his own symbolic universe, Mr. Sprague can speak confidently about such sweet nothings as a “resurrected Jesus power or Christ essence.” Belief in such vague concepts requires no spiritual discernment or illumination, no risk of reputation, no sacrifice of self and, ultimately, no personal faith whatsoever.

Mr. Sprague and others of his persuasion do not reject the resurrection of Jesus because it requires an “untenable” belief in “the supernatural.” In fact, the categories of “natural” and “supernatural” are themselves the products of a false dichotomy born of the Enlightenment. The simple fact of the matter is that Mr. Sprague and others reject the resurrection because it offends them. If Jesus is truly raised from the dead, then the resurrection is more than just a vague concept. Indeed, it is more than just “bodily resuscitation.” The resurrection is a Person, and that Person is the resurrection. More than some impersonal force which “guides history toward justice” and “drives creation’s evolution,” Jesus, as the embodiment of God’s new creation, draws all history and creation toward himself. It is easy enough, as demonstrated by Mr. Sprague himself, to create an alternate universe in which human beings can finally reach their full potential with little more than an ambiguous “Jesus power or Christ essence” to guide or be guided by them. But to acknowledge Jesus as truly raised from the dead requires a risky and courageous humility. For to do so is to recognize that Jesus Christ stands at the very center of everything that God has done, is doing and will do to reconcile all things to himself. To worship this Jesus, who was dead and now is alive forever, is to recognize that he is fully human and fully divine, and the rest of us are neither.

Mr. Sprague is offended by a Jesus truly raised from the dead—in spirit, soul and body—because this Jesus requires not only that he believe in something more than a vague concept, but also that he renounce as nothing the symbolic universe in which he has placed himself so comfortably at the center.  

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