Church reinvents itself for mass consumption

Published March 1, 1999

A RECENT NEWSPAPER article pinpoints the audience of Bishop John Spong’s new book. The headline read, Give Them Jesus, but Hold the Theology.

“A revival is under way,” I read. “but for a phenomenon with Jesus at its centre, it has surprisingly little to do with mainstream religion … People aren’t really going back to church.”

Bishop Spong writes for these people. The sub-title of his book is: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. The exile in question is, of course, the exile of the Jews in Babylon after the conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. All the loved and familiar trappings of their religion were gone; all they had were their memories and their faith.

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept; how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land; let my right hand forget her cunning if I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” The strange land in which believers today are exiled is the land in which Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is a best seller. It’s a land in which when challenged about bad habits one can reply, “Bad genes.”

[pullquote]One might say that the landscape or backdrop against which traditional Christianity was formulated has changed beyond recognition, and the mental furniture used in those formulations is also totally different. This has nothing to do with faith or doubt; it is a fact.

Years ago, in the movie, Me and the Colonel, Danny Kaye played the part of an educated Jew on the run in Hitler’s Europe with an aristocratic Polish colonel. At one point in an argument Kaye says, “You have one of the finest 14th-century minds I have ever met.”

Before the scientific and cultural revolutions of the past five or six hundred years people lived in a geocentric universe ruled over by a supreme being who had sent his (sic) Son to rescue the human race. Some would have said he was sent to save the whole creation from the dire state it had fallen into as a result of human sin.

Bishop Spong would say that you can step back into the 14th century when you say the creed, pray, read the Bible; or you can re-interpret or translate the whole enterprise into something which 20th-century people can at least respond to with understanding. Which reminds me of a bon mot of William Temple; he had similar concerns and was challenged by a fellow bishop, who complained that Temple was always asking what Jones will swallow. To which Temple replied, “No; I am Jones asking what there is to eat.”

The author’s prescription for the future – and for that matter for the present – has chapters on an understanding of God without belief in a supreme being. His chapter on Jesus is an attempt to see Jesus without the accretions of decades of devotion. The chapter on prayer is moving – because he was a public person, thousands prayed for his cancer-stricken wife, but he asks what about the wife of a school janitor known to only a few. Spong’s chapter on ethics without the sanction of either the big man in the sky or divine punishment in the afterlife is one of his best.

I take issue with some of the bishop’s treatment of biblical material. On page 77, he seriously misquotes Mark where he says that the divine voice at Jesus’ baptism announced, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” There is no textual evidence for this. In fact, the divine voice at Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s account is addressed to Jesus – “Thou art my Son”. The whole edifice of the secret in Mark is built on this. People wonder who he is. Those who realize he is the Messiah are told to keep it a secret. Peter stumbles into the secret at Caesarea Philippi, after which the divine voice confirms Jesus’ sonship in the transfiguration. Only in Matthew is there a public announcement of Jesus’ sonship: This is my Son.

In his description of Jesus as a caring person, which no doubt he was, Bishop Spong illustrates his point by saying that Jesus took his disciples aside and explained difficult parables to them, as in Mark 4:10- 20. No New Testament scholar worth her salt would accept that.

Mark clearly thought that parables were told to confuse people and only the in-group could be let in on the allegorical meaning.

But, that is Mark’s view and it is not one shared by many people today. How many, if asked why Jesus taught in parables would reply, “to confuse people”?

In this instance Bishop Spong is almost a naive literalist, in spite of his usual radicalism.

It is always easy to find fault; I want to close, therefore, by saying that this is a brave book.

Though I find the description of our age, and its distance from the hallowed formulations of the faith, more convincing than the prescription for the future. Perhaps that is because I wonder whether there is one.

Canon Colin Proudman is a retired priest living in Toronto.


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