The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong
If the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong had his way, Christians would soon resume writing the Bible where they left off in 135 CE.
“The Bible is the story of the continuing human journey,” says the academic and retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J. “There have been some miraculous people who have walked with God since then, but their stories are not included.” Among his candidates for inclusion are the writings of the late medieval female mystic Julian of Norwich and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as an epistle.
Spong is the author of several thought-provoking books on Christianity and the Bible. In his latest book, Re-Claiming the Bible for the Non-Religious World, Bishop Spong takes readers on a critical odyssey through the books of the Old and New Testaments. A Christian humanist who has lectured at Harvard and been a scholar-in-residence at Oxford and Cambridge universities, Bishop Spong says that scripture is best read not literally as history but as an ongoing sacred allegory, freeing us to be both committed Christians and analytical 21st-century citizens. As he puts it, “One does not have to twist one’s brains into a 1st-century pretzel to take the Bible seriously in this increasingly non-religious world.”
The bishop, who espouses a liberal, anti-fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, says the book needs more voices, including those of women and visible minorities. (His definition of fundamentalism is not so much affording literal, word-for-word credence to the Bible but rather believing that it is history.) Spong deplores the gap between the progressive, critical interpretations taught by scholars in seminary and the more literal versions preached from the pulpit. In his view, such blinkered literalism is killing Christianity.
He himself is the product of a fundamentalist southern upbringing. “We were Episcopalians, but fundamentalist ones, and I had to work through a lot of debilitating prejudices in order to do the right thing,” he says. One of the right things he did during his years of ministry in the South was to bring 200 years of critical biblical scholarship to seminary-style classes at the southern parishes of which he was rector-classes that became standing-room-only draws. “We had 200 to 300 people attending Bible study before church, and far from being offended, people were illuminated. I still get asked to go down and give classes,” he says.
Spong is troubled that the open-minded insights and refined allegorical interpretations of Hebrew mythology that have been commonplace among the scholars in academe are viewed as controversial and even heretical by some faithful in the pews. “The result has been that the majority of people who have remained in the church have become more and more rigid and fundamentalist, while those who have left have become more and more dismissive of everything-good or bad-about Christianity.” He points to a recent visit he made to the Italian city of Lucca in which all but 20 of 87 churches have been deconsecrated.
If people believe they have to be literalists to be Christian but cannot bring themselves to be so, they simply drop out. So, apart from some fundamentalist growth in Africa and Latin America, he says, the church has become the world’s fastest-growing alumni organization and is collapsing numerically. In Africa, he points to the battle between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam, “neither of whose adherents understand the faith tradition they espouse.”
Parish priests and diocesan bishops ignore progressive biblical scholarship at their peril, warns Spong. “We need to approach the Bible as a penetrating story of the human community’s walk through time, trying to make sense of human life and God,” he says. “That’s a powerful story. I read it every day.”
Since that walk is still a work in progress, so should the writing of the Bible continue, with expanded criteria for inclusion. The book was written between about 1,000 BC and 135 CE, “and then they closed it off as the Word of God,” says Spong.
As for the New Testament, Spong rejects the 4th-century Augustinian interpretation of Christ the Redeemer of sinners. Christ should be reconstrued not as “the divine invader but as the human life who broke through consciousness to a new level of understanding, and people perceive that as the presence of God in him. A hundred years from now I’m quite sure that view will be almost universal.”
In his non-theistic universe, Christianity is about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. “I am tired of seeing the Bible being used, as it has been throughout history, to legitimize slavery and segregation, to subdue women, to punish homosexuals, to justify war and to oppose family planning and birth control.” For him, that is a perversion and travesty that must be challenged and changed.
Re-Claiming the Bible for a non-religious world
By John Shelby Spong
ISBN 978-0-06-201128-2 $33.99