I have just finished reading a couple of books by John Shelby Spong, once Episcopal Bishop of Newark and long a voice against the literal interpretation of the Bible. Spong’s viewpoint really appeals to those who, like myself, view the Bible as containing principles of virtue rather than recitations of fact. The unfortunate thing about Spong’s writing, besides his preacher’s penchant for repetition, is that it appeals to those who, like myself, view the Bible as containing principles of virtue rather than recitations of fact. For very different reasons, Spong’s books probably will not convince an atheist that there is anything of particular value in the Bible, and they certainly will not convince a Biblical literalist that it should be read as the epic myth it is.
The second point I take first because it is easier. Spong spends a fair amount of time in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism going over some of the easiest-to-find contradictions in the Bible, and he repeats some of these in The Sins of Scripture. It’s fair to point these out, but mere contradictions will never compel fundamentalists to change their approach to the Bible. Nor will their minds be changed by some of the “terrible texts” Spong quotes in Sins. Nobody ever remembers that Lot offered up his daughters to the mob as a gang-rape alternative, or that he later through incest fathered two nations with them. No, all anyone ever remembers is that God destroyed Sodom for being home to a bunch of gays, and then they go on about how Lot and his family were spared because he was moral. Nor will the fervent quoter of Old Testament purity laws feel any compulsion to renounce his wool-blend suit. And when he tries to get out of that by saying that the New Testament eliminates the old laws (a position he did not hold two minutes earlier when he called homosexuality an abomination), he will nonetheless admit to no obligation to tell his wife to shut up each time they enter a church. Consistency is not a thing fundamentalists require of themselves; thus they are unlikely to require it of their holy book.
In fact, Spong does plenty in both these books to alienate the literalist, not least his contention that Paul was gay. I regard his case for this as interesting but not compelling; the literalist will probably regard it as deeply insulting. Spong takes it as inspiring, and I can see how some literalists could view it that way, but my impression is that the typical fundamentalist uses the Bible as a post hoc justification for existing homophobia, and thus would regard the theory as entirely negative no matter what it implies about the saving power of Scripture.
So much for the fundamentalist. Spong’s approach is almost entirely a loss. He comes closest to speaking to them when he points out that figurative or symbolic speech is a significant feature of Jesus’ teachings. If the literal words of God are to be understood figuratively, shouldn’t we look at “the word of God” the same way? But Spong doesn’t do much with this point. He also in a few spots implies that viewing the Bible as inerrant and all-truthful makes it a part of the Godhead and is therefore idolatry. Again, he does not build on this point. Perhaps these aren’t very strong (though I find them pretty compelling), but I feel that isn’t his reason for shying away from them. The real reason is that his target audience is not fundamentalists who might be swayed by this approach. He’s targeting people who already question their faith, or who have lost it by exposure to the fundamentalists. But does his work actually speak to these people?
In the end, I think it does not, or at least it will not call anyone to religion. Indeed, Spong makes it clear that what he seeks is a “religionless Christianity” or a “Christian humanism”. He wishes to strip away the idea of a corporeal resurrection, a literal creation of the world, and a unique set of religious laws handed down through time. But without these things, what is Christianity? What are you stating when you say “I am a Christian, but I don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ or that he was really the son of or consubstantial with God or that he died for my sins”?
Spong thinks it means something to say that, but what? That you agree with most of the things Jesus says in the gospels, except for the ones that are about God? If that’s it, then you’re just reading the gospels as third-hand philosophical dialogs, like a copy of a copy of some illiterate fisherman’s recollection of a reading of Phaedo. Jesus takes the role of Socrates, dispensing wisdom and ultimately getting killed by his enemies for no good reason, and why bother? Reading the Bible as philosophy just makes you a worse Humanist, because there’s no derivation of the New Testament’s truly revolutionary principle other than to say it comes from God’s love.
If you are coming to Christianity from without, what does believing in this add to your life other than useless dogma? If you are fleeing Christianity from within, what is there in this approach to bring you back into the embrace of the church? Nothing and nothing. There are better places to find a message of love for one another, undiluted by the racism, sexism, and absurdity that mar the pages of the Bible. If you already believe in loving your neighbor, why clutter that up with the baggage of Christianity? And if you feel that a logical derivation from first principles doesn’t support loving your neighbor, what about Christianity will convince you? Spong’s approach doesn’t give anyone a reason to join Christianity or even just stay. Whoever you are, there’s nothing in it for you.
Spong is right about one thing: Jesus had a revolutionary message for his day, one even most Christians today barely acknowledge and almost never put into practice. And the more loudly they proclaim their Christianity the further away from this message they usually are. This idea, running very much against the prevailing thought of the day, so transformed those who adopted it that they dressed his life up in the raiment of myth. That myth has swallowed the reality, and grown so large that the original message is suffocating to death beneath a blanket of hatred and mindless dogma and dead-hearted “Christians” carrying signs that say “God hates fags”.
If you take it literally, the story of Jesus is a superstitious morass no self-respecting empiricist could really believe. Taken figuratively, it is a story about how the enormous power of Jesus’ message can transform a person, not only in his dealings with others but also in his feelings about himself. Does the message have this power because God was within Jesus, or because God is within us? Does the resurrection mean that a dead man rose up, walked on water, and flew off into the stratosphere, or does it mean that God and Jesus are reborn within us every time we accept the message and live it out?
Spong doesn’t seem to answer these questions, and really, I’m not sure he wants to try. In the end, these books are of value, because they illustrate that a man can hold on to faith while acknowledging that his holy texts are human documents that exist in time, not divine writs that exist beyond it. He does much to explain the historical context of the different books of the Bible, and their role in the evolving story of Judaism and Christianity. But Spong’s vision for the future of Christianity is a road down which no true believer will go, nor any non-believer need go.