It is evident that the commentaries of Daniel Gullotta on Catholica draw a good readership. Perhaps it's his enthusiasm, perhaps it stems from the opportunity he provides for older people to gain an insight into what a committed young Anglican might be thinking on the big theological and spiritual issues of our day. Perhaps it's just the fact that his essays are always very interesting. Today's will not disappoint from any of the perspectives above. He shares his interesting perspectives on one of the most controversial Christian leaders of our age, Bishop John Shelby Spong.
What manner of man is this?
John Shelby Spong is one hell of a figure within modern Christianity. He has held and still holds many titles and positions within the Christian worldwide Church. He was the Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Newark, and he is known throughout the world as one of the most popular liberal theologians and biblical scholars. Since his entry into the public arena of theology, he has criticized traditional Christian thinking and has called for a 'new reformation' of the Christian faith. He affirms many fundamental beliefs, while rejecting many others. He challenges common practice and morality within the Church, and promotes what many would call noble causes. His books are bestsellers and his theology has been condemned. He has been on Larry King Live, 60 Minutes, and there is even a play in his honour. You cannot escape him and at times and it might be hard to know what to make of him. He has been called everything from apostate and heretic, to blessed and a saint. Who is John Shelby Spong really, what is he on about, what's the problem, and why does it matter?
As someone who has read Spong's autobiography, Here I Stand, it is hard to sum up the man's life thus far and you cannot deny he has lived one very interesting life. He was born in North Carolina in 1931 and grew up in a family deeply rooted in fundamentalism. Growing up in an Episcopal Church of the south, Spong was introduced to the authority of the Bible at a very young age, and describes his early church going days as days of fear, repentance, as well as discernment and growth. He was introduced to segregation, anti-feminism, prejudice and homophobia at a very young age in a church where these attitudes were supported and pushed. His father was an on-and-off-again alcoholic who died when Spong was 12 years old. From an early age, Spong believed he was called to the priesthood and spent much of his youth assisting his local church and the priest. Theologically, Spong's world was opened up however when he reached university and his first years within the Episcopal Church as a deacon and priest. He received a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Masters in Divinity from the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia. He served the Episcopal Church in North Carolina in various capacities until he was called to lead the Diocese of Newark, and consecrated as a bishop in 1976, a position he held until 2000. He is famous, or infamous, in histoircal terms for being the first bishop to ordain an openly gay man, Robert Williams. He is widely published, has lectured in universities around the globe, and has often appeared on radio and television shows (both Christian and secular), as well as documentaries, and there is also a play written about him called, A Pebble in my Shoe. Today, John Shelby Spong and his wife, Christine Mary Spong, live in New Jersey, and have five children and six grandchildren.
I will be the first to admit it, but I am a fan of John Shelby Spong. However, that does not mean in any sense that I agree with all of his conclusions. I feel about Spong much in the same way I feel about N.T. Wright; I may disagree with their scholarship and arguments, but I still respect and admire them. Why? Because at least they are engaging people where they are, and are making scholarship and theology easy enough to read, understand, but best of all, enjoy. I generally think that Spong does have his heart in the right place; however I often question where his head is at when it comes to some of his so-called 'scholarship'. Some of you might remember my essay criticizing the Jesus Seminar, [Breaking the Beeds], in which one of my criticisms included Spong being a member of the seminar. Spong is a convincing intellectual, but he is no biblical scholar.
He comes from a very liberal school of thought that is outdated and has little to no voice in modern scholarship. He clearly does not understand the complex and rich nature of faith and history, something that has been re-examined time and time again in New Testament scholarship. The vast majority of modern scholarship has broken from the higher criticism and scepticism of the past, and sees things very differently to Spong. He often makes very large claims, such as "every biblical scholar agrees with this" or "no scholar agrees with this". Few of these claims are worth noting, most however, are very problematic, outlandish, and just plainly false.
For example, Spong renders the four gospels down to the style of fairy tales and "make believe". Biblical scholars do not at all. While they do acknowledge that the authors wrote for different audiences and structured their gospels so as to highlight different theological themes or to address particular situations in the early church, this does not mean that they are completely empty of historical detail, quite the opposite. They are not, as Spong would have us believe, simply collecting bits of tradition and stringing them together at random or inventing material out of thin air to meet their home-made scheme of theology. As Ian Elmer has pointed out, "Spong is really out on his own here and he simply cannot claim to have the support of biblical scholarship … On the contrary, the majority of Biblical scholars support the view that the traditions upon which the four Gospels draw are, for the most part, derived from actual historical reminiscences." His research and references on certain topics are also problematic, for example, in speaking of biblical scholarship, many of the people he references are not even biblical scholars (for example: Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeekx) and even so, I would argue that they are often taken out of context or twisted to suit the purposes of his argument. Not that I am a Greek expert, but critics of Spong have always picked up his mistranslations and misquotes of certain passages from the New Testament — particularly when it comes to the 'bodily' resurrection of Jesus.
However, while his scholarship is questionable, the majority of his 'scholarly' arguments and claims are laughable. For example, his proposal that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, his expectations that Paul was homosexual, and that the resurrection of Jesus was never meant to be understood as a bodily resurrection. However he reads into the New Testament selectively and with clear and deep presuppositions (which he delights in admitting, but doesn't seem to do anything with). An example of this is when Spong argues for Paul's homosexuality by claiming that Paul was struggling with his sexual identity, that the passages in which Paul struggles with his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor 17:7-10) is an indication of Paul's homosexual urges. However, looking at Spong's life experiences, there are numerous accounts of Spong encountering homosexual clergyman who suppressed their homosexuality and called it their "thorn in the flesh". Spong reads more into the text, than from the text. Sadly, in terms of Spong's academic work, I agree with Gerard O' Collins, that his "work simply does not belong to the world of international scholarship."
Literalism - A Common Enemy…
Okay, so John Shelby Spong is not the biblical scholar he makes himself out to be, but what about the theologian? That is a much more difficult question to answer, as it reveals the liberal and the conservative in us all (especially me!). While Spong is a very liberal theologian, he is probably one of the most vocal movers and shakers in the realm of social justice in the modern era. He is a strong supporter of feminism, gay rights, gender and racial equality (especially within the church, but also society) and openly speaks and works against prejudices, racism, sexism, homophobia, violence and poverty. You may disagree with him or condemn him, but you cannot deny he has a passion for social justice and a love of humanity.
Yet, what draws me to Spong ultimately is our common enemy of literalism and fundamentalism. Spong has seen and experienced the appeal and danger of working in absolutes and certainties when it comes to faith and God. The dangerous fundamentalist ideology of: I have the truth, I know the truth, and only I have and know the truth — to whatever end, Spong exposes this ideology in literalist and fundamentalist thinking. There is a temptation and seduction in this way of thinking that has plagued the modern church, especially in a post-modern world that claims no absolutes — especially to young people seeking answers to the big questions. Spong challenges these certainties, not just theologically, but philosophically and physiologically. Spong warns that, "All religion seems to need to prove that it's the only truth. And that's where it turns demonic. Because that's when you get religious wars and persecutions and burning heretics at the stake."
Spong knows there are there are obvious contradictions in the Bible — most people know this as well. There some very horrible stories about murder, death, disease, and suffering within the Bible, in which God plays a major role — Spong is perhaps more aware of this than most, however many people have picked up on the many changing faces of God in the Bible. There are passages and verses that support violence, racism, sexism, and homophobia — Spong knows, as everyone does, in the hands of literalists and fundamentalists, they can be dangerous and taken completely out of context. Yet, while many have rejected the Bible as an ancient text of the past with no meaning or use for us today, Spong does not. In fact he appeals to Christian and non-Christians alike saying that, "I come to this interpretive task not as an enemy of Christianity. I am not even a disillusioned former Christian, as some of my scholar-friends identify themselves. I am a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply. But I also recognize that parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence."
A 'New Reformation'?
Spong offers a 'new way' of thinking about, reading, and using the Bible. Over against the Bible-bashing of literalists and fundamentalists who argue a subject and believe something "because the Bible tells me so", Spong believes we need to 'rethink' the Bible's message and story in the light of science and contemporary lifestyles. It is not that Spong opposes the Bible per say, but rather how it is used and how it is taught. Spong believes that through the limitation of human sin, weakness, and prejudice, the Bible's message shines three simple truths: one, that all beings are made in the image of God and therefore must be treated as holy — this according to Spong being the basic message of the Hebrew Scriptures; two, that within the Jesus' story, God reveals to humanity that humanity is loved, loved for just who and what they are; and three, in the life of the Church, or in the life of the Holy Spirit, that every human being is called to be all that they can be. The essence of Spong's 'new tradition' is that everyone is holy, everyone is loved, and everyone is called. According to Spong, this message is rarely explicit in the Bible, but is hidden, but when it is found by the faithful reader, the words on the page are transformed into the words of the divine.
While I agree with much of Spong's thought on the Bible, and disagree with most of his scholarship about the Bible, we part ways with our understanding about what the Bible is and how it should be treated. Spong and I share a common enemy with fundamentalism and literalism, however we appeal to them in very different ways. Spong believes a radical new Christianity needs to emerge, with radical new ways of thinking about the faith and its traditions, especially when it comes to the Bible. When it comes to Christianity and the Bible, a 'new reformation' is required. I don't buy it.
The Bible: the epic of our life — or the epic of God's life?
Spong believes what he is doing is radically new and different — when it fact, his way of understanding the Bible is more traditional then one might think at first. For centuries and particularly in the modern world, the church has stated that there are better, more legitimate, less blasphemous and heretical ways (than both literalism and full liberalism) to affirm that the Bible is the Word of God. Spong would call the Bible, "the epic of our life" however I still believe it is the epic of God's life. I believe it is God, the god revealed in human history, and in the person of Jesus Christ, who inspires these texts — yet every single text in the Bible is written in human weakness. Yet despite that weakness, God still inspires these texts, and people through them. Spong might cut out those 'terrible texts' of the Bible, or explain them away with historical context — but this 'selective scripture' risks the Bible being interpreted to these words being the words of humans, and these words being God's.
It is true, the deity we once imagined living up in the clouds, an old white-bearded man in charge and in control, is dead. Spong calls forth Paul Tillich's Ground of Being — simply a life force without self-consciousness or other personal attributes. Yet Spong's god is a god who simply 'there' — almost another another force of nature. His god is not a being, who loves me, forgives me, accepts me, or knows me — this is because his god is not a being, but a force — a force that moves, yes, but with no conscious, emotion, desire or reason. I am sure he would object to this, and I pray for the chance to have him do so personally (I can dream can't I?!). I don't need God to be 'reinvented' nor do I believe Scripture needs to be 'rewritten', I think we need to expand and we need to evolve. To me, Spong is asking the right questions for the Christianity of tomorrow, but is not giving it the right answers.
Not Orthodox Faith, Honest Faith
Yet, despite his poor scholarship, despite his heresy, and despite our differences — John Shelby Spong is still a personal faith hero of mine. Why you ask? To me, John Shelby Spong is not an orthodox Christian and nor does he have an orthodox faith – but he is an honest Christian with an honest faith. He is extreme, and he knows it. He is different, and he knows it. John Shelby Spong is a man not bound by convention or tradition, but merely the will of what he believes to be God. He and I understand this God very differently and yet at the same time, we share so much in common because we do not share the same faith, but we do share the same passions because of faith. While he does not believe in the Virgin Birth, he and I still have a passion for equality. While he does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ, he and I still have a passion for social justice. While he does not believe God is a triune being, he and I still have a passion for love.
He and I share a story of revelation and challenge. Both of us have seen and experienced the evil in this world, the scientific challenges to God, the moral questions of the secular 21st century, and the struggles for relevancy of Church — and both of us have overcome these problems and challenges. Rather than becoming disillusioned or fed up with the church and dropping out, John Shelby Spong has devoted his life and work to reforming it. He has worked to integrate women, blacks, gays, lesbians, and other marginalised people into a church that has spent centuries rejecting him. He is an inspirational speaker and a skilled writer and has become the poster boy of liberal Christianity. He is a hero of mine, not because of the theology he presents, nor the movement he belongs to, nor for his writing and speaking skills, and not even for convictions and faith in the god he believes in — but for the life he has led (and is still leading), the challenges he has met (and is still meeting), the work he has done (and is still doing), and for the passionate love of God he gives to all people, whether they join me in calling him a heretic or others who call him a saint.
Quotes from John Shelby Spong I benefit from:
John Shelby Spong's Twelve Thesis for the 'New Reformation' of Christianity:
Why Christianity Must Change or Die:
Some Books by John Shelby Spong I have enjoyed:
This Hebrew Lord (1974)
John Shelby Spong's official website:
Daniel Gullotta 30/05/2009
What are your thoughts on this commentary?