“Bishop Spong”—as he’s known around the world—actually retired from Episcopal office 11 years ago, but he’s more important than ever in mainline congregations nationwide. Of course, he’s also infamous for “controversy.” As a religion writer for American newspapers since the 1980s, I’ve interviewed Jack Spong many times both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world—and the news stories we published always seemed to include either that c-word or words like “provocative,” “dissent” and “debate.” In most cases, those terms were dead-on accurate.
Jack Spong—as he prefers to be known to friends and colleagues today—is a bold pioneer or, in religious terms, he’s a fearless prophet. Unlike millions of religious leaders who are timid about expressing their own doubts and questions, fearing that they might unsettle their congregations, Jack Spong always speaks his mind. Sometimes he speaks his mind so strongly that he flat-out offends people.
In recent years, however, his popularity is soaring. I’ve seen that myself in traveling around the United States and talking with men and women in congregations large and small. Some years ago, even a mention of his name was an occasion to brace oneself as a journalist—because reactions to him could be so emotionally charged. Now, some people who know his name still disagree strongly—but, more than likely, I’ve found that mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations include key lay people who have read his books and find his transparent, common-sense approach makes a lot of sense.
Perhaps even more important at this moment in America’s religious life, there’s hardly another Christian scholar more perfectly poised to stand in the center of the debate between defenders of religion—and the new atheists who are bent on taking an axe to what they perceive as a worm-eaten old tree. Spong defends neither side—calling for an honest middle path for faith that leaves behind out-dated claims and yet also intelligently defends the enduring values of our religious tradition.
Come back later this week for ReadTheSpirit David Crumm’s interview with Jack Spong.
Today, enjoy this brief excerpt of Spong’s book that may show you why you’ll want your own copy of Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World
EXCERPT OF ‘RE-CLAIMING THE BIBLE FOR A NON-RELIGIOUS WORLD
BY RETIRED BISHOP JOHN SHELBY “JACK” SPONG
From the book’s opening chapter …
THE PROBLEM WITH BIBLICAL LITERALISTS
We have in our world today the reality that many people are still clinging quite frantically to the biblical formulations of their past. Some spend enormous energy fighting Darwin, attacking secular humanism as it arises in the society and liberalism, all of which are s symptoms of the lack of scholarship available in many churches. That is why in the United States we continue to take seriously the religious vote, the television evangelists and even a pope who visited Africa with its civil strife, its rampant spread of AIDS and its poverty, and conveyed as his only message a condemnation of the use of condoms! Religious leaders seem to believe that if they allow one crack in their carefully constructed religious or biblical defense system, then the whole thing will collapse in ruins. That is the stance of hysteria, not the stance of either faith or hope, though it masquerades as both.
THE CHALLENGE OF THE NEW ATHEISTS
The primary response to this mentality, and it is a response that is growing rapidly, is to abandon all religion and to take up citizenship in the “secular city.” Proponents of this stance no longer see any relevance in religion or the Bible for their lives today. They are not interested in twisting their minds into first-century pretzels, in order to read the Bible or into fourth-century pretzels, in order to say the creeds, or into thirteenth-century pretzels in order to engage in contemporary forms of worship. They find it impossible in their modern frame of reference to conceive of a theistically understood deity, living somewhere external to this world, endowed with supernatural power and ready to invade history to come to our aid, to answer our prayers. They find the concepts of miracle and magic to be outside their worldview. They dismiss readily ideas like that of a “fall” from perfection into “original sin,” which is supposed to account for evil and which requires an external rescuer to save us from our sins. These ideas are completely foreign to what they now know about the origins of life and its evolution. They see no alternative to dismissing all religion in general and Christianity in particular, regarding it as something left over from the childhood of our humanity, and they want little to do with it. For such questioners either biblical literalism or the rejection of all religion seems to be their only choices.
‘A SIMILAR PROFOUND IGNORANCE ABOUT THE BIBLE’
One factor that both of these responses have in common is that they share a similar profound ignorance about the Bible. The fundamentalists who quote the Bible as their final authority clearly know little about how the Bible came into being and, thus, why that approach is so totally incompetent. Those who do not find any value in the biblical tradition wind up rejecting the very things that biblical scholars themselves almost totally reject, but these secularists know so little about the Bible that they are not aware of this fact. When I read books written by the new breed of militant atheist writers, who have become both best-selling authors and household names, I have no desire to attack them or to rise to God’s defense. The religion, the Christianity and Bible that they reject are the same religion, Christianity and Bible that I reject. My problem with such writers is not located there. It is rather in the apparent fact that they do not seem to know that there is another way. Why should they, since the church has worked so hard not to allow other possibilities to become visible?
‘CLOSE THE GAP IN KNOWLEDGE’
My desire is to work in that very arena and to close the gap in knowledge at least in regard to the Bible. I am not the enemy of the Bible. I am the enemy of the way the Bible has been understood and the way the Bible has been used. … I want to take my readers into this Bible in a new way. I want to plumb its depths, scale its heights and free its insights from the debilitating power of literalism. I want to make some of its characters come alive—those who probably have vestiges of history attached to them, like Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. … I have wrestled with the Bible for more than 60 years. I have broken open my own fundamentalism, walked through valleys of meaninglessness in which I was certain that God had died and then found my way back, not to the security of yesterday’s religious certainty, but to an understanding that does not hesitate to go through the Bible in order to transcend it, and thus that provides no security. I want to help people to develop a faith that goes so deeply into the essence of Christianity that they can walk beyond Christianity into that toward which Christianity can only point. I seek to enter and to introduce others to what Paul has called “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
READ PART 2: ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s interview with Jack Spong.
Remember: You can order a copy of John Shelby “Jack” Spong’s new Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World from Amazon now.
Want more from ‘Bishop’ Spong? You may also want to read our 2009 interview with Jack Spong about his earlier book, Eternal Life: A New Vision.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.