Interview: Bishop John Shelby Spong on the Bible

In Part 1 of our coverage of Bishop John Shelby Spong this week, we introduce his new book Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm also provides a mini-profile of Spong and his work.
Now, here’s Part 2, where you will meet Jack Spong (as he prefers to be called by colleagues) in …

Highlights of Interview
with Retired Bishop
John Shelby ‘Jack’ Spong

DAVID: I don’t have any polling results, but you’ve probably got as many foes as fans out there. The usual knock against you from critics is that you want to tear down Christianity and the Bible. This book proves, I think, that you care passionately about the Bible, right?

JACK: I love the Bible. I just refuse to let it be corrupted and twisted around by people for their own personal or political agendas.

DAVID: Wikipedia says you’re “a liberal Christian theologian,” among other things. Agree?

JACK: Yes, I like to own the word “liberal.” It’s become a bad word in American politics probably from the era of Mr. Reagan onward—so, now, even liberals don’t like to own the title. But, I think it’s a good word.

I think the real issue in theology is whether you’re competent or incompetent and whether you’re open or closed. What happens in the biblical and theological world is this: There is really no such thing as liberal or conservative biblical or theological scholarship. There’s competent and incompetent scholarship. For example, Jerry Falwell was a Fundamentalist preacher—he wasn’t a Bible scholar. He was popular with his supporters, but he just hadn’t learned much about the history of the Bible. We’ve had biblical scholarship available for at least 200 years and it just hasn’t caught up yet with Fundamentalists like Jerry. They’ve closed their minds.


DAVID: We just featured interviews with two of the world’s top scholars on one of the central issues you raise in your book—the long and tragic history of people misunderstanding the Bible’s encouragement of violence. We talked with Philip Jenkins about the Bible’s very troubling passages of violence. And we talked with James H. Cone about the American tradition of lynchings in the South, often promoted by church members in that era.

JACK: What I’m providing for readers in this new book is a whole different way of looking at the Bible, based on the actual scholarship on the Bible and its history. This isn’t just a matter for preachers to debate. There are serious issues here we need to address. The Bible calls for the execution of children who talk back to their parents and it calls for the execution of people who worship a false god. There are some very troubling passages in the Bible that demand things that people simply shouldn’t stand for today. I think it’s terribly important to understand this often-confusing book by using the best knowledge available.

These issues matter in people’s lives. Just the other night I was watching a TV news report on some foster parents who were arrested on charges of abusing children. It turns out they were following some right-wing religious person’s advice to them that the Bible says: spare the rod and spoil the child. They were terribly cruel to the children in their care because, they claimed, they were instructed to do this in scripture.

I grew up in the South where people were taught that the Bible supported segregation and the oppression of women. These ways of using the Bible are profoundly ignorant. That’s the kind of use of the Bible that we must counter.

CLICK THE COVER to jump to Amazon and order a copy.DAVID: Here’s a question on behalf of your longtime fans. If we already own your earlier books, what’s different here?

JACK: It’s fair to say that every author reworks material through various books. But hopefully each new book I’ve written is different and offers a more advanced look at some aspect of my work than previous books. This book started as a series of lectures I gave on the Bible. People turned out in great numbers and with great enthusiasm to hear these talks. In the audience were lots of successful people, educated people—but in their lives they hadn’t taken time to really study the Bible. Their knowledge was pretty much Sunday School knowledge that stopped somewhere around the fourth grade. These people showed that they were eager to hear something based on the latest scholarship about the Bible. So, seeing their very strong interest, I decided to go through the entire Bible and literally take readers on a Bible 101 course from Genesis to Revelation.

DAVID: Americans love their Bibles. Many studies over the years have shown that the Bible is, by far, the most-owned book in the U.S. And pollsters routinely turn up huge numbers of Americans saying they regularly read it. So, there’s something of a puzzle here, right? How can we love it so much, yet be so ignorant of it?


JACK: All their lives, people have heard and read certain passages from the Bible, but that doesn’t mean they’ve studied the entire Bible or understood the Bible properly. Here’s an example: Lots of books and movies use biblical quotations in their titles, but most Americans, when asked, don’t recognize and can’t identify those phrases.

DAVID: You’re right. Another example: Polls show that a majority of Americans can’t name the four Gospels. What’s fascinating in your current work, I think, is that you level the same charge of biblical ignorance against the so-called new atheists. I’ve read most of their major books and I do have to agree with your argument in this sense: Overall, they take a literal reading of the Bible and argue that’s what people of faith must believe. When we publish Part 1 of our coverage of your new book, we will quote a little section of your book on this point.

JACK: I’ve met Richard Dawkins, enjoyed being with him at a dinner at Oxford. I’ve read him and I really like him. He’s warm and personable and articulate. I think he’s truly questioning and searching. The problem I have with his writing is that he’s rejecting the same kind of god that so many theologians also reject, but he doesn’t seem to be aware that many of us reject these same propositions that he’s rejecting. He doesn’t acknowledge that there are other possibilities for people to approach the Bible than through this one reading that he rejects. I encourage people to listen to and to read people like Dawkins and the others. We should engage in this dialogue. What I’m trying to accomplish in this book is to provide people with the biblical scholarship they need to engage in an intelligent dialogue. One thing the atheist writers understand is that people are leaving the Christian church with great rapidity because the god they meet in their churches is simply not big enough for the life they experience all around them.


DAVID: In your book, you challenge Bible publishers to quit making Bibles look like encyclopedias or dictionaries with that traditional two-column format and all sorts of other notations that make it look more like a reference book than a narrative of faith.

JACK: Pick up a lot of Bibles, flip the pages and they look a lot more like telephone directories than a book you’d ever want to read. With these formats, we encourage people to look for a single answer listed in a column. People love to proof text from the Bible and Bibles published like that encourage this approach. When people fall into that practice, they tend to retreat into their own Fundamentalist ghetto and close their minds to the modern world. They may come out to shout at other people, but they simply aren’t honestly engaging the world around us. I just can’t bear to see that happen, anymore, and a lot of people who’ve had that same reaction wind up in the other major religious movement today: the church alumni movement, people who are simply giving up and moving away from it all.

I don’t want to join that movement, either.  I want us to help people wrestle with these questions. There’s a great difference between Christian education and Christian propaganda. Propaganda assumes that you’re pushing information to people and you’re assuming that they will adopt your answers. You’re imposing Christianity on an audience. True Christian education means that the questions are open and you invite people to move with you in an exploration that moves us toward truth. That’s what I’m trying to do.

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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