I was very sorry to learn last month that John Shelby Spong died (Sept. 12, 2021; age 90). Many of you know who he was; for those who don’t: he was one of the most important spokespersons of our generation for a critical understanding of the Bible for the general public, in particular for Christians. He himself was a Christian. In fact, for many years he was a bishop in the Episcopal church (bishop of Newark NJ from 1979-2000).
Even though Spong never left the Christian faith, he certainly had a rigorously historical understanding of the faith and he spent many years writing influential books and lecturing around the world to proclaim it. He was not well-loved among traditional Christians, and was openly declared a heretic by other church leaders. That was because his historical studies led him to realize that the Bible cannot be interpreted as the literal, historical truth.
Some other Christian bishops found his views dangerous and many people today, both Christian and non-Christian, do not understand how a real Christian can have a seriously critical view of the Bible and (as he did) deny the literal virgin birth of Jesus, his pre-existence, and his physical resurrection. But Spong did deny these views and insisted that other Christians needed to do so as well if they wanted to live and think as modern, educated, rational people and yet still be followers of Jesus. He explained why in his many books and myriad lectures.
It really does seem weird to some people that you can be a Christian without believing the literal truth of the Bible and without accepting the traditional doctrines of the faith. But that is because the fundamentalists of the world have succeeded spectacularly in their mission of defining what Christianity is.
Christian fundamentalists have convinced everyone – not just fellow fundamentalists, but nearly everyone, including atheists, even highly outspoken atheists who write books about religion – that Christianity IS fundamentalism, and that there is no way to be a Christian if you realize there are contradictions in the Bible, historical errors, and radically different views from one New Testament author to another. Or if you recognize that the Bible came into a single canon of Scripture through historical circumstances, not divine intervention, or that the doctrines of the church were long much debated and uncertain, and that different beliefs could just as easily have emerged as “orthodox.”
Spong would have none of it. You don’t have to employ critical thinking in every *other* area of your life — accepting what science knows when you go the dentist or look up at the stars – and then lock away your brain when it comes to what you *believe*. You should not be rational except when it comes to what, ultimately, is most important to you – your understanding of yourself in relation to the world. Accepting religious views formulated 2000 years ago is like accepting ancient understandings of astronomy and anatomy.
But doesn’t being a Christian MEAN accepting views formulated 2000 years ago? Well, does being an astronomer mean accepting that the universe revolves around the earth?
If you’re interested in seeing how Spong thinks about the Bible, and traditional doctrines, and what it actually does mean to be a follower of Jesus in our day and age, check out some of his important books on the topic from the past thirty years
- Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, 1991.
- Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus, 1992.
- Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity, 1994.
- Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile, 1999
- Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality, 2001
- God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism (with Anthony Freeman), 2002
- The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love 2005
- Jesus for the Non-Religious, 2007
- Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell, 2009
- Re-claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, 2011.
- Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, 2016
- Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today, 2018.
Spong was not a professionally trained biblical scholar, and biblical scholars never read his material to acquire knowledge. But the scholars who are sniffy about that (most of them, I guess) have completely lost the plot. His work was not about advancing scholarship for scholars; it was about reaching people who were not scholars – especially people in the churches – to urge them to find a better way, a way to retain the best of the Christian faith without sacrificing their brains, without having to believe what most other people think is fairly ridiculous.
I did not know Jack (the name he went by) well. We met once and had a nice chat when we were both speaking at the same event. Now that he’s gone, I regret not making an effort to get to know him better. We had a lot in common. He grew up in North Carolina, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, received his Masters of Divinity the year I was born, had his first clerical job as a rector at the Episcopal church next door to the Whole Foods I frequent, and was bishop of New Jersey for the ten years I lived there.
He and I had similar backgrounds, raised in literalist Christian circles, going into ministerial training, becoming enamored with serious biblical scholarship, recognizing its challenge for the traditional understanding of the Christian faith, and then moving to declare this “good news” to broader audiences instead of letting it hide out only among critical scholars.
In a sense, we had similar “missions.” But unlike me, he stayed within the Christian community as a church leader who took scholarship and modernity seriously, whereas I left the church to pursue scholarship.
We need more people like him. People with the courage to recognize the truth about the Bible and traditional Christian doctrine, and the courage to remain within the Christian community as a prophet declaring the truth — even while being pilloried by traditionalists who refuse to move beyond the early centuries of the church into the modern world. Staying within the community as a prophetic voice takes far more courage than leaving it to start a new life.
And so, In Memoriam! John Shelby Spong (June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021).