Monday, 11 June 2007


I'm currently reading John Shelby Spong's latest book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. Spong (not to be confused with former WCG minister Grant Spong) is an interesting chap. Despite being a retired Episcopal bishop of the liberal persuasion, his roots are fundamentalist, and that shows in his style of writing which beats around no bushes and pulls no punches. Whatever else this book may be, wishy-washy it isn't.

Several years ago Bishop Spong toured New Zealand and I was dragged along to hear him by a relative. I'm glad I went. I've read almost everything he's published, and hugely respect his raw honesty. Spong, unlike most of the bland, anemic types in mainline Christian leadership, is a scrapper. Lord knows the liberal church needs a lot more like him.

For many fundagelicals Spong is the devil incarnate as he threatens to toss out their much loved "treasure trove of beddy-bye stories" (to recall a memorable expression I once heard Garner Ted Armstrong use.) In this latest book he sets about to systematically deconstruct the Jesus of popular imagination, and by golly, he does a pretty thorough job. He also demonstrates quite conclusively that the gospel accounts are anything but literal history. Others have gone this way before, but they usually pussyfoot around lest offence be taken (and church funds dry up!), their work dying the death of a thousand qualifications.

People can respond to challenges like Spong's in one of two ways. They can circle the wagons and throw up a stockade of denial. Or they can look the challenge in the eye and deal with it with integrity. That may mean some painful growth but, what the heck, better to deal with reality than hide among the fluffy pillows and proof texts of self-deception. After the usual dose of bland confections doled out by the run-of-the-mill Bible-babblers and conformist clergy, Spong is like a fiery Indian curry. Be sure and have a large pitcher of cold water handy.


DennisDiehl said...

John Spong and I were corresponding in the 90's when I knew I was outgrowing the foolishness that was becoming the WCG. I'd have to say that "Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism" was THE book of his that woke me out of my inerrancy slumber. "This Hebrew Lord" was next and then "Born of a Woman"

When I wrote him (he won't do email) he wrote back and said "Thank you won't survive" He got that right! I did use him a few FOT sermons though before the end....

When John Spong's wife died, some irate Episcopalian hit him over the head from behind with an umbrella, while he was sitting at her funeral. Gutsy, compassionate and practical guy. He was here in Greenville last year and is always a sell out.

I challenge any COG type to read Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, which covers the birth, death and resurrection narratives and their inconsistencies but also a deeper view of it all. While he pulls his punches a bit to stay within his denomination, as did Raymond Brown of "Birth and Death of the Messiah" fame, he's a genuine human being who knows how to go past the craziness of argumentative religion.

Corky said...

Well, I don't know what Spong has to say and maybe I should read that book. However, I do know that Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was attempting to reform Judaism.

Like the Essenes, he knew that God did not dwell in temples made with hands and that making animal sacrifices was not what God wanted according to Jeremiah.

He also knew that the Sadducees were not the legitimate priesthood according to the law.

On top of that, the law was for Israel as an independent nation and not while under another government like Rome. This he knew from what Moses said about what to do "when" they possessed the land.

They also could forgive each other for trespasses rather than pay the priests to make a sacrifice for them.

Once a month a woman was required to make a sacrifice because of menstruation under the law. That must have really cost that poor woman with the issue of blood for twelve years.

Of course, there fees for healings and tithes etc. and the Roman tribute on top of that. Talk about oppression of the poor . . .

Nope, Jesus was not who Christians think he was, that's the later church's story. Jesus offered a way to worship God for free! The authorities didn't like it (and no wonder - he had thousands of followers cutting into their money machine) so they killed him.

wolf_track said...

I have not read Spong's book but I did look at the comments on His views are hardly new and innovative. He seems to belong to a species of religionist that has been operating in the Western World for half a century or more. His platitudinous idea is that Jesus was just a man and the gospels were flawed eyewitness accounts liberally draped in mythology.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, one must acknowledge that Jesus was what he said he was or that he was insane. There really is no liberal middle ground where Christ is a "wise man" or a "great teacher" but nothing more. Christ came claiming to be God. This is unmistakably his claim. Either Jesus was right in this assertion to be God or he was a maniac.

If John Shelby Spong believes that Christ was not God, then Spong should step up to the plate, lay aside all of the vapid academic banter, and proclaim Christ to be a maniac to whomever might care to hear his opinion. Then, instead of generating tedious treatises on an insane man, he should go out and get a real and honest job -- something that will help somebody.

My guess is that Spong, at the heart of matters, has rejected Christ and because he is such a nice guy, he wants to take as many people to hell with him as he can.

DennisDiehl said...

Wolf: "I have not read Spong's book but I did look at the comments on'

Well there ya go then. You never read what the man and many others understand about the Gospels, but you did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night.....

typical...and with all the judgement about how it all is to boot.

Either/Or is what's wrong with Fundamentalism...John Spong has a spirituality that you could never touch with that mindset.

wolf_track said...

From a review on "His (Spong's)premise is that a man like Jesus who transcended the boundaries of prejudice, stereotype, and other human frailties was deemed to be a reflection of God and consequently became wrapped into the mythology of the Jewish Old Testament."

If this person's assessment is valid, then Spong denies the Deity of Christ. No doubt Spong has a spirituality that I could never touch with my mindset, nor would I want to. There are many too many of these "spiritualities" available to think that Spong has something unique. But I do find it perplexing why he associates his personal spiritual ambitions with Christ at all. Why not start something called Spongism and leave the Bible out of the picture?

It is as if Spong said to himself: "First I will deny Christ and then I will concoct my own spirituality." Why not just cut to the chase and develop a new and idiosyncratic religion, like HWA did (Only Herbert liked to wrap himself in the mantle of the Bible. Spong seems to have this same need.) The denial of Christ is really superfluous.

Corky said...

wolf_track said...
"As C.S. Lewis wrote, one must acknowledge that Jesus was what he said he was or that he was insane."

Considering that none of the gospels were written before the very end of the first century and a full generation after Jesus supposedly lived, how do we know what he said or didn't say?

A really good question would be: why wasn't anything written about him sooner than a generation later?

The answer to that is obvious if you really think about it.

Even Paul in his letters gives us no information about the life of Jesus or what he might have said and even his writings are at least 25 years after Jesus' death.

And remember, Paul didn't learn of Jesus from any man but by his own visions and revelations only according to (Gal. 1&2).

DennisDiehl said...

Understanding the mythological, midrashic and non-literal, not eyewitness accounts that we call the Gospels, is not for the fundamentalist. It is too threatening.

Personally, unless you read JSS's explanations of what the Gospels are and how they came to be, one can't really comment. Also, it is a mistake to believe that he has some unique idea. He represents the theology and historical understanding of how things came to be in ways that most local pastor types pray to God never come up as questions among their congregants.

Once you spend a few months or so reading Spong or Brown's works on the nature of the Gospels, come back and we can chat. We can all quote what others say about others who agree about what we think we would say about others even if we don't read, for ourselves, what the others wrote that others don't like...whew! :)

DennisDiehl said...

PS I always found it interesting that within a mere 60 years of Jesus death as represented by the Gospels, John was ranting about those "among us, who went out from us" because they were not convinced Jesus ever really came "in the flesh."

That's like denying Albert Schweitzer ever existed in our culture. What would convince them of such a belief to where they left the literalist faith over it and so early in the game?

Tom Amiel said...

As a Reform Jew (ex WCG) I still enjoy reading this blog on a regular basis (Dennis, you have no idea how much you have helped me over the years).

Wolf_Track, what are you afraid of? Would it surprise you that even Orthodox Jews do not read the Bible literally? Have you ever heard of Louis Jacobs' "we have reason to believe" or Zvi Brettler's "how to read the Bible"? You display a typical christian black/white fundamentalist mindset that is alien to Jewish culture (even Orthodox, except for Chassidim perhaps).

Do you honestly believe that the God of Avraham, Yitzak and Yaakov would torture any of his children forever in hell? What kind of concept of God do you have?

Torah Min HaShamim is a hotly debated issue within the Jewish world (i.e. is the Torah from heaven?) and you would do well to familiarise yourself with this debate as it would help you to relax and view the world and scripture with a little more grey than you are currently comfortable with.

DennisDiehl said...

Hi Tom...thanks for the kind words. I only ever wish to be helpful and perhaps cause some to think outside the box of fundamentalist and literalist Christianity.

Literalist Christianity believes that the whole Old Testament was written as a backdrop to them coming on the scene. Of course, it has been redacted to appear to be that way. Basically, Paul, real founder of today's Gentile Christian faith hijacked the Jewish scriptures, misquoted them and gave them meanings they never were meant to have. Long story of course. After Paul, who knew little or nothing of a human Jesus, the Gospels were written to flesh out a life for a literal Jesus. Matthew, as you probably know, used the OT to build a story about Jesus where no real story seemed to be known.

Also most have no idea what Midrash or Pesher is and how it was used to write the NT script about Jesus. One would have to actually read John Spong to hear about this interesting way of expressing a story that may not be literally true.

Most Christians don't even realize that Paul wrote first about the cosmic (gnostic?) "Christ", lived and died before any Gospel writer wrote to bring a flesh and blood Jesus story to the table. And of course, when you read the Gospels with Mark being first, one sees the evolution even of the Gospel stories. Both Spong and Brown are very good at bringing this perspective to the table for inquisitive Christians.

Reg said...

Here's a review of a new book by another former Episcopalian.

June 10, 2007
Knowing Not

Decline-and-fall books, like E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s “Cultural Literacy” and Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind,” can leave the reader torn between depression and elation: by detailing how stupid everyone else is, the authors leave us feeling better about ourselves. (“I know which has more members, the Supreme Court or the Supremes!”) So it was with smug anticipation that I opened “Religious Literacy,” Stephen Prothero’s jeremiad about declining religious knowledge. Most Americans “cannot name one of the four Gospels,” Prothero writes, “and many high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.” Religious illiteracy cuts across generations, and the devout scarcely know more than the secular do. In one survey of high school students, most evangelicals did not recognize that “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is from the Sermon on the Mount.

Alas, unlike Jay Leno humiliating an audience that can’t name any of the Twelve Apostles, Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and author of “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon,” does not simply let us enjoy this intellectual condescension. After all, he wants us to remember, it’s the rare world crisis that is not at least partly rooted in religion — consider Sudan, Iraq, Israel. And because domestic controversies, like those over intelligent design or gay marriage, are also often bound up with religion, Prothero writes, “you need religious literacy in order to be an effective citizen.” Raising the stakes further, he argues (as other scholars have before him) that the 1993 conflagration that killed the Branch Davidians at Waco might have been averted had the F.B.I. better understood David Koresh’s apocalyptic theology.

Prothero’s corrective proceeds in two parts. First, he offers a diagnosis: a 100-page prĂ©cis of American religious history that tells a familiar story, from the Puritans to today’s pluralism, remarkably well. He also argues, persuasively, that both conservatives and liberals are to blame for American religious illiteracy. Beginning with 19th-century Unitarians, liberal Christians dropped Bible learning for good deeds and progressive politics. But conservatives have also turned away from religious study. From Charles Finney in the Second Great Awakening to contemporary megachurch preachers, evangelicals have won converts by advocating enthusiastic faith at the expense of religious study. For most American Christians, Prothero laments, catechisms, confessions and even reading the Bible itself are often Sunday-school afterthoughts.

Conservative evangelicals, uniting in pursuit of political influence, played down old denominational differences. “Family values” became for the right what “justice” or “peace” was for the left — a catchphrase that obviates the need for religious literacy. The specifics of Prothero’s thesis are not new, but his formulation makes the culture wars seem more misguided than ever. Left, right, ecumenical, evangelical — we all abandoned the Bible.

I say “the Bible” because although Prothero gives generous space to Islam and other world religions, he is adamant, against multicultural pieties, that Americans most need to know Christianity. Prothero also risks angering liberals by dismissing popular writers like Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith, who “in the name of pluralism” have furthered the view “that all religions were different paths up the same mountain.” Prothero’s admirably old-fashioned opinion is that to rebuild core knowledge we must resist comforting ecumenical myths. He calls for requiring that all high schoolers take both a Bible class and a world religions class.

The second half of the book is a glossary of religious terms that “Americans need to know.” Prothero’s judicious selection includes descriptions of the major world religions, the largest Christian denominations, key figures from the Bible (Abraham, Judas Iscariot, the prodigal son), various concepts (nonviolence, jihad) and several living figures (Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama). For a sense, here are the contents of a pair of facing pages, chosen at random: hijab, Hinduism, Holocaust, Holy Communion.

I would have omitted Billy Graham, who’s irrelevant today, and given Rick Warren his own entry. And I’d have avoided the cultural trivia: Hanukkah need not be defined with reference to Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” and Moses does not, in fact, “figure in” William Faulkner’s “Go Down, Moses.” But the bigger problem is with Prothero’s premise, that deeper religious knowledge would produce saner, wiser public discourse. Would wider knowledge of the Baltimore Catechism or New Testament stories really advance debates on, say, stem-cell research? Or would people find new reasons to cling to their old opinions?

George W. Bush did say that Jesus Christ was his “favorite philosopher,” but Susan Sontag was correct to point out that “Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that ... his administration would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs expounded by Jesus.” Americans have crafted a religiosity that is more an idea of religiosity; together we have largely agreed to forgo its content. Prothero, raised Episcopal, loves doctrine and Scripture, and I sympathize. But with some exceptions — a grasp of the Sunni/Shia distinction comes to mind — religious knowledge is not necessary to be a good citizen. It’s just necessary if one wants to be an educated person. It enriches our lives. That’s blessing enough.
Mark Oppenheimer is the author of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture.”

What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t.
By Stephen Prothero.
296 pp. HarperSanFrancisco. $24.95.

DennisDiehl said...

Once one can wrap their mind around the fact that humans have evolved out of Africa over millions of years with modern conscious humans coming on the scene approximately 200,000 years ago, it makes all the "God says" and "here's how it all is..." of the last 4000 Bible story years rather silly.

This means that God, as in "let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (It was the chief God speaking to the lesser god's and the council of gods) failed to speak up for 196,000 years after man came on the scene to explain how and why it all is.

Sometimes we fail to see or refuse to look at a bigger picture and get bogged down in religion and time frames as if this is all that ever preceeded us..

wolf_track said...

"... what are you afraid of? Would it surprise you that even Orthodox Jews do not read the Bible literally?"

This gets really difficult to convey in a few words and I just don't have more time. But I think you are asserting that I interpret the Bible literally. This is not the case. The Bible contains allegory, simile and metaphor. In a tiny number of cases, it is actually difficult to tell if what is written is be taken as a figure of speech or literally. And I have actually encountered very few people who intrepret the Bible, as you say, literally. But there are words in the Bible that are quite clearly meant to be understood as unadorned language.

"Do you honestly believe that the God of Avraham, Yitzak and Yaakov would torture any of his children forever in hell? What kind of concept of God do you have?"

I believe there is a punishment for disbelief and rebellion. The decision to be consigned to hell is made by those who go there. As C.S. Lewis said, the door to hell is locked from the inside. I also believe that the people who decide that is what they want, never change and never repent, hence, hell is eternal, of necessity. In fact, an unchanging committment to evil is one of the characteristics of people who decide that, for them, hell is the best place. Given this, I believe that your statement about "torturing" people in hell is a misrepresentation. Hell is punitive, without a doubt. Evil must have consequences. But God would like for hell to be empty.

I doubt the Spong has written anything so searching that it will catch fire and revolutionize the world. Just another non-believing hack. Other than reading the book jacket to get a flavor, it would not be worth my time.

Maybe Spong has, in fact, invented his own spirituality -- lot's of people do. That and $1.85 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

XCGMouse said...


Never read a Sponge title: read one of Rene Girard's. Girard pretty much disagrees with your take on the whole, Gospels as myth, thing-a-ma-jig.

He does have a decent length article accessible at the First Things site, approrpriately titled:

"Are the Gospels Mythical?"

Could you take look and give us a critique?

DennisDiehl said...

"Other than reading the book jacket to get a flavor, it would not be worth my time."

An oft spoken excuse not to step outside the box. I used it myself when I was just sure I knew all I needed to know as a pastor and really didn't want anyone to force me to think beyond that. My time was not near as valuable as my secure view of what I thought was right.

Don't tell we who have read Spong what is wrong with decades of credentialed study and experience when you admit it's not worth your time to explore it.

XCGMouse said...

Oops, I don't think my link works. The text of it is as follows:"

lilypad said...

Just ordered this one and should be on its way from Have quite a few of his works, he certainly holds my interest; he is of course a "liberal" christian, which I so appreciate after the stagnating and suffocating COG experience. Am no biblical scholar (in fact agnostic), but do find him to have a real spiritual bent, just not sure about all his "facts". So is a precaution to reconcile, with an author whom I find to be a fascinating and skilled writer.