Here’s your quiz for the day. Who wrote this?
There is no theistic God who exists to take care of you or me. There is no God who stands ready to set aside the laws by which this universe operates to come to our aid in time of need. There are no everlasting arms underneath us to catch us when we fall.
When people question this theistic God in the light of the constant pain and trauma found in the normal course of human life, the pious rhetoric of theism’s defenders becomes almost incoherent. One hears hysterical talk about free will, about how God allows us to bring pain upon ourselves and even about how God never asks us to bear more than we can endure. Sometimes religious spokespersons explain that we actually deserve the pain and trauma of life. How very trite these explanations are!
Christian evangelicals like to use the term “born again.” It is an interesting choice of words, for when one is “born again,” one is newly a child. It represents a second return to a state of chronic dependency. Perhaps what we specifically need is not to be “born again,” but to grow up and become a mature adult.
Richard Dawkins? Christopher Hitchens? Sam Harris? Nope.
That was John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of Newark. The quotations were taken from his 2005 book The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. Having yesterday reviewed a silly book about the Bible, it is nice to review a much better book about the Bible today.
I almost did not buy the book when I stumbled upon it during a recent bookstore browse. It bears an endorsement from — are you sitting down? — Bill O’Reilly. I took that to be a bad sign, but having read and enjoyed one of Spong’s other books (that would be A New Christianity for a New World) I decided to take my chances. I’m glad I did. I will file O’Reilly’s endorsement in the stopped clock department. Even he isn’t always wrong.
Spong’s premise is that the Bible contains a wide array of “terrible texts.” By this he means verses that have encouraged some very bad behavior over the years. The problem is the absurd view that the Bible is the Word of God, as opposed to an entirely human production that represents the primitive ideas of an ancient mindset. The heart of the book is six sections, each devoted to a handful of these terrible texts.
First up are the verses in Genesis exhorting people to be fruitful and multiply, and those giving humanity dominion over the Earth. The former encouraged the Church’s monstrous views on birth control (not to mention on sex generally). The latter has encouraged some rather short-sighted attitudes towards the environment.
Next up are verses about the role of women. Spong mentions the creation of Eve from Genesis (which teaches that women were created almost as an afterthought, when God saw that his man was lonely.) He also mentions the verses “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Cor 11:-9).”
Then we have the Bible and homosexuality. We get the Sodom and Gemorrah story from Genesis, the famous Levitical verses, and Romans 1:22-27.
The Bible and children is next. Here we have verses from Proverbs such as “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” (Prov. 22:15).
Then we have the Bible and anti-semitism, centered around verses from Matthew, John and Romans. For example, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did. You are of your Father, the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” John 8:39, 44.
Finally, we have the Bible and certainty. This one is organized around verses like “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) and “He who is not with me is against me.” (Matthew 12:30).
What I appreciate about Spong’s analysis is that he does not try to sugar coat things. He does not argue, say, that actually the Bible teaches great love and respect for homosexuals, and it’s just those dumbass fundamentalists who read Leviticus to say otherwise. In general he is not arguing that the Biblical texts are being abused when they are summoned in defense of bad behavior and bad thinking. The Bible genuinely teaches some awful and primitive ideas. It’s people’s attitude towards the Bible that needs to change. The problem is the bizarre notion that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.
As an example, Spong devotes a chapter to the story of Sodom. Since the men of Sodom stand accused of homosexual behavior (among other things), anti-gay demagogues have frequently used the story in defense of their views. Spong discusses the entirety of the story, which is unpleasant in almost every detail. He summarizes his findings as follows:
This ancient biblical narrative features a view of God so primitive that this God does not know what is going on in the world and has to send divine emissaries to bring back first-hand intelligence. Yet this ancient story has been used to demonstrate God’s negativity toward homosexual persons. This story that portrays all of the men of Sodom as eager to gang-rape two heavenly visitors, who have no rights in that city unless a citizen offers hospitality and protection, has been used to condemn faithful and loving homosexual relationships. The biblical narrative is one in which a father, in order to protect the Middle Eastern code of hospitality, can offer his virgin daughters to be gang-raped and still be regarded by both God and the author of this story as righteous and deserving of divine protection. Finally, a narrative that depicts scheming daughters, a drunken father and dual acts of incest has been turned by the prejudices of later interpreters into an anti-homosexual biblical text that feeds the basest side of our humanity. How is all that possible unless prejudice overwhelms rationality and moral judgment?
Preach it, brother!
Where Spong starts to lose me is when he persists in describing himself as a Christian, despite condemning in the strongest possible terms virtually every teaching of traditional Christianity. Now, I know the term ldquo;Christian” is not rigidly defined and encompasses a wide range of beliefs. The fundamentalists and the evangelicals are emphatically not the only game in town. I get it, I really do. But come on! Surely there have to be some limits. Are you really still a Christian if you abjure all belief in the supernatural? What kind of Christian writes things like this:
The question I seek to answer is not whether these miracles actually happened. I do not live in a world of miracles, like the world in which the biblical stories were created.
Spong’s version of Christianity is hard to distinguish from secular humanism.
My favorite part of the book is the final section, in which Spong provides a concise history of the assembly of the Biblical documents. He shows, for example, how the Jesus story gets embellished and added to as later Biblical writers copied from and added to the more sedate early narratives. He shows how the Torah was a synthesis of ancient Jewish documents arising from different traditions within the same religion. Tr to understand the Bible as the holy and inerrant word of God and you are confronted with one embarrassment after another, on all fronts. Scientific, moral and historical. Understand the Bible as a collection of ancient documents frequently doctored to serve the political needs of powerful people and everything makes far more sense.
It’s not all good news. Spong does have a tendency to toss off audacious propositions with very thin evidence. He’s quite certain that Mary was Jesus’ wife, for example, and that Paul was gay. Can’t quite follow him there. He also jumps with both feet into hysterical anti-circumcision nonsense. I have no doubt that it’s a primitive ritual reflecting some strange notions about sex, but to call it mutilation and child abuse is really overdoing things.
That notwithstanding, this is a terrific and important book. Recommended for all!