The “Terrible Texts” of the Bible

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.

Or this?

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!

Or this?

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!

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    December 23, 2008

    Are you really still a Christian if you abjure all belief in the supernatural? What kind of Christian writes things like this:

    An Anglican? The DI has its big tent, but for many years the CofE has been a “broad church”. I guess Spong is closer to deism than most, but if he had been in Britain, he would have been a shoe-in to be Bishop of Durham (the bishop there during the 1980s was even accused – unfairly – of being an atheist).

  2. #2 Frasque
    December 23, 2008

    Well, if he insists on still describing himself as a christian, let him. He sounds like the kind of theist we could use more of.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 23, 2008

    Frasque -

    Yes, it would be nice if more Christians thought like him. But I’d be even happier if he’d just call himself a secular humanist and be done with it, since that really does seem like a good description of his views.

    Bob O’H –

    Your comment reminds me of an episode from the British series Yes, Prime Minister, where the PM had to choose a new bishop for the C of E. He was shocked to find that his main advisor regarded the theological views of his pick to be totally irrelevant. Tres funny.

    Just to be clear, though, Spong is not even a deist. He is an atheist. He does not believe in any sort of supernatural God whatsoever. He gets a bit New Agey when trying to define what God is, but he basically believes that God is love.

  4. #4 Alec
    December 23, 2008

    Hi! Small typo in paragraph 6 from bottom to top!

    Now, I know the term ldquo;Christian” is

    Very interesting review, I think i will buy myself a copy!

  5. #5 heleen
    December 23, 2008

    Mary was Jesus’ wife
    Presumably Mary of Magdala (Magdalena) rather than Mary the wife of Joseph from Nazareth.

  6. #6 heddle
    December 23, 2008

    Spong is not a Christian. Words have meaning, and there is no sense in which Spong is aligned with even the broadest definitions of Christianity as a religion, which at a minimum agree that Jesus is a deity, and the son of a transcendent deity. If I recall, Jason stands almost alone among atheists in refusing the lure of the hair-trigger “True Scotsman” charge arguing in the past, again if I recall correctly, something to the effect that if someone says “I believe Elvis is Jesus, therefore I am a Christian” they are in fact not a Christian. Words have meaning.

    Jason is absolutely correct, Spong is a humanist who hangs his hat, in part, on Jesus’ “nicer” sayings. That is the extent of his Christianity.

    In a sense, if Spong is a Christian, then everyone except mainstream Christians are Christians. It would mean Jason is a Christian and I’m not. Because to first order all mainstream Christians, across many denominations, would argue that Spong is a blasphemous pinhead of biblical proportions, while all unbelievers generally agree with his teachings.

  7. #7 Danny
    December 23, 2008

    But circumcision is genital mutilation.

  8. #8 Bob O'H
    December 23, 2008

    Now now, David. Anglicans wouldn’t “argue that Spong is a blasphemous pinhead of biblical proportions” – that would be seen as impolite.

    I guess you see what is meant about a broad church, though.

  9. #9 reaindeerboy386sx
    December 23, 2008

    Spong is not a Christian. Words have meaning, and there is no sense in which Spong is aligned with even the broadest definitions of Christianity as a religion, which at a minimum agree that Jesus is a deity, and the son of a transcendent deity.

    Why would anybody agree on something when they have no way of possibly knowing if it’s even remotely true? Especially something so outrageously fantastical as that!

    If I recall, Jason stands almost alone among atheists in refusing the lure of the hair-trigger “True Scotsman” charge arguing in the past, again if I recall correctly, something to the effect that if someone says “I believe Elvis is Jesus, therefore I am a Christian” they are in fact not a Christian. Words have meaning.

    Makes sense to me. Elvis is Jesus, Jesus is Christ, and if one worships Elvis then one worships Christ. Therefore a worshipper of Elvis is Christian. Sounds like some pretty rock solid theology to me! It don’t get any better than that!

  10. #10 douglas
    December 23, 2008

    http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2008/12/religion_iq.php

    seems the anglicans are pretty progressive and free thinking. i havent read the book so dont know his opinions other than your review, however i dont doubt his ability to be a christian…

    there havent been miracles, in the definition i know for the word, in quite some time. so his statment, “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.” seems accurate for todays world, regardless if one still believes in a god and spiritualism or not. why care so much about the miracles of 2000yrs ago, especially since these events are likely distorted by human intervention (as is the case he is making).

    at more basic levels, religion is more a guidebook to life, being a good person, perhaps having a ‘personal relationship’ with some imaginary personality which i think is most likely anthropomorphised intuition (ironic because intuition is a personal quality anyway, so technically already anthropomorphic?), and for those who cant figure it out themselves, a way to ‘add meaning’ (as theists like to think there is no meaning in secular society?). therefore, cant one still be a christian/religious person without necessarily expecting grandiose miracles or for the unrealistic expectancy for prayers to be directly addressed? there can be belief in a loving mysterious god and afterlife without the magic wand and rediculous rituals like thinking water blessed by a man in robes can clean a baby’s soul which is already dirty due to eve eating some apple….

    the opening quotes do seem quite frankly atheistic… but im glad! let him preach appropriate social behavior like acceptance of others and human equality to believers, this is the direction in which they need to go! im sure enlightening people in this manner can bring about positive change in peoples behaviors and intelligence(by that i mean understanding the question and researching the best evidence available, not to say theists=unintelligent) much more so than the cold turkey straight to atheist conversion. hes even got backing by bill o’r

    love the line about “born again” implying a chronic dependency. so true.

  11. #11 J-Dog
    December 23, 2008

    “there havent been miracles, in the definition i know for the word, in quite some time.”

    What??? Didn’t you see the Bears win last night? Holy Saint Alex Brown, Jesus must REALLY hate the Packers!

    But seriously, I think the book is worth a read based on your review, so thanks.

  12. #12 Chris Bell
    December 23, 2008

    This sounds like the type of book that you should give to your religious friend (who would never listen to you) in order to start them down the road away from their nonsense.

  13. #13 Thony C.
    December 23, 2008

    heddle pontificated:

    Spong is not a Christian. Words have meaning, and there is no sense in which Spong is aligned with even the broadest definitions of Christianity as a religion, which at a minimum agree that Jesus is a deity, and the son of a transcendent deity. (my emphasis)

    I could name quite a few groups, both historical and actual, who call themselves Christians who would disagree with this statement.

  14. #14 Ian
    December 23, 2008

    I call myself a Christian (though not too loudly, for fear that people will associate me with the fundies). I consider Spong to be one of the most important influence in my Christianity, although I think that my concept of God is a bit less theistic than his…I strongly suspect that God is a human creation, while still believing that God is probably real.

    In Progressive Christianity, Spong is one of the most influential voices, alongside people like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. At the church I attend, a substantial proportion of the congregation is “Spongian”.

    Spong is not a Christian. Words have meaning, and there is no sense in which Spong is aligned with even the broadest definitions of Christianity as a religion, which at a minimum agree that Jesus is a deity, and the son of a transcendent deity.

    Words do have meanings, but these meanings change. Before the church was merged with the Empire, there was a diversity of meanings to Christianity. The fact that the state-sponsored church chose to come up with a set of rules doesn’t mean that all of us who stand in historically Christian traditions are bound to abide by those definitions. I think it’s reasonable to say that everything added after Constantine needs to be viewed with skepticism.

  15. #15 Jeff
    December 23, 2008

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Jason. If only more Christians were more like Spong. I agree that the endorsement by O’Reilly was bizarre.

    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.

    I can’t see how circumcision is not genital mutilation (admittedly, I don’t live in the US, and it’s pretty rare elsewhere in the world (with the exception of the Middle East and North Africa, of course)).

  16. #16 David
    December 23, 2008

    Circumcision is mutilation, because its the removal of living and viable tissue that serves a specific purpose and it deforms the integrity of the penis. It is abuse because the child cannot give consent to the procedure, which is intensely painful and most often done under false pretenses.

  17. #17 James McGrath
    December 23, 2008

    I think acknowledging that Spong’s version of Christianity is as much a form of Christianity as any other is crucial. So many people take the fundamentalists’ claims to “believe the whole Bible”, to “take it all literally” and to reflect the historic Christian viewpoint at face value, without ever questioning it. If one were to read Justin Martyr and Origen, John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, Thomas Aquinas and Erasmus, and then some modern fundamentalists, I think one would have a hard time equating the beliefs of the latter with that of the others – and the mixed bag I mentioned would also seem pretty diverse.

    There is no such thing as “Christianity” except in the sense of the phenomenon of a diversity of people and the things they believe and do under that rubric. And (by definition) Spong is part of that diversity – as am I! :)

  18. #18 heddle
    December 23, 2008

    Thony C.,

    I could name quite a few groups, both historical and actual, who call themselves Christians who would disagree with this statement.

    That’s the point. You are not a Christian just because you claim to be.

    Ian,

    I call myself a Christian (though not too loudly, for fear that people will associate me with the fundies). I consider Spong to be one of the most important influence in my Christianity, although I think that my concept of God is a bit less theistic than his

    If you view of God is even less theistic than Spong’s, which is something like saying your view of evolution is less rigorous than Ken Ham’s, then you are not a Christian. Period. Christianity is a proper subset of theism.

    James McGrath,

    There is no such thing as “Christianity”

    That statement is absurd. You can create a minimal definition–say affirming the Nicene Creed. You would get an “aye” from Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, most Anglicans not named Spong, etc—in short something well above 90% of all mainstream denominations, and a couple billion people. That’s a precise, verifiable, reproducible definition and those two billion people are allowed to say–if you can’t even agree to this, no matter what you call yourself, you are not a Christian.

  19. #19 Scott Hatfield, OM
    December 23, 2008

    I must say that I agree with James, above. I appreciate the fact that Jason didn’t find it necessary to play the True Scotsman (TM) card in considering Spong’s views. I would suggest, however, that labels of ‘theism’ or ‘atheism’ do not encapsulate his views. Spong rejects theism in a very technical sense that probably is not what conventional believers mean by ‘God’ (though he of course would reject their ‘God’ as well)…in that sense he could be said to be an ‘atheist’….but also, Spong, if I read him correctly, leaves room for theological understandings like deism or pantheism. So in that sense he wouldn’t be an ‘atheist’, though he still wouldn’t qualify as a ‘theist’. Ack! I must now wash my brain of all this hairsplitting and condemn all heretics…:)

    At any rate, thought-provoking post.

  20. #20 rimpal
    December 23, 2008

    Well if Spong is Episcopalian then let’s hear it from their Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori “We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.” Is that Christian to believe that non-Christians have their own equal way to the divine? That sounds like the typical “all paths are the same” refrain of the likes of Gandhi and definitely not in line with the teachings of the RC. So then what is Christian really?

  21. #21 Badger3k
    December 23, 2008

    A Christian is someone who calls himself one. Simple. Since the definition has changed over the centuries, and encompasses a huge amount of beliefs, I think any attempt to categorize is ultimately useless. I do like Heddle’s attempt to stake a claim as an authority, but the Nicene creed was formulated well after Christianity started, and trying to claim that the multitude of Christians in the first few centuries after is developed were not Christians is amusing. How about someone who considered Christ a man, who had a good philosophy, and followed what he believed were his words. Would he be a Christian? Not according to the Scotsman. Personally I think it funny that a religion that bases it’s beliefs on authority has no authority to even define what it is. A bit ironic, if I’m using the term correctly.

  22. #22 SiMPel MYnd
    December 23, 2008

    Got a few anti-circumcision trolls in here, do we?

    I’m not going to debate the good/bad aspects of it, but “mutilation” is stretching it quite a bit. You’re just using extreme rhetoric to try and justify your position–a position I tend to agree with, but not because I think it rises to the level of “mutilation”. I’m circumcised, and I don’t think that my penis’ “integrity” has been deformed at all. On the contrary, it still does exactly what evolution designed it to–expel urine and function in my attempts to procreate through sexual intercourse, both of which I do regularly.

    It is abuse because the child cannot give consent to the procedure, which is intensely painful and most often done under false pretenses.

    There are all kinds of things my parents did to me and I do to my kids that are done without their consent–some painful, some not. They are my kids, and I have to judge what is best for them and make those decisions appropriately. If some people are under the impression that circumcision provides a useful health benefit, I’m OK with that. I don’t, but that’s just me.

    And “most often done under false pretenses” is also stretching it a bit. Fact citation please?

  23. #23 Collin Brendemuehl
    December 23, 2008

    Jason,

    A mathematician you may be, but a theologian you are not.
    The proof-texting that you engage is is, at best, intellectually dishonest.

    For instance, to say that the Bible is explicitely anti-semitic is utter nonsense. Especially when those making these statemets were themselves Jews.

    To be “born again” is to be “born from above” for anyone with the remotest familiarity with the koine of the NT.

  24. #24 Chris Schoen
    December 23, 2008

    Hey, literalists, listen to James McGrath here.

    I wonder if David Heddle believes that Spong should not be permitted to come visit him at his church, sing hymns, pray, and say amen and hallelujah because he’s not a “real” Christian.

    Where does Spong say he rejects the Nicene Creed? He would hardly be the first theologian (paging Dr. Tillich) to interpret Christian symbols of father, son, maker, etc. as instructional allegories. Many, many devout Christians understand doctrine this way. Maybe even you? The Christian God is obviously not biological (though he might once have been, way back when he wrestled with Jacob.) So he can hardly have been anyone’s “father” in a literal sense. I don’t think any contemporary churches would expect Jesus to have carried God’s DNA, for example.

    The Nicene Creed also affirms “the life to come.” Does this mean that any Christians who don’t believe in a literal afterlife are also not “true” Christians?

    It’s interesting to see Heddle, who does so much good work on his blog calling out fundamentalists, suddenly call upon the same Shibboleths when Spong is mentioned. What is so threatening about the man?

  25. #25 Thony C.
    December 23, 2008

    Some comments on “The Thoughts of Chairman Heddle”

    You can create a minimal definition–say affirming the Nicene Creed.

    The Nicene Creed is the establishment, in the fourth century BCE, of one interpretation of the New Testament by one group who called them Christians who then proceeded to use this document as justification to persecute, torture and murder any other group who called themselves Christians but who interpreted the New Testament differently. This justification was not only used in the early centuries following the formulation of this creed but continued to serve this highly “Christian function” throughout history, see for example the Albigensian Crusade, and it appears still to be active judging by heddles defence of it as the one true definition of “a Christian”.

    You are not a Christian just because you claim to be

    Why not! Who the fuck are you to claim the right to define who follows the teachings of the man who is called The Christ? Anyone who claims to do so just that has the right to call himself a Christian whether you like it or not.

    in short something well above 90% of all mainstream denominations, and a couple billion people

    Yesterday I watched a documentary on the television of the representatives of those “mainstream denominations” literally having major punch ups in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem because they can’t agree on how to worship their supposed Christ and you claim they are in agreement about who is or is not a Christian!

    I love the “a couple of billion people”! So-called believers are fond of bandying this figure around but how do they arrive at it? Let us take a look at the arithmetic of belief. The process is very simple you take a country such as England (not Great Britain!), which has an established church, what is the size of the population? 51 million: good then we have 51 million Christians! I strongly suspect that any honest survey or calculation of the world’s Christian population would not even reach a quarter of your “couple of billion people”!

  26. #26 David Marjanovi?
    December 23, 2008

    That statement is absurd. You can create a minimal definition–say affirming the Nicene Creed.

    So the Ethiopian and the Armenian monophysites are not Christians to you? Very strange, if true.

  27. #27 heddle
    December 23, 2008

    I wonder if David Heddle believes that Spong should not be permitted to come visit him at his church, sing hymns, pray, and say amen and hallelujah because he’s not a “real” Christian.

    Sure, we welcome unbelievers. That would be great. I’d even sit next to him. (Although a church is primarily to attend to believers, not seek converts–nevertheless we would certainly welcome him.)

    Where does Spong say he rejects the Nicene Creed?

    Everywhwere, even if he doesn’t do so explicitly (which he may in fact have, I can only read so much of his nonsense at one sitting–it’s rather like reading Jonathan Wells on science. There is probably no statement about Christ in the Nicene Creed that Spong has not rejected.

    The Nicene Creed also affirms “the life to come.” Does this mean that any Christians who don’t believe in a literal afterlife are also not “true” Christians?

    Yes it does mean that. If there is no afterlife then “eternal life” is a lie. That makes, for example, John 3:16 a lie. That makes Jesus a liar. If you do not believe in an afterlife, you are not a Christian. †

    What is so threatening about the man?

    Nothing! He is supremely amusing! The world would be less interesting sans Bishop Spong.

    Thony C.,

    Why not! Who the fuck are you to claim the right to define who follows the teachings of the man who is called The Christ? Anyone who claims to do so just that has the right to call himself a Christian whether you like it or not.

    Of course they have the right to call themselves whatever they want. And if they call themselves Christians I neither like it nor dislike it. But I also have the right to refuse them the honorific “Christian.” They can do the same to me. They should do the same to me, if they have any integrity. If Spong considers himself a Christian, then he should say that people like me are not Christians–because we have virtually no overlap.

    I love the “a couple of billion people”! So-called believers are fond of bandying this figure around but how do they arrive at it?

    Well to be fair, I don’t believe it either. I don’t think there are anywhere nears that many actual Christians. But I seem to recall that there are over a billion self-identified Catholics and a similar number of non-Catholic self-identified Christians. The number is irrelevant– the point is that the overwhelming majority of self-identified Christians belong to denominations that affirm the Nicene Creed. As such, it is a reasonable benchmark for determining whether someone is a Christian.

    David Marjanović,

    So the Ethiopian and the Armenian monophysites are not Christians to you? Very strange, if true.

    Truthfully I know nothing about them. But if they don’t affirm the Nicene Creed, then they are not Christians to me.

    —————————–
    † Of course that doesn’t mean you aren’t saved–As all Calvinists know, God will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy–it just means that, as commanded by the bible, I won’t treat you as a Christian. That is what is meant by my saying: He is not a Christian. We are told to judge those who make that claim. Obviously we can be wrong–but nevertheless we are told to judge (carefully.) If not, the bible would have a prohibition against excommunication. Instead, it commands it.

  28. #28 Badger3k
    December 23, 2008

    Colin “For instance, to say that the Bible is explicitely anti-semitic is utter nonsense. Especially when those making these statemets were themselves Jews.”

    What about the Pauline gentile churches? The ones that rejected the Jewish ritual/purity laws (among other things)? Did they not exist? Seriously? Christianity is a mix of Jewish-Christianity and Gentile-Christianity. There are numerous anti-Semitic quotes and threads in the NT. Heck, just look at one line in Matthew that caused a lot of anti-Semitic feelings (27:25) “And all the people [ed - the Jews] answered and said, His blood be upon us, and on our children.” This line is distinctly anti-Jewish – does anyone really think that they would say this? Seriously? Matthew has a distinct anti-Jewish slant, and indicates the break between Jewish and Gentile Christianity. This shouldn’t be an issue for any scholar or student of biblical study/criticism. Do you think that the anti-Jewish pogroms of the last two centuries (including good ol’ Marty Luther) developed out of the blue, and not out of the texts?

  29. #29 miller
    December 23, 2008

    I had heard about Shelby Spong many times before, but I’ve always opted to withhold judgment until I see more of him. But based on your review, Spong sounds great!

    Honestly, the fact that he calls himself Christian is not too big of a problem for me. A semantical disagreement is just about the least important disagreement I could imagine having with someone. In any case, I don’t even entirely disagree.

    On the other hand, the belief that “God is love” simply seems more pithy than accurate. I suppose it depends on what he means by that.

  30. #30 Collin Brendemuehl
    December 23, 2008

    Badger3k,
    Are you a fellow cheesehead?
    There is some anti-Jewish flavor in church history, but it is not in the NT.
    First, there is a difference between the rejection of ritual and the rejection of persons.
    Second, the quote from Matthew is made by a particular group, not by a nation.
    Luther was still strongly Roman and did not reject most of Rome’s doctrines. Go back to Nicea, and even earlier, for ecclesiastical and theological issues that contributed. Among these is the insertion of Hellenistic concepts that allegorized the NT and church, creating a dismissal of Israel. This is one the theological issues that the Dispensationalist has successfully addressed.
    The only issue for scholars is whether the attribution of anti-semitism to the NT is actually honest.

    To claim to be a Christian is to claim to belong to Christ. (The truth-value of such a statement is another matter.) To deny the existence of God and to claim to belong to that God is a contradiction which should not be missed.

  31. #31 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 23, 2008

    heddle -

    Well, it’s nice to know we agree on something.

    Thony C. and James McGrath -

    As I said in my opening post, I have no problem with the idea that the term “Christian” can encompass a wide range of beliefs. The fact remains, though, that if Spong is a Christian then so am I, since I agree with all of his major metaphysical assertions. And if I am to be considered a Christian, then the term has truly lost all meaning.

    As the saying goes, it’s really about usages, not definitions. People are free to describe their beliefs with whatever term they want. But very few people would be willing to use the term “Christian” for someone who does not believe in any notion of a supernatural God, who does not believe in miracles, and who believes that the Bible is a purely human construct. That there are numerous disputes and disagreements among Christian denominations should not be used to obscure the fact that there are certain commonalities that cover the vast majority of the Christian world. Spong adamantly rejects those commonalities.

    David and others

    Circumcision is technically a mutilation in the same sense that getting your ears pierced is technically a mutiliation. My objection is simply that the term is so loaded and negative that it seems out of all proportion to the deed that is being done. Excluding my own, I have only been to one bris. It was one of the most anti-climactic experiences of my life!

  32. #32 Brenda Tucker
    December 23, 2008

    I love this blog. I love all this talk about religion. I even love Heddle, but I can’t help but submit to him and to the posters here that if there is a higher kingdom as Jesus claims that enters us and live in us, then we have a very serious conflict. That kingdom has an objective to produce in us the best possible “human creature” just as we would have an objective to do the same with an evolving animal that we enter during the 2nd race in this cycle of descent/ascent.

    I think that while they do try to produce in us a heightened, more evolved human, we fight them because we don’t know as much as they know and we want to be our own creators. There has to be some give and take about what we are and are not. We have to agree to their efforts to change us. If I ask a girasas kingdom to heal my daughter (as an example) and they ask me for my “right arm” in exchange for this accomplishment, I really have to consider if there might not be another way to achieve the same goal.

    As we are likely past our creative cycle (the descending arc), and embarking on our destructive cycle, what’s the harm in breaking down the girasas kingdom and examining them the best we can? It may be unpleasant for them, granted, and so how to we reconcile rights on both sides? They build, we destruct, but we also take great risk in accepting this kingdom in our life because we can’t be sure what they will make of us and if what they make of us will be acceptable to the other humans who are watching.

    I’m so grateful to blogs like this one, where one side can actually watch the other side and send up an alarm if its needed and that’s what the church is for, too. Other church members can correct me if I go to outside the mainstream of what people want in their life experience.

  33. #33 Raymond Minton
    December 23, 2008

    Spong is certainly to be commended for denouncing the irrationality, sexism,glorification of war, slavery and homicide that fill the Christian ‘holy’ book. The only mystery is how he can still call himself a Christian, considering how much damage and misery has been caused by that ancient superstition. Come on over to the unbeliever’s side, Shelby! There aren’t that many of us, and we could use a famous advocate to speak on our behalf.

  34. #34 Caliban
    December 23, 2008

    I’m inclined to agree with Heddle about having a generally acknowledged criteria as to what Christians commonly use to identify themselves by. It makes things a hell of a lot less confusing that way. Spong is a perfect example of this sort of confusion. As far as i can tell, his worldview seems closer to a secular humanist’s, not a “Christians’”.

    However, i think it’s worth pointing out that in Buddhism there are those who call themselves Buddhists because they follow the teachings of Buddha, but don’t worship him. Then there are the Buddhists who do. Both seem to have valid claims to the title.

    Similarly, could those who follow the teachings of Jesus and make a genuine attempt to organize their ethical lives around say, the Sermon on the Mount, yet aren’t concerned with weather or not Jesus was Divine, seem to also have a legitimate claim to call themselves Christians. (I’m thinking of folks like Newton or Thomas Jefferson here.)

    In short, can “mere” followers of Christ be called Christians, or is that word the exclusive domain of those who worship him? I’m not sure…

  35. #35 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 23, 2008

    Brenda –

    Thanks for the kind words about the blog.

  36. #36 Narc
    December 23, 2008

    Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of “Christian” as an identity and used to portray a common background and set of ethics, much like one can be both Jewish and an atheist.

  37. #37 RBH
    December 23, 2008

    Narc wrote

    Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of “Christian” as an identity and used to portray a common background and set of ethics, much like one can be both Jewish and an atheist.

    IIRC correctly, Dawkins has self-identified as a “cultural” Christian. :)

  38. #38 Puskara
    December 23, 2008

    Well technically circumcision is not mutilation. However by the same strict interpretation neither is an infibulation or clitorectomy.

  39. #39 Bezoar
    December 24, 2008

    Ah, J-dog, I was thinking the same thing. If the Bears make the playoffs there really IS a god ;-).

  40. #40 The Science Pundit
    December 24, 2008

    IIRC correctly, Dawkins has self-identified as a “cultural” Christian. :)

    And Julia Sweeney self-identifies as a cultural Catholic. :-)

  41. #41 notedscholar
    December 24, 2008

    Interesting. Sounds like he has some cognitive dissonance!

    Also, I don’t think the things you mention are especially “essential.”

    NS

  42. #42 Dale Husband
    December 25, 2008

    Unfortunatly, I agree with heddle that John Shelby Spong has no business calling himself a Christian. Indeed, if I were the head of the Episcopal Church, I would have excommunicated Spong as a heretic or infidel. And I am not even a Christian at all, but an AGNOSTIC! It’s just that I want people to be honest about what they really are. Spong is not and should have been made to answer for his labeling himself wrongly many years ago.

  43. #43 JimC
    December 26, 2008

    In a sense, if Spong is a Christian, then everyone except mainstream Christians are Christians. It would mean Jason is a Christian and I’m not. Because to first order all mainstream Christians, across many denominations, would argue that Spong is a blasphemous pinhead of biblical proportions, while all unbelievers generally agree with his teachings.

    He is a good thinker with many accurate and provacative points. It’s not as simple as saying ALL mainstream denominations disagree and unbelievers agree. In fact many find his evidenced views compelling. The truth is the truth regardless if one is a believer or not. The simple fact is thinking the bible is God’s word is terribly unevidenced and the root of some seriously pathetic and humorous apologetics. Simpler to accept the truth that it may be nothing more than words written by men recanting an important event.

    But I seem to recall that there are over a billion self-identified Catholics and a similar number of non-Catholic self-identified Christians. The number is irrelevant– the point is that the overwhelming majority of self-identified Christians belong to denominations that affirm the Nicene Creed. As such, it is a reasonable benchmark for determining whether someone is a Christian

    Nahhh, the RCC counts every man woman and child even those who now attend church elsewhere or not at all. That being said affirming the very late Nicene Creed is irrevelant to calling oneself Christian. As such the Nicene Creed specifically mentions the catholic church and that is pretty hard for a Protestant to affirm.

    All that being said if Spong’s version of Jesus and such is different than mine or heddle’s etc he is not necessarily not Christian any more than those of the multiple Christian sects before the Romans absorbed and eliminated the others where not. The concept of exclusivity is a rather late view and to cling to it as the only view is rather well, unChristian.

  44. #44 Modusoperandi
    December 27, 2008

    Dale Husband “…I would have excommunicated Spong as a heretic or infidel.”
    Why not both? In this modern, fast-paced world, do we really have time for both heretics and infidels? Just think of how much extra time the faithful will have to devote to rooting out other heresies and, um, infidelitudes (with whatever time is left over devoted to figuring out just that the truest True beliefs are, paving the way for further heretics to be uncovered and expunged) if they combine those that they’ve already identified into “heredel”!

  45. #45 ephant
    December 27, 2008

    As such the Nicene Creed specifically mentions the catholic church and that is pretty hard for a Protestant to affirm

    The Creed mentions a catholic church, not the Catholic Church. They are not the same thing.

  46. #46 heddle
    December 27, 2008

    JimC,

    As such the Nicene Creed specifically mentions the catholic church and that is pretty hard for a Protestant to affirm.

    No, because it mentions the small-c catholic church–i.e., the “universal” church. And as way of instruction for newbies, visitors and kids, probably half the times I have heard the Nicene Creed read in a Protestant Church the pastor will remind everyone it is not referring to the Roman Catholic Church. No Protestant would refuse to affirm the Nicene creed because it uses the word “catholic.”

  47. #47 JimC
    December 27, 2008

    No Protestant would refuse to affirm the Nicene creed because it uses the word “catholic

    You my friend have never sat in a SBC in the great state of Texas.:-)

  48. #48 Pseudonym
    December 30, 2008

    Jason:

    As I said in my opening post, I have no problem with the idea that the term ?Christian? can encompass a wide range of beliefs. The fact remains, though, that if Spong is a Christian then so am I, since I agree with all of his major metaphysical assertions. And if I am to be considered a Christian, then the term has truly lost all meaning.

    Of course Spong is a Christian, and of course you are not. Were you ever an Anglican bishop? No, I didn’t think so.

    Seriously, Spong, while being a non-theist (not an “atheist”; he believes in God, he just happens to think that theism is a poor way to describe what God is), is far, far closer to mainline Anglicanism than mainline Anglicanism is to the early church. If mainline Anglicanism is Christian, then so is Spong.

    BTW, for those who like Spong, I’m going to suggest some other authors. Note that some of these will be of more interest to Christians than Atheists, but such is life.

    - Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh. How To Read The Bible and Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics are two of my favourites.

    - Leslie Weatherhead, former President of the Methodist Conference of Britain. The Christian Agnostic is probably the one that most will find interesting.

    - Rudolph Bultmann, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. Myth & Christianity: An Inquiry Into The Possibility Of Religion Without Myth is fairly accessible. Kerygma and Myth has the advantage that it’s free online.

  49. #49 Greg
    January 1, 2009

    Calling ones self a Christian does not require one to argue the veracity of certain supernatural phenomena referenced in the pages of a two thousand year old text. It really gets down to wanting to be a part of a certain family of rituals which enable the “follower” to reach the heights of human potential.

    Christians do think that the best way to get something is to give up something (sacrifice).

    Christians do believe in the transformative power of confession.

    Christians do believe that breaking bread with others has an unusual power to build relationships.

    Many secular humanists likely believe the same things but pointing to a person in the past who embodied these principles CAN add some validity to the practices being preached.

  50. #50 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    January 1, 2009

    Happy Darwin Year.

  51. #51 chris y
    January 1, 2009

    The Nicene creed was written in the middle of the 4th century to encapsulate the theology of Athanasius of Alexandria and his followers. It has defined “Orthodox” Christianity since then because the Athanasians won a series of political arguments.

    On the other hand, using it as a touchstone for Christianity in general would exclude, among others, the apostles, St Paul, St Steven the Martyr, most of the early church fathers, the Emperor Constantine and his immediate successors, Ulfilas the missionary to the Goths… They didn’t subscribe to the Nicene creed in most cases because it hadn’t been written yet, and nobody has a clue what they believed in with respect to some of the issues addressed at Nicaea (Ulfilas was a conscious anti-Athanasian, but I’ve never seen a history of the church which suggested he wasn’t a Christian).

    On the third hand, who cares anyway?

    Happy new year.

  52. #52 Jim Harrison
    January 1, 2009

    Can I protest against the notion that there is something odd about Christian humanism? Granted the vast differences between our times and his, the Christianity of Erasmus was not so very far from Spong’s. And if Erasmus wasn’t a humanist, who was?

  53. #53 Badger3k
    January 1, 2009

    Colin – not a Cheesehead, although I did go to Ripon College for 4 years (I’m a FIB or Flatlander). I think we have to disagree on the anti-Semitism. I see it more as a sign of the development of anti-Semitic thinking reflected in the writings as they developed. Of course, the lines could have been added in later and were not in the original. They represent the division that occurred between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. I think a case can be made, using the historical attitudes of Christians towards Jews, that this anti-Semitism is part and parcel of the doctrine, although most choose not to follow them (to a degree). However, the issue is very complex, and I can see the other side, but I just see one side as having more validity. Now, there could be an issue of whether something was “official” (in this case, this would mean a written document from the Roman Catholic Church), but if so, why did the Pope do this:

    “The Catholic Church’s new approach to teaching about the Jews started with Pope John XXIII, who initiated the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). During this Council, the declaration Nostra Aetate was approved in 1965 under Pope Paul VI. The main issue was the deicide, about which the document stated: “True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today.” Moreover, the Church “deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.”7

    from a pdf: http://www.vho.org/aaargh/fran/livres6/minerbi.pdf (I tried to find the quote, but looking up Pope Jews Christ Killers gave me quite a bit to go through). Still whether or not there was an official doctrine, the attitudes of Christians throughout history seems to say that they thought there was.

  54. #54 Bob Evans-aka Metsguy
    January 5, 2009

    Brenda: “I’m so grateful to blogs like this one, where one side can act to watch the other side and send up an alarm if it’s needed and that’s what the church is for too.”

    I’d like to second that, Jason. I had recommended your blog over at Andrew Brown’s guardian.com blog well over a year ago, in keeping with Brenda’s comment.

    Jason: ” Next up are verses about the role of women. Spong mentions the creation of Eve from Genesis (which teaches that woman were created almost as an afterthought, when God saw that his man was lonely.) ”

    If we’re talking about the “role of women” in the biblical sense, or what the bible “teaches” regarding the creation of women, many theologians would point out that it’s much more nuanced than you indicate.

    The heirarchy referred to in verse 3 of 1 Corinthians 11, is expressed by Paul in verses 7-9 and in other metaphors as well: In the verse you site, Paul alludes to the text of Genesis 1:27 in which the male-female couple is created in God’s image and commanded to multiply and, together, dominate the lower forms of creation. But Genesis 1:24 is interpreted by many theologians as a reference to the second creation narrative mentioned in Genesis 2, in which each of the sexes is created separately, (first the man and then the woman from man, for him, to be his helpmate, (Genesis 2:20-23). This is in the context of the story of the “fall”, (as you mentioned) the result of which, is that the husband rules over the woman, as we see later in Genesis 3:16. This interpretation of 1 Corinthians projects two images of God, but at differing degrees of closeness to mankind. Many theologians believe you have to look at both Genesis verses in order to understand Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians regarding the “role of women”, (to use your phrase).

    “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 divine judgement of Romans 1:22-27 deals with the premise of “hardness of heart”, first described in Romans 9:17-18, whereby, God abandons the rebellious to their self-indulgence. In subsequent verses of Romans, Paul shows how the Mosaic law produces the same reaction from God; (Romans 5:20-Romans 7:13-24).

    “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 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.”

    Many theologians agree that this could possibly, (as you say) have been a sarcastic reference to descent of the Jews from the devil. But this block of scripture also contains a startling claim by Jesus…that he was sent by God and that he had spoken “the truth, which I have heard of God”. Quoting only one verse from those words of Jesus, when you cite six verses, shows that block completely out of context. Many single verses can stand alone and be descerned contextually, but not that one. Some folks don’t have the time to reference scripture that you site in a post.

  55. #55 Robert O'Brien
    January 5, 2009

    Spong is not a Christian by any reasonable criterion. Also, he is an absolutely inept theologian. His ignorance of Greek was exposed by an RC theologian (i.e., Gerald O’Collins).

  56. #56 Robert O'Brien
    January 5, 2009

    I think acknowledging that Spong’s version of Christianity is as much a form of Christianity as any other is crucial. So many people take the fundamentalists’ claims to “believe the whole Bible”, to “take it all literally” and to reflect the historic Christian viewpoint at face value, without ever questioning it. If one were to read Justin Martyr and Origen, John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, Thomas Aquinas and Erasmus, and then some modern fundamentalists, I think one would have a hard time equating the beliefs of the latter with that of the others – and the mixed bag I mentioned would also seem pretty diverse.

    There is no such thing as “Christianity” except in the sense of the phenomenon of a diversity of people and the things they believe and do under that rubric. And (by definition) Spong is part of that diversity – as am I! :)

    I have read those Christians. (The ones worth reading anyway. Theresa of Avila seems like a looney toon to me.) I’m certain one thing they’d all agree on is that Spong is an execrable apostate.

  57. #57 Nathan
    January 6, 2009

    A Christian as I understand it, is simply a fallower of Christ. Not a fallower of His teachings, or a fallower of some of His words but not other, etc. Respecting Jesus does not make someone a Christian. Muslims respect Jesus and even believe He was a great profit, they believe most of what He said was true, but not all of it. Why can someone who hold Jesus in a similar reguard call himself a Christian. I think it is a cover thru which he can critisize the Bible and be seen in a much different light than a critic who is honest enough to say they do not belive the Bible is anything more than a collection of ancient writings. Jesus teachings validated the Old Testament, including the Bible’s account of creation. It always suprises me when people try to pick and choose what they believe about Jesus. If you don’t believe Him when He said He was the Son of God, then why take anything else He says seriously. On this web site if someone claims they believe in creation or Noah’s ark, anything else they say is immediately dissmissed as the rantings of a loonatic. I understand why that happens. What I don’t understand is why Jesus is treated any differently? Spong is either ignorant of what being a Christian means, or he is intentionally deceitful. Either way it does not add validity to his remarks.

  58. #58 Nia Davidson
    January 12, 2009

    Brilliant blog! I will be buying the book. I’m a typically brought-up methodist non-believer but actually still quite Christian-like. This will help me to help my very born-again Christian friend understand where I’m coming from and how wrong she is!

    Re the circumcision: it was a fairly sensible thing to do all those thousands of years ago when the Jewish people were exiled in the desert, sand being highly irritant!

  59. #59 Heraclides
    January 17, 2009

    Excuse my coming to this very late!

    Jason’s description of Spong He gets a bit New Agey when trying to define what God is, but he basically believes that God is love. rightfully or wrongly has me thinking of New Zealander Lloyd Geering (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lloyd_Geering), locally famous for (apparently) being the last person tried for heresy (he was acquitted).

    (Wikipedia lists a considerable number of others charged with heresy since then, so this “last person tried for heresy is probably a local urban myth, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heresy_in_the_20th_century The list makes for fascinating, if bizarre, reading.)

    (Excuse the wikipedia references, I know it’s “cheap knowledge”, but it’s also easy…)

    Nathan (January 6, 2009 2:34 PM): Spong is either ignorant of what being a Christian means, or he is intentionally deceitful. I doubt very much that either is true. He clearly is quite familiar with the bible and others’ views on it, etc., so the former can’t be right; the latter doesn’t follow from his openly drawing conclusions.

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    He clearly is quite familiar with the bible and others’ views on it, etc., so the former can’t be right; the latter doesn’t follow from his openly drawing conclusions.

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