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in a Strange Land:
Bishop Spong in Cobb County
Bear's Notebook: an ongoing series of reports on current
events and ideas
Shelby Spong, the controversial Episcopal bishop who writes such provocatively-titled
books as Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Rescuing the
Bible from Fundamentalism, recently did a book-signing and reading in
Austell, Georgia. Austell is in Cobb County, infamous for its 1993 anti-gay
resolution ("the homosexual lifestyle is incompatible with the standards
to which this community subscribes"). Recently Cobb County, where I was
born and still live (with my partner of five years), was in the headlines
again for the
anti-evolution stickers it pasted in thousands of textbooks, reminding
students that evolution is "only" a scientific theory (you know, kinda like
gravity). I was intrigued that, out of the eleven Borders Bookstores in
metro Atlanta, one of the most liberal Christian bishops of all time would
do a book-signing at a Borders in one of the most infamously-conservative
counties in America.
Bishop Spong was on tour to promote his new book, The Sins of Scripture:
Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. He explained
that the title came from the publisher; his original title for the book
was The Terrible Texts. The book is Bishop Spong's critique of
the biblical texts that have been used throughout history to oppress and
subjugate women, gays and lesbians, children, Jews, other cultures, and
even the earth itself. The bulk of the book is spent in examining these
Based on my readings of Spong's earlier books, I went to the reading
expecting to hear an intellectual attack on the "terrible texts." What
I experienced, though, was a look into the soul and spirit of a man who
passionately loves the Bible and sincerely wishes to rescue it from those
who would use it as a weapon to oppress others.
Spong was challenged several times by a man in the audience who just
couldn't understand how such an intelligent man could believe in a supernatural
God. Spong's response was that his faith is in a non-theistic God who
is the source of life, the source of love, and, in the words of Paul Tillich,
the Ground of All Being. Our response to such a God, according to Spong,
should be to "live fully, love wastefully, and be all that God intends
us to be." This is a phrase Spong used repeatedly throughout the evening,
especially the "love wastefully" part. He also uses this phrase throughout
his new book.
Spong also spoke about how his faith is grounded in his own experience
of God, and how all of our images, creeds, and dogmas of God are pale,
imperfect relections of the very real "God experience" that people have
had throughout history. The Bible, according to Spong, should be viewed
not as a textbook or guidebook, but as an "epic history," recording the
sacred stories of the ancient Israelites and the early Christian church.
In the pages of the Bible we can see their faith journeys, their "God
experiences," evolve and progress. We can also hear "minority voices"
within the text, "protest stories" such as Job, Jonah, and Ruth, which
challenge and disagree with the prevailing religious ideas we find in
other parts of the Bible.
When asked if he prays, Spong spoke very movingly about his daughter
who is serving in the military in Iraq. "Do I pray for her every day?
How can I not?" He directs his prayer not to a supernatural being up in
the sky but to the very Ground of All Being. He believes that his love
for his daughter, expressed through his prayer, creates an atmosphere
of love and protection for her as he prays for her safety and her soon
return. He used the terminology of biologist Rupert Sheldrake in describing
a morphic field.
In talking about praying for his daughter, Spong spoke about how we
are all interconnected. He laughed and said he can't talk about prayer
without sounding "mystical," something he avoids in his books. This "mystical"
side of Spong did come through, to a small extent, in a
recent interview with Beliefnet.
Unfortunately, this deeply spiritual side of Spong does not always come
through in his new book. The Sins of Scripture offers a fascinating
critique of biblical texts that truly are terrible, but Spong's love for
the Bible as a whole often gets lost beneath his rhetoric. He spends a
lot of time defending positions that are frankly questionable (Jesus was
married to Mary Magdalene; St. Paul was a repressed gay man; Judas Iscariot
did not exist but was a literary creation to further the early church's
anti-Semitism). His preoccupation with such ideas gives his critics easy
ammunition to dismiss The Sins of Scripture as just another "off
the wall" book, rather than taking seriously the very real concerns about
how Scripture has been used (and is still being used) as a weapon against
In his call for a "religionless Christianity," Spong rejects almost
all of the central doctrines of the Christian faith, including atonement,
the incarnation, and the trinity. "They will all eventually come crashing
down," he writes, if Christianity is to survive. He even rejects the efforts
of others to reclaim or reinterpret these doctrines, explicitly rejecting
(to my disappointment) Matthew
Fox's idea of original blessing. I can't help but wonder: if all of
these Christian beliefs are simply done away with, rather than reclaimed,
than what is left? Is it truly "Christianity" which survives?
Spong writes in The Sins of Scripture that even if such core
doctrines "go down," the experience of God in Jesus Christ will still
I see in Jesus one so radically human and free, so whole and complete,
that the power of life, the force of the universe - that which I call
God - becomes visible and operative in him and through him. It is a
new way to travel theologically. ...somehow, in some way, through some
means, God was in this Christ and this God presence can still be met
in the depths of our humanity.
-- The Sins of Scripture, page 180
He [Jesus] entered humanity so deeply, possessed his own being so
significantly, gave his life and his love away so freely, expanded the
boundaries of his existence so totally that he became the human channel
through which the reality of God was able to flow into human history.
-- The Sins of Scripture, page 294
As Bishop Spong signed my copy of his new book, I thanked him for the
work he has done in
speaking out on behalf of gays and lesbians - especially in his book,
Living in Sin?: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality. Bishop Spong
very graciously responded that in all his friendships and relationships
with gay and lesbian people, he has been the one who has benefited the
I am grateful I got to hear Bishop Spong and to meet him in person.
I can understand why the members of the Episcopal Church in Newark elected
him to be their bishop. He is a very gracious man with the heart of a
pastor, a man deeply in love with the Bible and committed to his relationship
with God as he experiences God. I hope that in his next book, this level
of deep spirituality will shine through, even more clearly.
Grizzle is an interfaith bear, an active member of the Episcopal
Church who is also ordained in the Sufi Healing Order. He lives in Marietta,
Georgia, with his partner Michael, their mystical cat Kato, and way too
many books. A frequent contributor to Whosoever, White Crane Journal,
Gay Spirituality & Culture Blog. Darrell's online home is the Blog
of the Grateful Bear.
Copyright © by the author
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