Ten years ago, I wrote a book review for EF News called “Right Colour, Wrong Place – A Bishop rethinks sexuality.” It was my introduction to John Shelby Spong. I felt him a well meaning and honest author, but I queried many of his suggestions. Bravely for 1988, he was in support of gay people, but his reasoning – from dubious experiments that suggested faulty genes – was not welcome. His science backed opinions remain pertinent to his writing and my problem with him.
I named that and this piece after a phrase from a board game, Mastermind. One person would hide a combination of beads under a hood, and the other would try to guess the colours and positions. One possible response from the player with the hood to the suggested combination was “Right colour, wrong place”.
Now I am less generous than when I wrote the article. I think both Spong’s colour and position are wrong.
Spong has only really featured for me one other time in the last decade, although I had heard others champion this American Episcopalian bishop. The main mention of him was not by a champion, but a detractor. There are many in both camps.
A sermon of Nov 2009 against the now retired Spong elicited another article from me called Dangerous Preachers which I sent to that rural English evangelical Anglican. I described how the whole service seemed to make this vicar into the focus and position of power. He used the pulpit to proclaim his (ie the!) truth to his flock, holding up Spong’s book which the vicar wanted to throw away. “Now I know why I kept it – to show you and tell you not to read him”, said the vicar. He was working to ban Spong from visiting the diocese. He hadn’t read much of Spong’s book – he couldn’t bear to.
I had read a whole Spong book and reiterated his genuineness, and that for many, he has allowed them to continue in faith or come to it – when ministry such as in that rural church would have sent them away.
Now I’m in sympathy with that Suffolk parish church – not for trying to stop others from hearing or reading Spong – but in the struggle to read a whole Spong book. I have just done so, intensely so as not to spend more time on him than need be. I also wanted to throw it.
I had a spate of reading spiritual writers who I would not normally. I believe in being broad and varied, and looking for nuggets in everyone. I picked up the former pope’s book, whose title about “infancy narrative” – please!! nearly made me replace it on the shelf. Despite not being well disposed to this or any pope on principle, I found that Joseph Ratzinger’s erudite and original slant on Jesus’ early life led me to an exciting conclusion. In Matthew’s genealogy (the lists we often want to skip), Joseph points out the four women included. I realised that God has subverted human expectation and intervened, for this is generally a list of fathers and sons – but there is a special woman at the end who brings forth a special son with no human biological fatherhood. Thus God messes up the list and brings women forward and breaks the bloodline ownership of human lines, and opens up sonship to all.
I was made up, as the Scouses say – bolstered and delighted and inspired.
So a non hierarchical protestant found something good in the words of Pope Benedict.
I also tried a puritan and a biographer – the latter I will refer to later. He made me smile. Spong provided no such insight and amusement.
Spong had come back into my attention because I was researching Hosea, following hearing a sermon on the book. Both book and sermon made me angry. How could we understand it differently - or was this book not of God and not worthy of us reading as scripture today?
A search for happier Hosea led me to Pastor Dawn’s blog who quoted from Spong and this tome – Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. I do not share Pastor Dawn’s alacrity, nor do I feel – sadly – that I could join Spong in subtitling Hosea “The prophet who changed God’s name to Love”. Spong’s piece on Hosea was mostly his own retelling, adding details not in the text, and trying to recast the divinely mandated bullying on/off marriage as a love story. Spong nor the local minister I heard preach explained nor took up the issue that Hosea’s wife Gomer is bought back. Is she a slave or a prostitute? Which and how? And aren’t we as Christians – or any decent humans – against all human trafficking?
The rest of Spong’s annoyingly hyphenated book has odd parallels with what he critiques.
Let me give an overview, as dense examination is not only too wordy but something I do not have the stomach for.
Immediately, I know I am showing signs of what I hated in that Suffolk parson and Spong’s other non-fan club. I am about unity and breadth, about calling many my sibling; and yet I realised I would struggle to do so of Spong.
I feel the ire of that evangelical minster who I now sympathise with to some extent. Spong is as rude about his kind as he was of Spong. Especially in the introduction.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a dissertation about the scientific possibility of creationism and the theological problems of evolution. I was saddened and angered by the disparaging tone used between evangelical Christians who disagreed with each other. I have seen such a tone used many times between differing beliefs of many persuasions. Like the Samaritans and Jews, the worst enmity is reserved for those whom you are related and who’ve compromised themselves – either by diluting purity, or by sticking too rigidly to it.
Spong often speaks against anti-Semitism (the above was not an example of it), but he is also inconsistent. He tells us that the Old Testament is propaganda for a pure one ruler Jewish nation, but that all the nasty misused texts of the Bible are New Testament. He forgets that there is fodder for genocide, misogyny, racism, war, brutality, animal cruelty and that the best (or worst) anti gay texts (whom he again tries to stick up for) are in the OT.
Of course, Spong doesn’t call the first part of the Bible the Old Testament – he is of the “Hebrew Bible” school. That to me undermines Christians and misses their understanding of the two covenants between God and humans. I call the OT the Hebrew Bible when amongst Jews, but I’ve had a phase of wondering if it really is the Hebrew Bible – is it of much relevance to non Jews, except as back story?
Spong is very much of the scholarship school that is about conformity and pressure to use certain words and discard certain ideas. He is a fellow of the unexplained Jesus Seminar that decided that 80% of Jesus’ sayings – including all but one line in John – are not authentic. What do they mean? How do they come up with such an idea, and how do they prove it? He doesn't say.
For a man so steered by rationalism and evidence, there is very little of either in this book.
Throughout the book, Spong is disparaging of “uninformed” ordinary pew dwellers – and sometimes, even preachers, who have not the academic background he does.
Spong’s view would return us to pre Reformation times when only the priest could read the scripture – although he points out that the Gospel is read only by the minister in high Anglican churches and that communion can only be presided over by one who is ordained. Yet he would effectively do likewise - and more.
He brings in an unfamiliar, conformative language – ‘the Jesus movement’, ‘the Easter event’, ‘birth (not infancy, thankfully) narratives’; Lucan, Pauline, Johannine, Mosaic – words we might know with another meaning. To sound like a real Christian, not these embarrassing literalists, you’ve a new vocabulary to adopt. How many steps is that from the Middle Ages, of learned Latin versus the common tongue of the non priest, where the only degrees were in religion. Thus he ties academia and authorised ministry back together.
It is interesting that academia (my spell checker interestingly suggested my mistype be corrected to ‘anaemia’) has the meaning of purely theoretical, often with shades of being immaterial and impractical. I find this meaning to be true of much of biblical criticism.
Spong’s prophets are from the 19th Century onwards: Bultmann, Welhausen at el. Why did the work of two scholars make anyone who considered themselves a serious Bible reader feel that they had to adopt the theory that the Pentateuch is really 4 strands woven together? Thus the most holy part of scripture for Jews is a mishmash. Spong doesn’t discuss the possibility that there is more than one God – only the different names and agendas for him. Spong’s quick to deride and dismiss (oft used verb) the notion of Moses’ authorship.
Similarly, in the New Testament, Spong adopts the pose that most of the names of the books aren’t the real authors. Why is this asserted of famous and revered texts, from the Brontes to Shakespeare? Often it is a belief that the supposed author is incapable of having written such a worthy work. Three women can’t have written such classic novels – it must be their brother. A non blue blooded, university educated man cannot have written the plays and sonnets we consider our language’s most celebrated. And thick (ie non liberal university schooled) fishermen from Galilee can’t write elegant and deep gospels and epistles.
He patronises the oral tradition, assuming a) it’s true, people couldn’t write and b) that they must play Chinese whispers with the spoken word. It’s a tradition we don’t really have a parallel for, except in storytelling circles, where this art shows that great stories can be delivered and recalled through oration alone, preserved for long periods.
Like that Suffolk parson, Spong doesn’t bother to explain why. This book, fat though it is, is too short to give a serious Bible overview. Commentaries are bricks, often running to multi volumes. He’s insultingly brief with most books, and he doesn’t tell us why these ‘respected’ scholars date things as they do, or have come to the conclusions they have about authorship and theme/purpose. I picture him teaching with his audience at his feet, unquestioningly rapt as their guru imparts his wisdom.
There’s no debate, we are not honoured with a rationale. Are we like the fisherman followers of Jesus, too simple to know your ways?
Jesus didn’t think so. We don’t know that he was formally educated (or did he get that in heaven before he came down?). His message is open to all and the Bible works on many layers, to be probed at different depths and angles.
Spong does love the Bible, he says; he’s read it daily for over sixty years. And he did make it his day job, despite (I am sorry to hear) receiving death threats from other Christians. He’s counted them. But like Sylvia Browne, who I reviewed last, there’s a hint that he suffers with those great early church martyrs, and that he’s up there with them. There’s also a hint of flattery in the implication that he’s the antichrist. But a quote from the film Quills comes to mind on that subject. I would feel too mean in relaying it here.
Let me take on Spong in detail over a subject. Let me first say how he dismisses books of the Bible: there’s some he hardly bothers to read, some he tells us (such as James) we only need to read once ever. Daniel’s not serious, he says. Revelation’s a bit of a daft book, but my mate (name drop) Elaine Pagels, of Gnostic gospel fame (she’s a professor you know) is going to write a book on it (advert) – maybe that’ll help my cynical senior mind make sense of the weird and useless apocalyptic book I have little to say about, save that I don’t like it.
Spong did cheer me a little on Paul – never a saint to me, and only just an apostle in Spong’s world since there are no miracles and visions round here. The usually annoying “Paul didn’t write these” line meant that the pettier letters with all the women squishing mandates are actually not of the guy with the really interesting, deep and wise insights on this celebrated Jesus character. (Though I still have problems with Paul's legal language formal theology). Spong doesn’t explain how he knows that Paul wrote his works before the gospels. Spong wasn’t the first to suggest that Paul’s Thorn in my side (cue Annie Lennox) is possibly being gay – and I felt some sadness for Paul who may not have understood that this was no sin to struggle with, but something he could know God’s love and acceptance of. Spong implies Paul becomes mellow and loving; I might have another go at Paul’s letters.
Then Spong said that Paul doesn’t understand the ascension and resurrection in the way some (silly) Christians do – rising is about being one with God in spirit. But why can’t that be bodily as well? Spong’s reading spoils some of the best resurrection verses for many Christians.
Spong has more spoiling to come. He does gain a mark for rejecting the Q theory as an answer to the Synoptic Problem (what problem? Moving on!). Spong says that the synoptic gospels are sort of Iona community liturgy stroke lectionary (my analogy) for the synagogue. Interesting, not really changing anything in my reading or belief or use. But my criticism is – why did Mark, the supposedly earliest gospel, only cover part of the year then? Doesn’t seem much of a Jewish year piece if you miss several months.
In other gospels, Spong stresses the link to the fulfilment of Jewish scriptures. Yes, we’re aware of that, even those of us without degrees in religion (which I do have, lest you wonder – though my best spiritual insights and understanding come from outside my studies). But what is Jesus fulfilling for Spong?
I hadn’t noticed, I will say, the early Jewish hero parallels with the gospels – escapes from Egypt, similar names, babies leaping in wombs of old barren women who compose similar songs of praise (I did see the last one for myself). But does that mean (as Spong asserts) that the gospel writers made up names and scenes to make the links? This is something to expand more another time, but I think really occurring events can also have a symbolic/intertexual quality. We humans do it in writing. I believe it has happened in non scriptural history.
Come with me briefly to the world of Elizabeth 1st, and the 1998 film – still my favourite – starring Cate Blanchett. I needed the director’s commentary available only 9 years later to realise that Shekhar Kapur was telling a story about themes bigger than even our famous, semi divine queen. He brought Indian Hindu eyes to the very English project. The first film, says Shekhar, is about destiny and divinity. The sequel, Golden Age, is about absolute power. The shots of tiny Elizabeth from the ceiling of Norman Durham cathedral (nothing like the real Westminster Palace) are about destiny, bigger than Elizabeth, represented by the stone that both predated and outlived her by centuries.
Let me briefly take a scene, allegedly part of Elizabeth’s real history, though some query it.
Why do we want to take all the best lines away and say they’re not true? It isn’t just Jesus this happens to.
Of course, like all historic film makers, great research went into the film (penned by Michael Hirst, who must have some credit for this convention defying piece too). The scene I’m about to describe is Elizabeth being called to the Earl of Sussex - the man who had recently come to arrest her – this time kneeling with her dead sister’s ring, and as he places it on Elizabeth, proclaims her Queen. She says, “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes”. There should be an ellipsis at the start of that, for it’s a quote, used twice in the Bible (and reported in two gospels). It’s originally from Psalm 118, and then quoted by Jesus in the Parable of the Tenants. Most understand it to be a reference to himself. The full quote is “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes”. So Elizabeth wasn’t just praising God and showing her pleasure; note the use of plural personal for the reference to herself – this is her first royal We. Without boasting or actually likening herself to Jesus, she says – the daughter that was disappointing, assumed not to be heir to the great Tudor dynasty, the sister you wanted get out of the way is going to be Queen anyway. God willed this. And I shall be a great Queen. And she was.
So Elizabeth can use scripture in a timely way, just as I think Jesus was capable of doing.
The filmmakers can arrange the scene using all their tools to underscore their understanding of it; rich themes and motifs can be conveyed and discovered through the mis en scene – the aspects of how a scene is created. Literature, with its own tools, can do the same.
Shekhar wanted us to see Elizabeth walking out of her house arrest towards the earl into blinding sunlight – she is walking into her destiny, he says. So her using the Bible quote would feel useful for showing that he saw Elizabeth as fulfilling a preordained long hoped for destiny in the moment that she put on the ring. Perhaps, I suggest, the oak tree where the scene took place too served to underscore longevity, spreading and greatness.
In studying the Tudors, I came to the idea that they had lived, as Shekhar put it, ‘operatic, mythic’ lives as well as actual earthly ones.
So why not Bible characters too? If we can pay homage to extant works, including our own, why can’t God? Does Matthew have to invent names and nods to get his readers to make the link between Jesus’ story and the Hebrew heroes, or can he just not arrange his telling of the life of Jesus in a way that readers see what he has?
I don’t see why Jesus can’t quote things from the Old Testament, and why real events can’t parallel each other. Aren’t we sometimes named after people we admire, or family who we honour and hope to live up to? Has no one of history acted out the history of another?
And again I ask, what, for Spong, is Jesus fulfilling? Since Elijah didn’t get magically fed and zoom up into the clouds, since no seas were parted, since no-one was healed by looking at a snake statue, and David didn’t kill any giants, what is wonderful about comparing Jesus to the Hebrew heroes? What’s this news that the Jews are supposed to be celebrating in their gospel inspired religious cycle, according to Spong?
Before I go to Easter, a word on John, a much cherished part of the Bible. Spong used to get annoyed with this gospel (clearly not written by John, maybe Lazarus; I had heard that before). Frankly, I am shocked at Spong’s own.... I want to use a non insulting word, but naiveté (as per the quotes on the cover of his book) is as polite as I can make it. This time, he's the literalist.
Even my evangelical Sunday school (kids too) knew that Jesus wasn’t asking us to pop back into the uterus. But Spong felt alienated, for he could see no more than Nicodemus.
Spong really insults that woman at the well, one of my favourite Bible stories. My lecturer - a woman for her teaching ethic and pastoral care I would rather not recall - said that this story in John 4 is banter. The woman is witty, she’s on form, even on top. Spong has the Samaritan be as dense as possible. He skips her good lines. He also skips Mary Magdalene, and women generally, despite his trying to be an all round, PC inclusive champion.
Spong says that Peter is the centre of the resurrection (um, I’d have answered that as... Jesus). But after him, I pick Mary Magdalene. And I haven’t forgotten his Mum, or the disciple whom Jesus loved. The Gnostic book I just read -The Two Marys - among others, says that Peter is pushed forward in the canonised gospels which were rewritten to show that he should be the head of the new church. Spong doesn’t mention the non canon, and though he mentions the councils that made the canon, he never critiques it. He suggests Bible books that barely made it in, in his opinion, but nothing of those left out.
Spong is looking for nations and notions to be tied up – so “Dear woman, here is your son” is about Judaism and the New faith bonding. Original maybe, but I liked the point that Jesus was caring, even in agony, and had paired up these special people. Again, can there not be literal and operatic here?
Did anything at all really happen for Spong? Since Mathew made up the sermon on the mount, since calling Jesus’ dad Joseph was the brainchild of a writer trying to tell us that Jesus, like Moses, was going to have to be hidden from a infancidal ruler, since John the Baptist didn’t really baptise and make any of those speeches – his family parallels some OT hardly mentioned names (Spong had to work to find a Hebrew Elizabeth, the one time mentioned wife of Aaron).... I’m thinking that as Mary Daly said of a depatriarchalised Bible, this is a slim, interesting pamphlet when we’ve taken out all that Spong dismisses.
And a pamphlet whose life changing, inclusive, good news is....
I really can’t tell. After a knowing, often arrogant, quite flat style, there comes at the end, flashes of what inspires John Shelby to have kept with Christianity from preteens to his 80s, why he really thinks it was worth being a bishop. I feel a suspended chord rise, I feel the excitement of Spong’s insight – that Jesus is here for Jews, post Jesus people, Gentiles, and this loving, whole making (he didn’t say that, it was Ilia Delio quoting someone else)...
What? God.... is there one? One we can pray with, be protected by, who can make wonderful things happen?
In all the symbolism, is there anything concrete or ethereal Was Jesus real? In any sense?
Oh, and that Easter event, Spongified. Jesus didn’t rise again, naturellement – Spong has elsewhere attempted to “Rescue the Bible from Literalism”. This is all symbolism, created and arranged by Jesus’ followers, long after the.... well, non event as it happens.
After years of study and publishing another fat book, Spong decides that the Easter event, which did not happen over three days – more like months - was something exciting that made people want to preach, even though it could be life threatening. Preach about what, John? What made the disciples excited and full of love and hope?
Oh, you don’t know.
Why can I today feel full of love and hope and wholeness, as I sense you would sincerely wish for me, John?
Oh, I don’t really understand. I don’t see what the message is you that you proclaim.
Over 400 large format pages, and I don’t know what your gospel, your good news is.
Just that you don’t believe pretty much any of other people’s.
The biographer I alluded to earlier is AN Wilson. I expected irritation from his book; instead, a relief and a smile. AN Wilson painted the biblical critics as people who logically, in the journey of history, had to come. I guess we could’ve expected a Nietzsche and a Dawkins too. After the Bible picking stage came the hunt for real Jesus stage – phases to come through. Spong often speaks of data – that horrid, Americanised word full of computing and reductionism to quantitative particles of supposed ‘fact’. AN Wilson’s amused at this being fed into a computer to know what Jesus did and didn’t say. His book is linked to an unnamed friendship and her struggles and journey through faith. I’ve often understood biblical critics to be on the doubt/deist side. I don’t judge doubt – great things come from those questions and voids, as AN Wilson’s friend L found. Biblical criticism seems to come from an almost perverse angle, for it’s not like any literary study I know. In literature, we don’t compare words and sources, we looks at themes and characters, arcs and symbolism. Academic study can kill your favourite text but not in the way that biblical criticism flattens the book that is meant to make your life have a spark in it.
My own faith is neither that of Shelby Spong nor that puritan; my liberalism allows other thoughts beyond Christianity in, but retains the sense of wonder about a miraculous God who wants to know us personally, who is capable of an interesting life (‘biography’ as Spong often rejects, is really ‘life picture – what’s his probable with the Bible being one?) – but who can work on multiple levels, give visions, make miracles, and fill me, at least sometimes, with a sense of not only purpose (social justice and in my own life) but joy and meaning, and an openness to receive more than the rational, cynical, money and fact driven world ever can.