Oh that irrepressibly heretical Bishop John Shelby Spong! I’m not a big Spong fan myself, I hardly knew of him until recently, but I do prefer him to the rabid and unpleasant Christians that happily roast their choice heretic over the fires of fundamentalist smugness and bigotry. The consternation which afflicts the opponents of this controversial Episcopalian bishop is interesting, if only for it’s exposure of the rifts and intolerance within Christianity.
The former Christian turned agnostic and author Bart Ehrman(1) points out that Christian theologians themselves have dug around and exposed the very fault lines that conservative christians attempt to cover up, paper over and downright deny. In my view Christian teachers need to admit this state of affairs both to themselves and to their congregations – acknowledge the gap between what is taught in the seminary to initiates and what is preached from the pulpit to the flock. There is very little in Spong that doesn’t find – even if only in a shared discomfort with traditional narratives – some precedent in Bultmann, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Käsemann, Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich, Isak du Plesis, Karl Rahner, Ferdinand Deist, Dominic Crossan, Anthony Thiselton and others, none of whom may fairly be described as promoting a “flaccid pluralism” or a “cancerous religiosity”. Christians need to know about “The First, Second and Third Quests” (how many Christians can even tell you what “the Quest” is?), Biblical criticism, non-propositional hermeneutics, redaction criticism, demythologization, the very real challenges to biblical inerrancy, the presence of theolougemena in the sacred texts. All good and well to dismiss liberal or “modernist” christians as hell-bound heretics, but the most intelligent critique of the Christian faith has come not from without but from within (or is intelligent critique also to be labelled a cancer, a flaccid pluralism? How often the detractors have proved to be the most Christian of people and the dogmatic defenders or conservative views the least so (read The Oath against modernism”(2)). Instead of honestly confronting, for instance, the textual challenges of the doctrine of the virgin birth or the accretions of high Christology which lead to mythologization through new testament theolougemena (the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child is an example that comes immediately to mind), the debate is narrowed if not closed down, and dissenters silenced or demonized. “Shut up and believe, question at your peril” seems to be the mantra of conservative Christianity; at very least an attitude of “we will tell you not only what you will believe, but what you are permitted to ask”. When, many years ago, I first read the South African theologian Isak Du Plessis’s book, “Nazareth or Egypt” it was an awakening from a narrow, dogmatic and conservative Christianity which seemed hell bent on defending a fearful literalism which the Bible itself neither supports nor demands. Are inerrancy and literalism not a form of bibliolatry, a fetishism of the written text?
But to give the bigots their due, here is an interesting website which callously attacks Spong and defends the Christian faith from the perspective of conservative theology. Article by Dave Moore:
Touchstone describes itself as
“… a Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content, with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom —Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox” – http://www.touchstonemag.com
– which is itself intriguing, with reference to those divisions, because the doctrinal intolerance and all-out war between Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox is the stuff of legend.
For a critical but less rabid view of Spong, see an article by Richard W. Kropf at http://www.stellamar.net/writings/philtheo/spong.html
For a blistering attack on Spong, do read http://www.faith-theology.com/2007/09/bonhoeffer-versus-john-shelby-spong.html?m=1
I quote Scott Stephens (“a Brisbane author and theologian… co-editor (with Rex Butler) and translator of the two volumes of the selected writings of Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real and The Universal Exception. His current project, entitled The Criticism of Heaven: Essays on Materialist Theology, explores the relationship between theology, politics and economics”. – www.eurekastreet.com.au
“Scott Stephens dismisses Spong’s writings as “… the shadows of pseudo-theological, liturgical or ethical obscurantism.” He uses Spong of serving up a “mishmash of pop-existentialism and flaccid pluralism” and a “cancerous religiosity”.
My how I love it when christians fight dirty.
(1) “Bart Ehrman has written widely on issues of New Testament and early Christianity at both an academic and popular level, with 30 books including three college textbooks and five New York Times bestsellers: Misquoting Jesus, Jesus, Interrupted, God’s Problem, Forged, and How Jesus Became God. Much of his work is on textual criticism and the New Testament. His books have been translated into 27 languages…In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Ehrman argues that there was a close relationship between the social history of early Christianity and the textual tradition of the emerging New Testament. He examines how early struggles between Christian “heresy” and “orthodoxy” affected the transmission of the documents. Ehrman is often considered a pioneer in connecting the history of the early church to textual variants within biblical manuscripts and in coining such terms as “proto-orthodox Christianity”. -(Wikipedia)
(2) The Oath against Modernism: motu proprio Sacrorum Antistitum, 1 September 1910 – Pius X. 1910 St. Pius X September 1, 1910.
An additional article worth reading is Kerygma and Myth by Rudolf Bultmann and Five Critics (http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=431&C=292)