An Interview with Bishop John Shelby Spong
Do you believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? Do you believe Jesus literally rose from the grave? Do you believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God and must be read literally?
Answer “no” to any of those questions and there are many Christians who will unceremoniously toss you from the club, branding you as a heretic, or worse. John Shelby Spong has been called a heretic and worse. The former Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, has been writing for years for those he calls “believers in exile,” people who feel like modern versions of Christianity demand blind faith and require adherents to check their brains at the door. In his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, Spong condenses his last few books into one, giving a convincing and inspiring argument against blind acceptance of traditional theology and doctrine.
Spong carefully breaks down traditional doctrines like the virgin birth, the miracle stories, the crucifixion, the resurrection even the literal existence of the disciples – and shows that their true power lies not in literal interpretations, but in understanding them as purely Jewish liturgies. Spong urges us to remember the Jewish context of Jesus and the limits of the language we possess as we attempt to describe and understand what made Jesus so extraordinary that he has endured through the millennia. Instead of accepting Jesus as a theological construct of God in human flesh, Spong uses his book to reconstruct Jesus as a radical breaker of tribal boundaries, prejudices and religious dogma.
For many, Spong’s ideas may be the pinnacle of heresy, but for those who find the old theistic ideas of God and Jesus untenable, Spong rescues Jesus from irrelevancy and helps us once again meet God in the person of Jesus.
I had the chance to talk with Bishop Spong recently about his new book.
Whosoever: You write “I insist that there must be a way to be both a believer and a citizen of the 21st century.” What do you mean by that?
Bishop Spong: The Christian faith was born in the first century when people didn’t know anything about germs or viruses or tumors. It was born in a world that people assumed was the center of a three tiered universe that God lived just above the sky. God was understood quite anthropomorphically. None of those concepts make a lot of sense today so when we in the 21st century read our biblical story we read about a virgin birth. They didn’t know there was such a thing as an egg cell in woman. You read about Jesus thinking epilepsy is caused by demon possession. None of those make any sense. You either literalize it like the fundamentalists or you punt it which the secular humanist world has done or you try to find what the experience is that lies behind that first century explanation and see if you can translate that experience into 21st century words. That’s what I think the ultimate task of the Christian faith is today.
Whosoever: In the first part of your book you take on such topics as the virgin birth, miracle stories, crucifixion and resurrection, even whether the disciples actually existed and you take them out of their literal context. Why can we not take them at face value?
Bishop Spong: I don’t think the author’s intended them to be taken literally. When St. Matthew writes his story of the birth narrative of Jesus he quotes Micah to demonstrate why Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem. He quotes Isaiah to determine why Jesus was born of a virgin. He quotes Hosea to determine that the flight of Jesus, Mary and Joseph into Egypt was the fulfillment of scripture. He quotes Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children who have been slaughtered by Herod and he quotes an unnamed source about why Jesus should wind up living in Nazareth. Not one of those texts was written for that purpose. When Hosea wrote out of Egypt have I called my son, he’s talking about the life of the people of the nation Israel. He’s not talking about Jesus.
When Isaiah said “a woman is with child” that even Matthew knew those texts didn’t fit. He was also writing that book in the context of a Jewish synagogue where he could lean on these stories from the Hebrew Scriptures and people knew what he would talking about. He didn’t plan to take those things literally. He knows that Herod going down to Bethlehem to kill all the Jewish babies is a Moses story and he’s paralleling Jesus with Moses. He knows that Jesus didn’t preach the Sermon on the Mount. He’s paralleling Jesus with Moses at that point. He models the Sermon on the Mount after Psalm 119.
The authors knew they were creating interpretations of the power of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. The same is true within the New Testament. The Abraham and Sarah story reappears in the Zechariah and Elizabeth story. The babies that leap in the womb of Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, reappears as the story of the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb to salute the baby in Mary’s womb to prove that Jesus was superior to John the Baptist even before they were born.
Those authors weren’t incompetent, ignorant people. They knew they were writing in this particular style. It’s only when Christianity left the Jewish world and became a Gentile religion that we began to read these stories without any Jewish background and we began to literalize them and they are nonsensical. If I had not been able to escape my biblical fundamentalism of Charlotte, North Carolina, I would have left the Christian faith a long time ago because I cannot bend my mind into a first century pretzel in order to be a Christian. But, if there is a way that I can be a Christian with full intellectual competence and study the scriptures as the scriptures were intended to be read and understood then it opens a whole new arena for me that I love.
The Bible has been used throughout history for so many evil purposes: to uphold fundamentalism, to denigrate women, to encourage hostility to gay and lesbian people, to justify war, and to support slavery. How can anybody take that book at face value and treat it with seriousness when you know that’s been its history? If you read it literally you can justify every one of those prejudices. I grew up justifying each of those prejudices with literal quotations.
Whosoever: Your book argues that we have to go back to our Jewish roots since the gospel writers, as Jews, were writing in a form familiar to them and the idea of “history” really was foreign to them.
Bishop Spong: The gospels are liturgical documents. They’re not historical or biographical documents. They were designed to enable the Christian community, who were still Jews, to tell Jesus’ stories against the background of the Scripture lessons read in the synagogue and that happened over and over again for about 40 years before the first of the gospels was finally written.
There’s a great gap that most people don’t seem to understand. Jesus died in 30 according to our best estimates. The first gospel is not written any earlier than 70. You’ve got 40 years where the story of Jesus has to be traveling through oral transmission and that could have only happened in the synagogue. By the time the gospels appear Jesus is deeply wrapped in the Jewish scriptures. The synagogue was the only place for them to hear this. They didn’t have a Gideon society that would put a Bible in your motel room – it was the community’s property.
I was on Tom Snyder’s television program some years ago and was telling him the dates of the gospels: 70 CE for Mark, maybe 82 CE for Matthew, maybe 90 CE or so for Luke and close to 100 CE for John. Snyder, who was a Roman Catholic, interrupted me and said, “Wait a minute, Bishop, I just got out my short pencil and did some figuring and that means they weren’t written by eyewitnesses.” I told him of course they weren’t they’re the product of second and third generation Christians and were written in Greek a language that neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke. He said, “That’s not what the nuns taught me.” I asked what they taught him and he said, “They taught me that the nuns followed Jesus around and wrote down everything he said and that’s where we get the gospels.” I asked Tom if the nuns used spiral notebooks and ball point pens, because that’s the assumption. Ink was terribly expensive, quills were hard to find, very few people wrote, yet we don’t factor those things in when we’re reading the scriptures.
Whosoever: Well, we can’t even fathom a world without the Internet, much less imagine a world where ink is expensive.
Bishop Spong: That’s another illustration of the fact that we have to read the biblical stories in the context in which they were written. That means the earth was the center of a three tiered universe, God lived just above the sky and his primary job was to keep books up to date and intervene periodically. Folks today don’t really believe that God can intervene to stop hurricanes. People prayed before the planes went into the World Trade Center on 9/11 but that didn’t stop them. Prayers don’t seem to stop the tsunami. It’s caused by tectonic collision and not because God wanted to punish the people of the Indian Ocean because they were sinful. That’s the way we used to interpret that stuff.
Jerry Falwell went on Pat Robertson’s program and said 9/11 was caused because the United States now treated gays fairly and women equal and because of the American Civil Liberties Union and God was punishing us. Pat Robertson suggested the hurricane might have been caused because Ellen DeGeneres is from New Orleans. He denied he said that but then said God would send an earthquake to Hollywood because that’s where she is now. That’s the mentality that no educated person can pay much attention to.
Whosoever: Why is it so hard for Christianity to let go of creeds and doctrines? What is at the root of their fear? Bishop Spong: I think religion primarily is an attempt to help people find security, not to help people find truth. So they’ve rooted their security in these symbols. Until somebody can present them with another view of God in which they might invest their lives they’ll cling to this because they don’t know any other. They think that if the fundamentalist point of view disappears they’ll fall into a bottomless pit. God is a part of the human security system and always has been.
Whosoever: You say this is first year seminary stuff and it is, but why are preachers so reluctant to share what they know?
Bishop Spong: It’s a tough profession. It’s a volunteer association and they’re not well paid with little or no job security. I think they try when they come out of seminary and I think they give up in about a year or so because they’ve disturbed so people. Usually people preach their seminary notes for the first three or four years but by the time they make it their own they’ve been so brainwashed by the culture. Whosoever: What do you say to those people who claim that you can’t be a Christian because you don’t believe in the Bible literally?
Bishop Spong: I’d say that’s a strange definition of Christianity. Fundamentalism is not that old. It’s really a response to Charles Darwin. It’s an early 20th century movement when the five fundamentals were published. That’s when they began to say that you can only be a Christian if you believe in literal virgin birth, the blood atonement, the physical resurrection, every word of the Bible is the inerrant word of God and that the second coming is real and historical. Those are the five fundamentals. They produced these and Unical American oil companies are deeply involved in fundamentalist religion I find that interesting.
Whosoever: So, the fossil fuel industry is sponsoring an anti-evolution movement? How ironic!
Bishop Spong: Unical funded the fundamentalists in the early 1900s and they would mail out these pamphlets, about 350,000 of them every week to every “Christian worker” in America. Whosoever: The second part of your book focuses on a new Christology. Tell us about that.
Bishop Spong: There’s something powerful about the life of this Jesus, but his power is not in being a divine figure masquerading as a human being and walking on this earth. His power is that his humanity is so full and complete that God can live in him and through him. That’s a really powerful story. I think that’s what the church was trying to say 2000 years ago: He’s fully human and yet we experience the divine God in him and through him. So they ended up saying he’s fully human and he’s fully God. We literalize that and that doesn’t make sense today. He can’t be fully human if you literalize the virgin birth story. There’s no way he can be fully human and have the Holy Spirit be his father. The ultimate affirmation of the Christian church was that in and through his full humanity the fullness of God had been met and engaged and I think that’s still a pretty powerful story. I think we can tell that in a modern way.
Whosoever: You talk about the root of Christian anger in your book. What is at the root of that anger?
Bishop Spong: The way we tell the Jesus story we denigrate human life everyday. Jesus died for my sins. What does that say? It says I’m one wretched, miserable creature who caused the death of Jesus. How do you live with that? You live with it by passing that anger on to somebody else. That’s why Christianity has always had a victim. Homosexuals are just the latest victim of the Christian church but in the past it’s been women, blacks, heretics, scientists and Jews. They’ve always had a victim because if you are told constantly how fallen, depraved and hopeless you are the only way you can stand up is to pass that negativity on to someone else. We have preachers getting their jollies talking about how people are burning in hell. Why does that make anybody feel good? If you took that literally it would break your heart. But, that’s the idea that God is this punishing parent in the sky.
Until we heal this very deep fissure within the Christian community, I think Christianity will always be dumping its prejudices upon the victim of choice. Right now, gay people are a popular victim. The church is torn up trying to condemn gay people and excommunicate those who don’t condemn gay people. The Jesus I know says no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’ve been, you are the object of my love. That’s very different from what I hear from pulpits.
Whosoever: You say an argued prejudice is a dying prejudice.
Bishop Spong: We wouldn’t be debating homosexuality if it weren’t a dying issue. What happens is that every prejudice depends upon a definition that justifies it. The definition that justifies prejudice toward gay people is that homosexuality is a moral choice that they make because they are mentally sick or morally depraved. Nobody in medicine or science believes that today. So, the definition is dying and that’s why we’re having a debate about it. That definition will die.
The reason women couldn’t vote until 1920 was because we defined women as intellectually incapable of making that decision. The reason blacks were able to be enslaved is that we defined them as sub-human. Even in wartime we can’t kill Iraqi human beings we have to kill terrorists. You have to dehumanize your victims before you can kill them.
Whosoever: Who is this God that we meet in Jesus if it’s not this superhero God?
Bishop Spong: The word God is a human word and the definition we ascribe to that word is a human definition. We have created God in our image because we can’t get outside what it means to be a human being. We think we can tell folks what it means to be God. So, all of our God talk is human talk about human projections onto the divine. We can’t do that. I don’t think God can ever be explained or defined. God can only be experienced and then you never quite know what you’re experiencing but you have a sense of transcendence, of otherness, of a surging power of life, of the meaning of love. You can experience those things. Then you have to wonder if you’re delusional or is there a reality out there that we as human beings have the ability to tap into and commune with. I think there is, that’s why I’m a Christian. But, it’s not going to be an old man in the sky who is going to do a miracle. So, I’ve got to find a whole new way to talk about the God experience. The God experience in Jesus is seen in the fullness of his life and his infinite capacity to love and give his life away. There’s something about him that bring God to us and that makes a lot of sense to me.
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians,” was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.