Throughout the course of his lifetime, respected bishop and author John Shelby Spong has been an outspoken advocate of liberal Christianity. He has been globally recognized as “a lightening rod for controversy” and has made his name known to religious people everywhere.
In addition to his writing career and priestly vocation, Spong has also labored on the vanguard of both the civil rights and the gay rights political movements. Within this passionate, heart-warming autobiography, Spong recounts his involvement in all of these activities, painting a picture for the reader of a man vigorously devoted to the God he worships and the people he loves.
In reading “Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality,” I have gotten acquainted with someone who has quickly become my personal hero. Roughly one year ago, I was entering a spiritual wilderness. I had recently accepted the fact that I am a homosexual and began to realize that I could no longer take the Bible literally. My faith in things like the virgin birth and the reality of hell was crumbling fast.
In this transitory state, a friend referred me to Spong’s “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.” His book was amazing. It enriched and expanded my faith in bold, exciting new ways. Spong taught me that it was not necessary to believe in things that would twist your mind into a first-century pretzel. Instead, Spong countered that God should be worshiped with your mind and your heart.
Over the course of the past year, I have read seven more of Spong’s books. Each has taught me new things and broadened my horizons in unexpected directions. I have delighted in every page of every book that Spong has written. For some reason, his writing has struck a chord deep within me that resonates with the way that I experience God. Perhaps this is because I have been able to personally authenticate every theological issue that Spong explains. This has never happened to me before. For example, when I was a conservative Christian, I was told that God would personally answer all of my prayers; however, I never felt like I received a response. I was also told, among other things, that God wouldn’t make Christians gay. My attraction to the same sex, though, was unmistakable.
Spong’s theology makes no promises about an external, supernatural God that functions as a divine Mr. Fix-It. That version of God, Spong claims, is not unlike a Santa Claus figure that many people eventually grow out of believing in. Spong’s theology does say, however, that the presence we call God is constantly renewing our lives in wonderful and diverse ways. This I do believe.
Despite my failing belief in a theistic God, I have always felt a divine undercurrent at the root of my human experience. Spong shares my feelings and articulates this presence as the presence of God, not miraculous and incredible, but very, very real indeed. With each new book that I read, Spong expounded on this God-presence and also said that it was the presence seen in Jesus of Nazareth, who loved wastefully and gave selflessly. I quickly realized that I had found a theology that not only made sense in this postmodern world, but also fed my spiritual hunger deeply and richly. I soon became attached to the one who taught me these new concepts of God, of whom I would have the distinct pleasure of meeting, which I recount as one of the most worthwhile experiences of my life. I truly believe that John Shelby Spong is a very special, gifted man. Reading his autobiography was something like the icing on the cake compared to the rest of his books because he allows his readers to step inside his shoes and experience vicariously the thrills of being involved in a movement for a more sensible, welcoming version of Christianity.
As the subtitle of this book spells out, all of Spong’s efforts have been focused on building a Christianity of integrity, love, and equality. These three tenets of liberal Christianity have, I believe, truly separated it from conservative Christianity. Spong’s focus on integrity is seen as he tries to develop an open dialogue between all points of view and all of the world’s religions. Disgusted by the bitter narrow-minded, bigoted views of many conservatives, Spong calls on the church to debate honestly and respect all ideologies without thoughtless dismissal or vehement condemnations of conflicting viewpoints. The second facet, love, is meant to be expressed through the church’s open acceptance of all people. Spong’s work on the civil rights and gay rights movements testify to his belief in a Christianity of love. Spong believes that the church’s doors should be open to everyone. After all, the Episcopal church’s signs proclaim, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” Finally, Spong believes that all people are equal: race, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation literally mean nothing. All life is sacred; everyone is of equal value. Spong seeks to create a Christianity that recognizes this belief.
“Here I Stand” is a book that recognizes and celebrates this most remarkable figure. Spong beautifully summarizes his theology as he provides a detailed narrative of the experiences that have shaped his life. His life story is an exciting and suspenseful journey. It amazes me that one man has accomplished so much. Fans of Bishop Spong will love this book; critics of Spong will inevitably loathe it. If you happen to be one of those people that counts himself or herself among Spong’s disciples, reading this book will be a life-giving experience. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed visiting the major junctions of Spong’s life and seeing the forces that have shaped this man into a legendary person. From yesterday’s racial tension to today’s irrational homophobia, this book captures it all. But above all else, it is ultimately an appealing self-portrait of a man who has made himself one of our generation’s most vocal, noble, enchanting, and lovable public figures.