Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong is used to being a lightning rod for religious debate. Known affectionately as “Jack” to his friends, Spong has been taking religious literalists to task for over 40 years.
The bishop made a big splash a couple of years ago when he issued a “Manifesto” in which he declared: “I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone.” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler responded that this was fine with him as “Bishop Spong rejects any claim that the Bible is the Word of God.”
Mohler will find verification of his view in Spong’s new book Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. Right there, on page 15, Spong writes: “I do not think for one moment that Bible is any literal sense the ‘Word of God.’” This book is Spong’s way of putting the Bible back in its right perspective—as a collection of “tribal” stories that sprang from “the experience of human beings seeking to make sense out of the life they are living and the things they are experiencing.”
Spong invites readers to consider the Bible more deeply. His approach opens up the Bible in a new way and invites us all to engage the texts, argue with them, and use it make new meaning for our own experiences and lives. This, Spong argues, makes the Bible more than a manual for morality, but a living document.
Religion Dispatches had the chance to talk with Bishop Spong about his new book, as well as his take on how religion has been shaping—and misshaping—the political landscape.
RD: One of the things you are fighting against in this book is a literal reading of the Bible. Why do you believe people insist on reading the bible literally and not daring to ask, or even trying to form, the questions?
JS: We put an aura around the Bible that makes it very difficult to look at it any other way than as some mystical book that dropped from the sky. In some church processions, they walk in and somebody is holding the book on high as if it’s to be worshipped. We read from it and say “This is the word of the Lord” no matter what the lesson said. You do that often enough and people don’t think that’s a book to be read. It’s an untouchable.
Also, we publish the Bible in columns. No other book is published that way except encyclopedias, dictionaries, and telephone books. You don’t want to read those books, you go to them for authoritative answers and you don’t argue with the dictionary. If you’re playing Scrabble you go to the dictionary to settle the argument. We’ve encouraged people to think about the Bible as this kind of book, a source of authority, the final word, not to be debated. I think that helps people to think that it’s inappropriate to ask questions.
As a kid, our family Bible was on the coffee table in the living room. We never read it. We’d open it to put in somebody’s baptism or death. It was a family record book. I remember one day I put a Coca-Cola bottle down on top of it and I thought that the Lord would strike me dead.
I think the Bible is a great book and I think if we can get people to look at it properly and not use it as a weapon to enforce their prejudices we’d be making a major step forward.
In this strange political climate we’re in, the Bible seems to be getting tossed around an awful lot. Erstwhile candidate Michele Bachmann was even asked in one debate whether she believed the Bible required her to be “submissive” to her husband. Politicians are trying to enforce that aura around the Bible and competing to be seen as taking it the most literally. What do you make of that?
I think it’s sick, though I think there is less of it now than during the Bush years—we’re making progress, as strange as it sounds. The only one really talking this way now is Rick Perry. He keeps coming out against gays and in favor of being a Christian as if those are two things that go together.
I think it’s a reality show. I think it’s the strangest group of candidates I’ve ever watched run for office and I would be embarrassed at almost any one of them being the president of the United States. If the Democrats had any sense they’d run against the Ebeneezer Scrooge Republican Party because they keep running around saying, “Bah, humbug,” and anybody that’s poor ought to stay poor because they probably deserve to be poor and we’ll tax them a little more to be sure they remain poor. I don’t know why they think that’s a winning ticket.
The economy is so bad that I think Obama had a really slim chance to be elected, but I think the opposition has given him a good chance of being elected because it is so bizarre. Rick Perry who can’t remember anything, or Herman Cain—he was a comedy. Newt Gingrich? I’m too old, I remember too much about Newt Gingrich. Romney’s got the ability and I don’t think he’s an evil person but he’s been on every side of every issue so I’m not sure who the real Romney is. I don’t see a strong candidate in that crowd. Michele Bachman was comic relief!
I don’t want the Republican Party not to offer a strong alternative because democracy depends on both parties having competent people—one conservative, one liberal—and letting the people choose which direction it wants to take for the next four years. Anytime you play to the narrow, angry base of your party to get the nomination you jeopardize your chances of winning—and you should. This country is basically a center-right to center-left country and if we could rotate a competent center-right with a competent-center left person then I think we’d have a healthy country.
I think your book could help people make a critical assessment of how religion is being used in politics because if they understood the Bible then they would recognize when it’s being misused and abused.
It seems to me that what the Christian faith says is that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called and empowered to be all that it can be. That’s not what you hear. Christianity has been a religion of victimization if you look at its history. We victimized Jews during the Crusades. We victimized Muslims in the 14th century. We victimized heretics. We victimized people of color. We victimized women. We victimized homosexuals. We victimized the environment. We’re currently victimizing immigrants. It’s all the same mentality.
What is it about Christianity that makes us constantly be a victimizer? I think it’s because we’ve adopted victimizing theology. We spend all our time in church talking about how sinful and evil human beings are. The only way you can tolerate listening to that is to pass it on. We have to pass on this hostility that we have. The idea that God killed Jesus because you were a sinner is a really strange idea. It makes God an ogre. It makes Jesus a sadomasochistic victim and it makes you and me guilt-laden.
Guilt never produces life. If guilt is your message, the best you can produce is a hidden righteousness. You repress your negative feelings in public and you pass this guilt on because it’s intolerable. I think what we’ve turned Christianity into is a sick religion and it comes out politically.
What do you think about the Occupy movement?
Finally, this negativity has been pushed to the extreme by the Tea Party that it fired up the other side. I think the majority is going to be on the Occupy side. That’s my hope. What they are doing is raising consciousness. I also think it’s dangerous.
America reminds me of France before the revolution in the 18th century. What you get is polarized politics with an increasingly right-wing mentality and then you get a left-wing reaction, the center disappears and that’s what leads to civil wars. We’re in a down economy, there’s a lot of anger. It was a depression that brought Adolph Hitler into power—and he had a victim he could denigrate. He united all the Germans against the Jews. It’s cheap politics, but we still have people who know how to do that. It doesn’t lead to anything but destruction.
How can reeducating ourselves about the Bible—and educating the non-religious about the Bible—help us regain the center?
One of my hopes for this book is that it will provide a textbook to talk about the Bible in a new way. A local pastor doesn’t have to actually say what I say in the book, but if he presents the book then he’s not alone.
I had a friend in Wyoming who used my book for a Lenten study and said he would preach against it and lambast it every Sunday. I asked him why he would do that and he said, “That’s the only way I can get them to read it.” I thought that was very clever. That opens the doors and I’m encouraged by that.
In your book you argue that there are universalist themes in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. How do you square that with the Christian exceptionalism we see today?
Exceptionalism is in every religious system. Religion is a human social invention to keep insecurity in check because being human is a very insecure thing to be. We’re self-conscious. We know we’re going to die and we have to relate to that. Animals don’t have to relate to that, they just live until they die. Human beings are the only animal that commits suicide or uses drugs. Religion is part of our defense system against the radical insecurity of life.
In order for religion to make you secure you have to make excessive claims. You have to say that, “We are the chosen people,” or “The Pope is infallible,” or “Our way is the only way,” or “the Bible is inerrant.” You have to make a claim that locks security up tightly. It doesn’t work, but it’s popular. There will always be fundamentalist churches. They will always promise things they can’t deliver and people will leave when a tragedy comes. Fundamentalist churches don’t tend to last past the charismatic pastor that got them started.
Christianity is not supposed to make you secure. Christianity is supposed to give you the courage to walk into an insecure world knowing that you’re not alone and to embrace the radical insecurity. If you’ve got to spend your time proving that you’re better than someone else—males are better than females, whites are better than blacks, heterosexuals are better than homosexuals—you’re always building yourself up by pushing somebody else down. But, you shouldn’t need to build yourself up unless you’re radically insecure. Religion feeds into that radical insecurity with triumphalism—ours is the only religious route you can take to get to God. That’s a really strange idea.
Religion is not about truth, it’s about security. The sort of thing I’m presenting is never going to be the majority view but it’s going to be the minority point of view for those who are bold enough to look at life as it really is and not to need a narcotic to get through it but as something that gives them the strength to embrace the radical insecurity of life, and I think that’s worth doing.
Christianity is not about saving people from their sins. It’s about expanding the sense of what it means to be human. That’s a very big difference. I’m tired of being saved from my sins. People say, “You don’t believe in sin.” But, that’s not true. I believe that human beings are incredibly capable of doing evil. We do that because we’re survival-oriented creatures. That means we can’t help but be self-centered—and that’s what the church called “original sin.” Christianity doesn’t rescue us from that aspect of our humanity. What Christianity does is lift us beyond the survival mentality into a kind of humanity that can give itself away in love. That’s what the Jesus story is all about.
What do you see as the future of Christianity?
I’m encouraged that the Bible says to me over and over again that the Christian movement is always going to be a minority movement. It’s not ever going to be a majority movement. We’re going to be the little bit of salt that gives flavor to the soup, the leaven that causes the bread to rise, or the tiny candle that shines in the midst of incredible darkness. When we get back to understanding our role is to leaven the lump then I think we’ll be effective.
Right now we believe we should be the majority. I don’t think that’s ever been the biblical image. The saving remnant was the powerful idea in the Hebrew Scriptures and I think that continues in the Christian tradition. But, we’ve gotten triumphal. We turned Christianity into Christendom and we rule the world. We’ve seated kings and unseated kings. We got drunk with that kind of power and we forgot how to be a Christian. I hope we can recover that and I hope my book will help people see that—because I think the message of the Bible is a pretty powerful one.
[The image of Bishop Spong on RD’s front page is by photographer Sahlan Hayes.—Eds.]