Why I Wrote Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World
by Bishop John S. Spong Oct 27, 2011
Several years ago, while in England, I was invited to participate on a two-hour television program hosted by Melvin Bragg, now Sir Melvin Bragg, on the UK’s ITV channel. The topic was the future of religion in general and of Christianity in particular. There were three other panelists one of whom was Christopher Hitchens, well known then as a literary and political critic, but he had not yet published his best selling attack on religion entitled God is Not Great.
In the course of that panel discussion, Hitchens, attacking Christianity, tossed out many of his verbal grenades that would someday show up in his book. He sought to demonstrate both the inconsistencies and the contradictions found in supernatural religion as well as in the pages of the Bible. He spoke of the damage done to human beings as a result of religious claims and biblical teaching. To his surprise, I, as a representative of institutional Christianity, agreed quite publicly with him, citing the fact that biblical scholarship over the last 200 years has come to these same conclusions long before Hitchens discovered them. My problem with Christopher Hitchens was not his analysis, but that he obviously knew very little about contemporary Christian scholarship. In the televised debate I sought to articulate an understanding of Christianity radically different from the simplistic version he was attacking so scathingly.
Following this debate, Christopher Hitchens was heard speaking with Melvin Bragg and criticizing my membership on the panel since I was not what he called an “adequate representative of Christianity.” I was certainly not the “representative Christian” that he had so easily demolished in the past. Over the years the charge of not being an adequate Christian has been leveled against me many times by conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals. This was, however, the first time I had been found unacceptable to an atheist! I was delighted.
That experience served as the background for writing my newest book for it seemed to me to capture the problem facing institutional Christianity in our day. There is an enormous gap at present between the Christianity understood in the great academic centers of learning in the world and the Christianity understood by those who occupy the pews and, in some cases, the pulpits of our local congregations. Knowledge that is commonplace in the academies is frequently heard in the pews as profoundly controversial, probably heretical, and even as an attack on all that they hold sacred. This in turn causes critics like Christopher Hitchens to attack Christianity because they are unaware of any form of Christianity other than the literalized supernatural view that so frequently emerges in and from our churches.
This enormous gap between the academy and the pew is openly fed by ecclesiastical leaders from the Pope to the various denominational heads, who do not make it easy for the people in the pew to gain access to biblical scholarship. They instead create and participate in a conspiracy of silence. They fear that the people they serve will be scandalized if they knew the truth. The fact remains, however, that both the common theistic definition of God as an “external, supernatural being, who does miracles and answers prayers” and the understanding of the Bible as a book of authoritative divine revelation of the “Word of God” are not now taken seriously in Christian academic circles and this has been the case for almost two hundred years! Church leaders seem to prefer for their Sunday worshipers to remain in the dark. Let me illustrate this by stating some little known, and among scholars, not controversial biblical facts.
The gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. They are the products of a time between two and three generations after the crucifixion of Jesus. The gospels were written in Greek, a language neither Jesus nor his disciples could either speak or write. We can find no evidence that miracles were associated with the memory of Jesus prior to the 8th decade. The stories of Jesus’ miraculous birth to a virgin did not enter the developing Christian tradition until the 9th decade. The account of Pentecost and the ascension of Jesus are 10th decade additions to the story. Resurrection was not understood to be the resuscitation of a deceased body until the 9th decade. Paul does not seem to be aware of the story of Judas as a traitor nor does he ever refer to the narrative of his Damascus Road conversion, which was not written until Paul had been dead for thirty or so years. Furthermore, there are no camels in the biblical story of the wise men and there is no stable in the Bible in which Jesus was presumably born. The New Testament does not agree on who the twelve disciples were or on the details of the Easter story. That is just the beginning of facing the gap between the academy and the pew.
Let me turn to theological topics for a moment. No biblical scholar today, post-Darwinians as they are, will defend as literally accurate either of the creation stories in the book of Genesis. More importantly, no educated person in the 21st century believes either the astrophysical formula in which the Bible portrays the earth’s relationship to the universe or the dominant anthropological ideas that underlie the classical way in which Christians still tell the Christ story. That familiar narrative posits an original perfection for both the world and for human life, which was presumably ruined by the disobedience of the heretofore sinless human beings, which brought about a fall into “original sin.” That “fall,” in turn, necessitated a rescue operation, which this storyline suggests was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross. How can one fall from a perfection human beings have never possessed if all of us have evolved? How can we then be rescued from a fall that never happened? How can we be restored to a status we have never possessed? The story breaks down in a thousand ways.
Yet Protestant preachers and lay people still say things like “Jesus died for my sins” and Catholics still refer to the “sacrifice of the Mass,” as the moment when they reenact liturgically the drama of salvation and the price God required Jesus to pay to overcome the fall. So, because we know no alternatives to this traditional formula we modern Christians either close our minds to reality in order to remain believers or we abandon Christianity because it no longer makes sense. This almost unchallenged vision of the past in turn provides fodder for the secular critics like Christopher Hitchens to attack the traditional Christian articulation as if they are the first to discover its inadequacies, revealing in the process their own biblical and theological ignorance.
It was to speak to the gap between the academy and the pew that I wrote Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. In this book, I seek to open the windows into Christian scholarship and to make it available to ordinary lay people. I want to challenge the cover up engaged in by clergy who know better, but who seem to believe that truth, honesty and scholarship will “alienate the faithful.” I want to force the religious debate into a new arena of honesty. I want to call people to look at a new way to read the scriptures, a new way to be the church in the 21sr century. So in this book I have walked through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, facing and revealing its contradictions and even pointing out places where the biblical text seems to endorse and support attitudes that most of us today regard as immoral. Should slaves be taught in the name of God to be obedient? Of course not! Yet for centuries we Christians quoted Colossians and Ephesians, among other biblical sources, to perfume the indignity of first slavery and then segregation. Should wives be taught to be subservient because that was God’s plan? Of course not! Yet the fact is that the apostle Paul seems to think that his definition of the inferiority of women is “God given!” and on the basis of that definition we Christians have not just denied educational opportunities to women, but also refused to allow them the right to vote until the twentieth century. Should homosexuals be discriminated against or even put to death? Of course not, but we Christians have done that to countless numbers of gay and lesbian people and justified it by quoting the book of Leviticus. These attitudes reflect nothing other than uninformed prejudice and are based not only on a profound ignorance of the Bible, but also of the origins of homosexuality. Should wars be blessed and birth control condemned because of quotations from “Holy Scripture?” I shake with rage at such conclusions!
To look at the Bible from the perspective of contemporary scholarship is to call the traditional understanding of the Bible and of Christianity itself into question, yet despite the fear that religious people feel at this prospect, to fail to do so is nothing other than a prescription only for a slower death. Why would any church or church leader choose to walk that path?
I have two audiences in mind in the writing of this book. One is a church audience made up of people who appear to know that the old words no longer make sense, yet in the absence of an alternative still cling to the meaningless past. The second audience is made up of those who have abandoned traditional Christianity because for them it has become unbelievable. I want them to know that there is a view of Christianity beyond the one they have abandoned or the one that Christopher Hitchens attacks. It has just never been introduced in the pews. My goal in this book is to take people beneath both the literal and contradictory words of the Bible and the convoluted concepts of theology to explore realms of spiritual truth present but unseen.
I believe Christianity has to do not with guilt and sin, but with increased humanity and heightened awareness; with breaking barriers that separate us from one another in our quest for survival and with calling us to move beyond self-consciousness into universal consciousness where, I believe, we touch the edges of eternity. Will this book succeed in this mission? Time will tell, but, regardless, the need to address these issues is real and I have now made that effort.
I want to live to see a new Christianity for a new world. Indeed I want to assist in its birth. This book is designed to be a shot across the bow to inaugurate that campaign.
~John Shelby Spong