Sometimes when I speak of former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who tends to drive some conservative and traditionalist Christians a little crazy, I say jokingly that the church needs its heretics.
I want to be clear that I'm not labeling Spong a heretic, a term that historically has caused a lot more problems than it has solved (though others might). But it certainly is true that Spong has challenged many traditional Christian understandings and has offered insights coming from few others -- some of them quite useful, others not so much.
When Spong writes a foreward to a new book, it's a clear tipoff that the contents will be in harmony with his spirit of disputation and provocation.
The author is pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto, and is enormously unhappy with much of traditional Christianity. She wants to undo a lot of it and, in effect, start almost from scratch.
Vosper is about as far from a fundamentalist as it's possible to get in Christianity.
"What the world needs in order to survive and thrive," she writes, "is the radical simplicity that lies at the core of Christianity and so many other faiths and systems of thought -- and abiding trust in the way of love as expressed in just and compassionate living."
Her goal is to have a church "freed from its absolute and supernatural claims with which it has obligated its members."
What she proposes no doubt will make many traditionalists quake:
"We need to release words, statements, and concepts that reiterate dogma we no longer (and maybe never did) truly believe ourselves. I'm calling for a conscientious clearing of the house of faith, a sweeping away of language that suggests salvation from hell in return for a belief in the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. I'm talking about being willing to give up the public singing of hymns -- no matter how dear to our hearts -- that reiterate that bargain and celebrate Christianity's march across the globe, triumphantly bringing its patronizing 'light of the world' to all nations. I'm urging us to stop referring to God, casually or reverently, as someone who sends or doesn't send favourable weather; grants or does not grant our prayers; saves or does not save a loved one from harm, for reasons 'only God knows' but that we most certainly will not understand yet must accept as evidence of God's wisdom, power, and love."
Vosper is at her best when dealing with theodicy -- the question of why there is evil in the world if God is good, and how people of faith can defend God in the face of the Holocaust, natural disasters and other catastrophes.
But her voice is often shrill -- sometimes more shrill than Spong himself -- and it's unlikely that people who have grown up in traditional Christianity are going to give her much of a hearing. In a way that's too bad. The church, after all, needs its heretics, which is to say its thoughtful people who are willing to challenge the status quo. If Christianity needs to be remade, Vosper is willing and anxious to break the eggs that will go into the new omelette.
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LEARNING NOTHING FROM THE 'BLING' BISHOP
If, indeed, Christianity gets rebooted, I hope it fixes the tone-deafness of so many leaders. In the latest example, the Catholic archbishop of Atlanta is apologizing for not realizing how bad it would look for him to move into a $2.2 million home. Really? It never crossed his mind that this would present a p.r. problem, not to mention an out-of-sync-with-Jesus problem? Maybe it's time to send this guy to reboot camp.
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P.S.: Do you have my new book yet? It's Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, and I think you'll find it engaging. You can read about it here. If you want an autographed copy, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll tell you how we can make that happen.
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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter now is online at http://bit.ly/1oqrZre.