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The plague of biblical literalism: 2-13/14-16

For years -- decades, really -- the former Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., John Shelby Spong (shown in the photo below on the right), has been proposing various controversial ways of understanding what Christianity is all about.

Biblical-literalismIn the process, he's rankled all kind of traditional Christians, some of whom have called him a heretic. Although he rejects that label, at times he's seemed almost proud of the insult.

In his new -- and, he says, perhaps final -- book (he'll be 85 years old in June), he's at it again. I already can hear the denunciations of him because of Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy. Once the book is released on Tuesday of this coming week, you can bet that there will be charges that he's attempting to throw out nearly all of traditional Christianity and the Bible stories on which it's based and pretty much spiritualizing or allegorizing the religion out of recognition.

I've met Jack Spong at least twice and heard him in large and small settings. I think he frequently overreaches when it comes to theological interpretation. But he challenges traditional thinking in a useful way and he gets many things right.

For instance, he is right that it's foolish to read the whole of the Bible literally -- as if all the stories, all the alleged science, all the history in it are exactly what they seem to be. As I sometimes say, you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both. And this book is a polemic against such narrow biblical literalism.

The task, then, is to determine what parts of the Bible might stand as actual history and what, by contrast, should be considered metaphor, myth, allegory, poetry. Much of the Bible -- both the Jewish and Christian versions -- is full of the latter elements, sometimes even when it appears that the stories being told are rooted in real events.

"The gospels," Spong writes, ". . .were not meant to be read literally, and they become nonsensical and unbelievable if one seeks to do so."

Spong also is right about the books of the New Testament being deeply Jewish documents. They were, after all, written almost entirely by Jews for Jews -- especially those Jews who, like the Apostle Paul, believed that the long-promised Jewish Messiah had come as Jesus of Nazareth.

Indeed, the core contention of this new book is that the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (Spong focuses especially on Matthew in this volume) were written not as biography or history but as liturgy to be used in synagogues in Jewish worship to connect the story of Jesus with Jewish theology, culture and history.

Spong2The problem, as Spong argues, was that by "about the year 150 CE. . .there were hardy any Jews left in the Christian movement. From that day to some point after the end of World War II, the only people who read the New Testament were Gentiles, who had no understanding of and no appreciation for the original Jewish context of the gospels. Absent that context, these Gentiles began to literalize the Jesus stories, a practice which the original writers of the gospels could never have imagined." Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who will speak at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., March 4-5, makes a similar point in her respected work.

What these Gentiles from then to now have mostly missed, writes Spong, is that "the liturgical life of the synagogue was the organizing principle of the three synoptic gospels."

Spong then spends most of the rest of the book showing how especially the gospel of Matthew was designed to serve as liturgy in worship for those Jews who became attracted to the life, ministry, teaching and meaning of Jesus Christ. Theologians, who are paid for this sort of thing, will no doubt argue over what Spong gets right in his thesis and what he gets wrong. But Spong, who describes himself as a devoted Christian, at least has earned a hearing.

Spong also is right in this new book in his general condemnation of traditional Christian atonement theology.

Indeed, he asserts that "nothing in this book will be more important than freeing Christianity from the shackles of atonement theology." (I've written about atonement theories and their problems here.)

There are many atonement theories in Christianity, none of which offers an exhaustive explanation of what happened on the cross of Christ. Especially troubling has been one called the penal substitutionary atonement theory. To put this theory in unfair bumper-sticker form, it says that God loves us because Christ died for us, whereas Christianity really teaches the opposite, which is that Christ died for us because God loves us.

Even that latter formulation, however, no doubt would find objections from Spong, who, while acknowledging the reality of evil in the world and the human participation in it, rejects the notion of Original Sin and, thus, the need to be redeemed from it. We now know, he says, that the two Genesis creation stories are metaphorical and that humanity was not forever stained with sin because of what has been called the fall of Adam and Eve, who, despite the claims of fundamentalist and some other Christians, were not historical figures.

Traditional atonement theology, he writes, is "a total distortion of the meaning of Jesus, based, as I believe it was, on a complete misunderstanding of Yom Kippur."

Which brings us back to the reality that many Christians today -- and, in fact, from the middle of the Second Century on -- have lost touch with the Jewish roots of Christianity. That loss means that it's terribly difficult to understand the books of the New Testament, including the gospels, because those books are steeped in Jewish theology, history and culture.

Every few pages, as I read this, I wished that Spong and a more traditional Christian theologian like Luke Timothy Johnson were in my presence so I could ask questions. And so I could challenge Spong on a few points -- maybe with Johnson's help. For instance, Spong knows better than to label either the Apostle Paul or Jesus himself as the founder of Christianity, and yet right there on page 37 is the phrase ". . .the story of Christianity after the death of Jesus, its founder." That would be a correct description if one meant that the Christian religion eventually separated from Judaism and came to stand on its own as a result of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, but not if one meant that Jesus came for the purposes of creating Christianity.

Some of what Spong writes in this book is not new, especially when you think of his 1996 book, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes.

But if this is Spong's swan song, he's going out not with a whimper but a shout -- and traditional Christianity will have to decide what he got right and what he didn't. It should make for a lively -- and quite necessary -- discussion.

(The photo of Spong here today is one I took at a journalism conference in the Washington, D.C., area at which he spoke several years ago.)

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Religion News Service blogger Tobin Grant has put together a pretty nifty and pretty simple tool to help you understand all the different faith communities in the U.S. You can find it here. It'll help you distinguish the United Methodists from the Presbyterians and the Sunni Muslims from the Shi'a Muslims. But be sure to read Tobin's instructions before you leap in.


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