Although I’d heard about John Shelby Spong as being a fairly liberal Christian, I wasn’t really aware of the detail of his theology until I read this book on a flight between Sydney and Adelaide. Yes, while the rest of the plane was reading the Da Vinci Code, I was reading another book which seeks to provide an alternative reading of the Christian story… although, of courser, a lot of Christians would argue both are works of fiction.
The essential argument of the book is that throughout history various bible texts have been used selectively to condemn homosexuality, keep women “in their place”, deliver war and encourage environmental unsustainability, amongst many other things.
But isn’t the bible the word of God? No he argues, describing how the texts were written in many different contexts over several hundred years and how they were often modified and mistepreted. The story of Sodom, for example, he argues has been misinterpeted as a proscribing homosexual behaviour. He also argues that Paul’s description of homosexuality as an abomination was a product of his own self-loathing concerned with his sexuality?
But surely a supernatural God wouldn’t allow such misinterpretation? In fact, he argues against the concept of a supernatural God, intervening in our lives on both a micro and macro scale, believing instead that God is a force in all of us which can allow us to reach a more complex human experience.
Spong argues that Jesus Christ was not the son of God, but rather an enlightened human being who tapped into a new consciousness of what it means to be a more complete human. For that reason, he describes himself as a Christian.
As a former Episcopalian (read “Anglican”) bishop, it’s easy to understand why Spong’s teachings have been controversial and widely criticised.
As someone without theological training I am not in a position to critique the book in any other way than how I reacted to it on a personal level. Although my brand of Christianity believes in a supernatural God, I was open to many of the arguments he expressed about the need for a more enlightened human consciousness.
As a reasonably liberal Christian, I was also open to many of his arguments about homosexuality, women and environmentalism, to name but three. But although Spong spoke about his long term love of the bible, I thought the passion was sometimes consumed by the intellectual argument.
That said, I’d rather read something like this than Dan Brown.