REVIEW: Spong on Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

For nearly four decades John Shelby Spong has played the role of a priestly provocateur, attempting to undercut “literalist” readings of the Bible in an effort to salvage Scripture for modern contexts. This book is no exception, and in many respects it represents a culmination of his task, because Spong here attempts to say something (however brief) about each and every book of the Bible. More specifically, his particular aim is to teach the Bible “to laypeople in the same way it is taught in academic centers”, believing that competent biblical scholarship both undercuts traditional religion and enlivens a new consciousness towards God.

From the outset it is important to acknowledge that there are many things which can be appreciated in Spong’s work. His concern to situate the Bible in its historical and cultural context is one I share, and his willingness to ask hard questions of the Christian tradition is noble and right. In some cases, Spong knows his facts and adequately demonstrates the illumination that critical scholarship can bring. And I, too, am happy to join him in demythologising the traditional Christmas pageant, with its crude conflation of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.

Where the book primarily falls down is its failure to be true to its own aims. Spong claims that he is harvesting the insights of contemporary scholarship. Perhaps for his next book, he might like to read some. This retired bishop of Newark appears to have stopped reading biblical scholarship when Ronald Reagan left the White House. The evidence is stark: Re-Claiming the Bible ends with a bibliography, which I assume is representative rather than exhaustive. Nevertheless, in a list of more than 60 books (excluding Spong’s) only 11 were authored in the last twenty years, and at least 6 of those 11 were not even written by biblical scholars.

This deficient reading list at least helps to explain some of the stranger moments in Reclaiming the Bible, such as when Spong confesses that he knows of no major scholarly work on Jeremiah. No major scholarly work? Five minutes at a library catalogue would have easily turned up Jack Lundbom’s three volume Anchor Bible commentary, or Walter Brueggemann’s many volumes—to name only two—but perhaps the point is that Spong just hasn’t been to the library lately.

Not only has Spong not read enough contemporary scholarship, what he does choose to read is narrow in its scope. Spong’s area of expertise is the Gospels, which he claims belong to the genre of Jewish liturgy rather than history, imaginative fiction rather than factual narrative. The way Spong represents it one could be forgiven for thinking this is the mainstream, consensus view of the academy. In reality, it is heavily based on the work of one scholar, Michael Goulder, and Goulder’s arguments have definitely not won the day. On the contrary, if there is anything approaching a consensus in scholarship today it is that the Gospels are ancient biographies, a genre which was normally expected to deal in historical facts.

But the narrowness of Spong’s reading is seemingly deliberate, an outgrowth of his binary categorisation of Bible readers. On the one hand, there are informed people like himself, who know the incontrovertible truth that much of the Bible is false, and the good parts which remain must be treated ahistorically. On the other hand there are the ignorant and uninformed, fundamentalists who think the Bible magically dropped from heaven. This is simply a false dichotomy, an attempt to obscure from view the thousands of scholars who sit happily between those extremes, many of them participants in both the ‘traditional’ church and the ‘critical’ academy.

It is these scholars, like James Dunn, John P. Meier, N. T. Wright, and Richard Bauckham, which Spong simply refuses to read. To be sure, in any church one will be able to find a simplistic acolyte who has a poorly formed basis for their belief, but the same problem recurs in any social and intellectual movement. Did every Democrat who voted for Obama have a good reason for doing so? Is every Greenpeace member competent in environmental science? The presence of naïve belief on the part of some does not thereby render the whole spurious. In a similar fashion to Bill Maher in his documentary Religulous, Spong feels the need to look smart by making his debating partner a straw man.

Perhaps the final comment to make is to question the value of Spong’s entire project. Following in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, Spong seeks to edit out those portions of the Bible he finds difficult and distasteful, because they do not accord with his modern sensitivities and progressive values. So Nahum and Habakkuk are out, as is 1 Timothy, whilst Revelation is not even worthy of study. But what is evidenced in all of this is that the Bible does not so much contribute to Spong’s worldview as it functions to endorse it.

Yet what has transfixed believers for generations about the Bible is the belief that through it humanity is able to ‘hear the voice of a God’ who stands outside of us and above us, a voice calling us beyond ourselves with our limitations and fallibility. If the Bible is only useful because it backs up what we’ve figured out for ourselves, there appears little need to reclaim it?

Centre for Public Christianity

Mark Stephens is a Lecturer in Biblical Studies, at Wesley Institute, and is a Fellow of CPX.

MARCH 7, 2012

Persecution and Epistemic Closure

by Morgan Guyton Sunday, March 4th, 2012

From Red Letter Christians

Epistemic closure is a recently defined philosophical term that describes someone who is so thoroughly encased in the echo chamber of their own ideology that they are completely immune to considering other viewpoints. The term is derived from the Greek word pistis which means faith or trust. When people live in epistemic closure, they are immune to integrity because they only trust people who already agree with their ideology. They scan potential sources of information for the presence of code words that indicate whether or not the speaker can be trusted as a member of their own ideological tribe. As a pastor communicating in our “post-truth” environment of ideological tribalism, I try to be very attuned to both the code words that make me trustworthy and those that instantaneously discredit everything I have to say.

Part of the reason that many people today live in epistemic closure is because we no longer have a Walter Cronkite or Tom Brokaw whom everybody trusts to give us the facts without taking sides. Objectivity is no longer considered a possibility; thus the world becomes “post-truth.” There are only ideologies that must be defended or deconstructed. There is only FOX and MSNBC; every other source of information is a more or less subtle version of one or the other. Underlying today’s anti-truthful world, Christianity paradoxically provides both the source of epistemic closure as well as the means by which people can transcend it.

There are two things about the way that Christianity defines itself that can contribute to the phenomenon of epistemic closure. First, Christianity is a religion of people who expected to be persecuted: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

Second, Christianity is based upon a paradoxical wisdom that appears foolish to the wisdom of the world: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

These two passages happen to be two of my favorites in the Bible. They are immensely empowering and comforting to people who actually suffer persecution (which is different than people who proclaim their own persecution as part of a political strategy). Christianity is without a question supposed to be a home for outsiders — people who are foolish, weak, and hated by the world. But we should not turn around and make these words of comfort into a prescription for anti-social behavior. These verses are not saying that discipleship is measured by the degree to which we strive to provoke the world’s hatred, like the Westboro Baptist Church that pickets soldiers’ funerals with their strange, awful signs.

It is easy to turn these words of comfort which are part of the legitimate core of Christianity into the justification for epistemic closure. If the world is supposed to hate us, then any criticism or ideological conflict we encounter is redefined as “persecution,” which means that we don’t have to take it seriously. The world simply hates us; we don’t have to consider why. If Christian truth is supposed to be “foolishness” to the world, then the measure of how bold a person is in embracing Christian truth is how anti-intellectual that person is willing to be. When you think you are supposed to feel persecuted and foolish, it’s easy to embrace epistemic closure and immunize yourself against the possibility of considering other perspectives.

The sad irony about this is that Christianity properly understood actually provides the foundation to overcome epistemic closure. The fact that we are justified by the blood of Jesus and not by our own “correctness” ought to be the basis for a genuine humility in which we are less defensive of our own perspective and more willing to listen thoughtfully to other people. There are many verses I could cite for this, but the one that comes to mind is Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” True humility means that I value others’ perspectives enough to question my own infallibility. Otherwise it’s not really humility. If I interpret this verse to say only that I should serve other people more than they’re serving me, that might be codependency or patronage, but it’s not humility. Humility creates epistemic openness, because I don’t trust myself enough to categorically mistrust my opponents’ views; my trust for myself has been replaced by a trust for God, which means trusting that God might be talking through the people He has put in my life to disagree with and sharpen me.

Now we have to be careful, lest we turn epistemic openness into moral relativity. But they need not be the same. There is a difference between believing that there is an absolute truth and believing that I have it in my back pocket. We can only continue the lifelong, never-ending journey towards truth if we recognize that it remains perpetually beyond us. The difference between God’s truth and ideology is that God’s truth is infinite while ideology is finite. To make your ideology absolute means worshiping an idol and putting yourself in opposition to God’s truth which is only God’s if you are not able to conquer it completely.

So I pray that you would be emancipated from your ideological tribe. Almost all of us have been victimized by ideology to varying degrees. Nobody is completely right and nobody is completely wrong (which is not the same as saying that everybody is equally right and wrong). Because God’s truth has been manifested in the universe to all, even to “godless and wicked people” (Romans 1:18-20), we can and should listen for the truth in the perspectives of our opponents even if we think their applications and conclusions are wrong. We are actually less likely to be led astray with an attitude of epistemic openness than epistemic closure, because we are constantly listening for what God has to teach us, even from the unlikeliest of witnesses.

Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at Follow Morgan on twitter