Recently John Shelby Spong has released a new book entitled “Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.” Just today I read a CNN article describing some of what lies in front of those who will read it. I have not read it and so I have no interest in critiquing the book. I think if we’ve learned anything in 2011 it’s that you cannot critique a book you haven’t read. (even if you turn out to be right) 🙂
In any case, I do have a few initial thoughts that stem from the article and just a surface read of the title.
First, when any author starts by making what they must consciously know is an extreme statement and then follows that statement up with “and EVERY biblical scholar recognizes this”, instantly I know that something is fishy. Either he’s completely lost touch with any scholar that isn’t in his tiny tribe and is thus ignorant (which I cannot believe), or he’s exaggerating and being intellectually dishonest, trying to pull a fast one on those who simply do not know any better. I cannot help but think that Spong knows very well few biblical scholars would agree with what he says.
Second, I find it odd that the project that Spong says he is setting out upon is to “re-claim” a thoroughly religious document written by and for the “religious” FOR those who are “non-religious” and in doing so he finds nothing illogical about this at all. This would be like me attempting to “re-claim” Shakespeare for non-literates or Darwin for the non-scientific. To disassociate the scriptures from the religious realm is a fruitless endeavor. And what is this business of re-claiming? Did the scriptures EVER belong to the “non-religious”?
Third, is this really a new project? Hasn’t this already been done a number of times? Isn’t this more of a re-appropriation of Bultmann’s project intensified and tweaked for the 21st century? Hasn’t Marcus Borg already done this with “Reading the Bible For the First Time” several years ago? (which by the way I respect a lot more).
Fourth, the major historical points (not his assumptions) he brings up in the CNN article are nothing that we haven’t know for the entirety of church history (the gospels weren’t written until 70-100 AD, etc.) but he assumes that because a biblical book wasn’t written until a later date there is no possibility that anything historically accurate could have survived. This is simply a false, modernistic presupposition that makes it impossible for Spong to adequately interpret scripture. Mark is certainly based on eyewitness accounts. These were eyewitness accounts that survived through the passing on of oral history which makes sense in an oral culture.
Fifth, and not surprisingly, he bashes on the Old Testament and makes the culturally popular statement, “How could you believe in a God like that?” Simply because he cannot imagine a God like that in his contemporary, brilliant mind, He must not exist or He must exist how I would imagine Him to exist. He quickly follows that up with the second most popular “Look at all the damage that has been done because of a certain reading of this book!” as if what sinful people DO in some way invalidate the book written about what sinful people DO!
Sixth, and finally, his answer to these Old Testament problems is that the trajectory of humanity was from ignorant morons who got God totally wrong to enlightened ones who really get God. Spong of course falling in the latter camp. There are simply better answers out there in terms of understanding scripture in all of it’s parts. Spong is simply recapitulating what has been done a hundred times over and it’s still just as unsatisfactory.
Spong resorts to what is most popular and the easiest for our contemporary minds to believe in light of what our culture tells us God MUST be like. There is nothing new under the sun.