The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love
by John Shelby Spong
by Donna Schaper
We hear a lot about Judeo-Christian values in the public square these days. If you find yourself questioning the legitimacy of these values and looking for a source that can articulate your feelings, Sins of Scripture is a good place to start. You don’t want to whine. You don’t want to accuse others of misinterpretation. You want instead to say that open values are moral, that God has “yet more light and truth to shine forth in God’s world,” as John Robinson preached in the last sermon on the Mayflower. You want to “never place a period where God has put a comma,” as the United Church of Christ’s controversial ad campaign puts it. (The fundamentalists countered on national TV by saying, “never put a comma where God has put a period.”) You want scriptural interpretation to be dynamic, living, open. You just may have found your spokesman.
According to author John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop and preeminent voice for progressive Christianity, the problem lies in assuming that the bible is literally the word of God. Bishop Spong has been an irritant to fundamentalists for a long time, and in this new book he reclaims Jesus as the reason why. His web site has become a weekly stopping point for those who want to love, respect, understand and criticize holy texts. Whether he is arguing in an open letter with columnist George Will or helping people understand the power of the popular book The Purpose-Driven Life or appearing on NBC’s Nightline, Spong is energetic, loving and in fine shape for a good fight.
Sins of Scripture’s central point is that the gospel’s “on message” is a message of love. Any text that does not promote love is probably not deeply biblical. Lots of texts are in the biblical canon (meaning officially in the bible with church sanction) but may be off message. They do not express love and openness to all, and their inclusion is a mistake. Such picking and choosing presents theological problems for anyone so inclined, including Spong. Who is to say which text is truly biblical and which merely canonical? What happens to a people who, like the Reformation figures of yore, claim that they read their own bibles for themselves, their way? What rank individualism is this separation of self from history, text, and canon? Spong argues vigorously that we take such risks in the very name of Jesus and scripture. He believes that Jesus pried open the canonical and institutional church (and temple), and that we are to do the same.
On the other hand, Spong is not willing to give up on the bible altogether. Still, he acknowledges that great violence has been done in the name of scripture, even to children. He presses the issue deeply, asking: “Is there something in the Christian story itself that pushes us towards abusive behavior?” Finally he answers no, yet concedes that there are “stations of the cross” that promote God as a punishing heavenly parent figure which surely cause blood-stained hands and a passivity towards violence. Christianity is not “perfect” to Spong – and that is why he travels the long road, stopping at all the potholes, to determine his answers.
Another hard question that Spong manages well is that concerning “one true God.” His conclusion : We live in a religiously pluralistic world where there is only one God. “This one God is not a Christian, nor is this God an adherent of ANY religious system…. Until that simple lesson is heard, human beings will continue to destroy each other in the name of the ‘one true God.’”
After 24 years as bishop in the Diocese of Newark and author of such best-selling books as New Christianity for a New World, Spong has learned to “opportunize” the media and jump on issues that religious organizations normally think of as too “hot” to mention in public. He makes and takes these risks as a man who loves Christianity too much to let it become the pawn of closed interpretations of scripture.
The Sins of Scripture gives Spong ample opportunity to display his gift for open interpretation. He approaches problem texts with respect and criticism. Grappling with issues such as:
•Anti-Semitism: Matthew 27:25— “And the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’”
•Sexism: 1 Corinthians 8-9—”For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”
•Homophobia: Leviticus 18:22— “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination”
•Child abuse: Proverbs 23:13, 14—“Do not withhold discipline from a child.... If you beat him with a rod, you will save his life from Sheol”
•Religious bigotry: John 14:6—“No one comes to the Father but by me”
•Environmental degradation: Genesis 1:28— “Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth.”
Spong’s central theology is that humanity in all its shapes and sizes is loved by a loving God – and that Jesus is one sign of this loving God. “Are males superior to females, parents superior to children, heterosexuals superior to homosexuals, white people superior to people of color? That is the wisdom of a world dedicated to survival and driving all things into power relationships. Humanity is always impaired when one builds his or her sense of worth by denigrating the worth of another. What the Jesus experience showed was a vision of a new humanity in which no one is diminished.”
In a world shaken by banging doors closing off mind and spirit, Spong’s open interpretation of the Gospel is a gift for those seeking alternatives. They might also welcome the publication of “Spong for Dummies,” taking his often erudite prose and simplifying it into bite-size morsels for use in adult education, Christian education, Sunday School and the like. His large and growing corpus of work is too often segregated into realms only visited by religious inquirers. It leaves one wondering, how might society be different if we were all better schooled in both appreciating and criticizing religious texts?
©2005 Donna Schaper
purchase a copy of THE
SINS OF SCRIPTURE,
visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith.org
visitors and registered