Facing the biblical truth.
BY JOHN SHELBY SPONG (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005); 315 pp.; $24.95 cloth; ISBN 0-06-076205-5.
IN THE SINS OF SCRIPTURE: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong provides ultraliberal Christianity with an ample, enthusiastic, and arguably desperate defense. Because Spong limits his audience to Christians, one is practically compelled to hope that the author's defense proves successful. In the end, one would be hard pressed to argue that Spong's latest work adds to religion's pernicious history or, indeed, to deny that it serves the community of reason well insofar as it educates intractable Christians and challenges them to candidly confront their scriptures and traditions.
"It is quite easy," Spong concedes, "to demonstrate that the Bible is simply wrong in some of its assumptions." David did not author the Psalms, Solomon wasn't responsible for Proverbs, and Moses had been reduced to dust for three hundred years before a single verse of the Torah was ever written. "Craving both authenticity and certainty" Spong accuses, right-wing churchgoers are notorious for their "hysterical denial of these obvious biblical truths."
Many religionists will be surprised to learn of the Documentary Hypothesis and the Torah's far from immaculate conception. Presumably, the New Testament's incongruous accounts of Christ's divinity remain equally unfamiliar to average Christians. Between 70 and 100 CE, Spong reveals, the timing and details pertaining to Christ's godly infusion changed on several occasions.
Even more importantly, however, the author justifies his resolve to undermine Christian scripture's authority. Contrary to popular conviction, the extensive history of Christian incompetence, oppression, and violence has never been simply a matter of scriptural exploitation. The primary "enemy," Spong insists, has always been "the Bible itself."
Scripture, says Spong, in fact "set the stage for seeing the earth as the enemy of human beings." On behalf of an omnipotent and transcendent god, Hebrew authors confronted Earth-centered polytheistic traditions and, in their minds, triumphed over them. Christianity, of course, perpetuated what Spong refers to as its forebears' "anti-earth attitude." Focusing on an alleged afterlife in an assumed afterworld and on an omnipotent and omni-benevolent god, Christianity encourages its adherents to see themselves and their surroundings as fallen and to morally resign themselves to the status quo, environmental or otherwise. If circumstances truly required adjustment, Christians might rationalize, surely an all-powerful and altogether wholesome deity could and would beget such adjustments. Such is the nature, Spong argues, of a uniquely monotheistic "delusion of a continuing childhood dependency."
Maladroit ecology, however, might be the least worrisome among the Judeo-Christian traditions dreadful proclivities. "It was out of the Bible" Spong continues, "that pious and devout people drew the definitions they sought to impose on powerless people and to justify the oppression that these powerful religious voices seemed eager to impose."
Christians, for example, have reduced their key female archetypes--the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene--to primitive male fantasies. The first, a "sexless" virgin, evolved into a dehumanized abstraction when the Catholic Church proclaimed her conception to be immaculate in 1854 and when it decreed further in 1950 that her earthly conclusion resulted not from a common, sin-ridden death but rather from a unique, heavenly assumption. The second, an irredeemable "whore" was unjustifiably trashed by the church in the second century CE simply because scripture presented her as a "flesh-and-blood woman at Jesus' side." According to Spong, the reputations of both women were sacrificed for the same reason: to protect the supposed holiness of Christ from the "polluting" influence of women. Although certain priestly edicts and the story of Sodom, detailed in Leviticus and Genesis respectively, have inspired a lion's share of persecution against homosexuals, it is Paul's harangue in Romans 1:21 that evokes Spong's sharpest criticism. The Christian church's systematic persecution of homosexuals, he writes, can be explained in large degree by "frightened" gay men like Paul bent on "condemning other gay people" in a thinly veiled effort to justify or completely deny their own religiously defined flaws.
Unsurprisingly, the author is quick to condemn both the New Testament and the Christian church for anti-Judaism as well. Spong traces the inception of Christian prejudice to Matthew 27:25, where Jewish onlookers purportedly admit that they and their children will forever be responsible for Christ's death. According to Spong, such scriptural under-girding coupled with the teachings of Martin Luther, who saw Jews as "nothing short of evil by nature" eventually "played a huge role in the Holocaust."
Throughout history, Spong concludes, "Human conflicts the world over always seem to have a religious component" From Psalm 8:5's contention of humanity's inherently flawed nature to Matthew 12:30's insistence that goodness and salvation come only through Christ, and from the Tanakh's craving for judgment to the New Testament's foundational obsession with physical suffering, Spong says "this Bible has left a trail of pain, horror, blood, and death that is undeniable."
Given the limitations of his intended audience, Spong ought to be commended for the considerable distance he travels down the enlightening roads of reason and candor. More persistent and experienced commuters, however, will be far less impressed. At times, the author states the obvious as if it were revolutionary. Much more disappointing, however, is Spong's contradictory tendency to profess categorical condemnation of dogma while at the same time stubbornly avoid sincere and penetrating review of his own irrational presumptions and dubious conclusions.
While admitting that "religion is not primarily a search for truth" but rather "overwhelmingly a search for security" Spong incredibly characterizes himself as "a deeply committed, believing Christian" whose "pledge is only that [he] will seek the truth openly,' But, ultimately, Spong is no less dogmatic than the "right-wing" ideologues he so readily condemns. Nowhere does he question the irrational concept of faith itself or his decision to write "as a Christian,' Instead, he embraces all-enabling mystery, reveling in the Bible's "strange kind of power" Spong concludes:
We Christians must journey ... to the core of faith and there allow ourselves to discover its essence, to enter its meaning and finally to transcend its limits. We do that, however, while still clinging to what we call our ultimate Truth and what we regard as our "pearl of great price."
What does this mean? Apparently anything any Christian might ever want it to mean. The only standard is that there are no standards.
Yet, evidently eager to instruct his readers as to "what the New Testament is all about," Spong inexplicably proclaims a "proper way to engage this holy book,' He denounces biblical passages that appear to support the interpretations of his conservative foils, then selects and exalts other verses to buttress his own exegesis. Such is the inevitable folly of any search for God, of any investigation that begins with the preferred conclusion.
Kenneth W. Krause lives in Wisconsin along the Mississippi River. A former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, he has earned degrees in law, history, literature, and fine art. His work has been published in Free Inquiry, Skeptic, the Humanist, Secular Nation, and Freethought Today.
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|Title Annotation:||The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love|
|Author:||Krause, Kenneth W.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2006|
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