112 of 121 people found the following review helpful
Worth a Close Look
, December 20, 2001
This review is from: A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born (Hardcover)
It's easy to see why Bishop Spong remains not only one of the most articulate and controversial theologians of the day, but the bane of orthodox Christianity the world over. Within the first three chapters of this book he manages to dispel almost every tenant of the faith from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection to the Ascension, all the while vigorously insisting he is still a Christian, a claim which seems tantamount to claiming to be a great lumberjack while living in a land devoid of forests. I know he believes he is a Christian and in the respect he considers himself a follower of Christ, he probably is. What he espouses in this book, however, has absolutely no resemblance to any Christianity I've ever encountered.
What he does provide, however, is a refreshing breath of air into a world of stagnate faith. Unlike most liberal theologians, instead of merely demonstrating why the old stories no longer have any relevance in our modern age, he provides a viable blueprint to understanding Christ (and, by default, God) in a newer, fuller way. No longer seeing God in purely theistic terms (by which, I assume, he means transcendent) he outlines a theology that has more in common with New Age thought or eastern philosophy than western religion. Though nothing in his book is entirely new or particularly revolutionary in and of itself, his effort to merge an eastern concept of God within the framework of Christianity is nothing if not unique. While I found myself agreeing with much of what he had to say, however, I wasn't convinced his efforts to "reform" Christianity had any chance of being successful. The traditions are too deeply imbedded in the western psyche to respond to his message; the dogmas too entrenched to be moved by even his most reasoned and passionate pleas for reform. Even so, I can't help but admire his courage for at least trying.
What I wonder about is why he even bothers to try and reform Christianity at all. Since he maintains that all paths ultimately lead to God (although I would question that) then what is the point of reforming any of those paths at all? Why not let traditionalists find God through the well worn path of orthodox Christianity and let those who no longer find that path useful leave it and find another? Both the Unitarians and the Bahais, for example, maintain inclusive theological traditions very similar to those expressed by Bishop Spong. In fact, in much of this book Spong comes across sounding like a Unitarian who just doesn't realize he is one.
The book also suffers a few other flaws as well, though none of them fatal. For example, he deftly glosses over Jesus' miracles instead of dealing with them directly, dismissing all of them as decades later efforts to mythologize Jesus of Nazareth. I personally find such an attitude disingenuous. Not everything Jesus is reported to have done and said in the Gospels can be written off as mere mythologizing! If we are to take the good Bishop's word for it, the gospels are nothing more than a record of the many things Jesus never really said or did making them, as far as I can see, irrelevent to any discussion of the man.
Yet at the same time, Spong seems to take the Gospels as an accurate record of Jesus' teachings when they suit his needs. For example, he uses the flawed liberal tactic of having Jesus endorse his own political/social agenda based upon what he doesn't say. As an ardent gay rights activist he correctly notes that Jesus nowhere condemns homosexuality in the Gospel texts, and uses that to imply that he therefore endorsed such practices. This is the classic argument from silence tactic which finally proves nothing. Jesus also never directly addresses the issues of sado/masochism, cross-dressing, or body piercing for that matter; to assume that he endorses any particular behavior or lifestyle based upon what he doesn't say is just that: an assumption.
Yet if these are the biggest problems with Bishop Spong's book, we should be thankful. Overall, he has given us an excellent, thought-provoking,, and usually well-articulated piece of work that should give every free-thinking man and woman much to consider. For them, this book will help many who are sitting on the fence find relief from the stifling air of orthodoxy and bring them into a world of new possibilities. For the traditionalists, however, I'm afraid John Shelby Spong will remain a crazed heretic who threathens the very foundations of western civilization. And they would be correct, of coure: Bishop Spong is a threat-a threat to every closed mind that claims exclusive rights to and knowledge of God, and for that everyone should be grateful.
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