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Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today Hardcover – February 13, 2018
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“For those seeking to extricate themselves from the confusion of conventional Christianity’s creeds and dogmas, Unbelievable distills an honest and demanding vision for a 21st Century faith.” -- Rev. David M. Felten, co-author of Living the Questions
“Bishop Spong has created just what we needed if we are going to save intelligent Christianity from extinction. I love this book.” -- Fred C. Plumer, President of The Center for Progressive Christianity
“If you choose just one book of Spong’s, then choose Unbelievable. This final book is not only a summation of his life’s teaching but a contemporary catechism that addresses the real questions and profound hesitations contemporary people have about Christianity.” -- Peter Francis, Warden of Gladstone’s Library
“Episcopalian bishop and prolific writer Spong has penned what he declares to be his final book, encapsulating a lifetime of thinking and teaching in order to call upon Christianity to undergo a transformation.” -- Kirkus Reviews
“Spong makes his arguments in the manner of a cogent, smart preacher or lecturer speaking to all who want to keep Christianity while dispensing with miracles, dogma, and blind faith. Luther launched a reformation with 95 theses. Spong would launch another with 12.” -- Booklist
“Spong’s stimulating call for a newly revitalized Christianity will appeal to contemporary Christians who view traditional Christianity as dismayingly outmoded.” -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[Spong] takes readers back to Martin Luther’s original questioning of the Church, asking them to ponder whether or not the idea of God still has meaning. It’s easy to understand why his previous books have been best sellers. This one will be no exception.” -- Retailing Insight
“A hard-hitting critique of traditional Christianity and as a final attempt by Spong to convince believers to explore their beliefs in new and poignant ways…We stand beside him and all who thirst for a church that is not fearful of inquiry, freedom, and knowledge.” -- Spirituality & Practice
“His best book . . . He doesn’t just tear down; he seeks to put something viable, even substantial in its place.” -- Insights
From the Back Cover
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Christianity was in a state of crisis, riven by conflicts that gave birth to the Reformation. Martin Luther’s movement was later followed by a “revolutionary time of human knowledge.” Yet these philosophical and scientific advances had little impact on Christians’ adherence to doctrines developed before these intellectual advances—which is why Christianity has become “unbelievable” today.
Bible scholar and Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong contends that the slow withering of the traditional church makes it imperative for Christians to develop a radically new kind of Christianity—a faith deeply connected to the human experience instead of outdated dogma. To keep Christianity vital, he urges modern Christians to update their faith in light of these advances in our knowledge and to challenge the rigid and problematic church teachings that emerged with the Reformation.
With its revolutionary resistance to the authority of the church in the sixteenth century, Luther’s movement can still serve, according to Spong, as a model for today’s discontented Christians. In fact, while the Reformers’ answers have become outdated and irrelevant, their questions can still serve to guide us today: Does the idea of God still have meaning? Can we still follow historic creeds with integrity? Are not such claims as an infallible pope or an inerrant Bible ridiculous in today’s world? In Unbelievable, Spong outlines twelve “theses” to help today’s believers more deeply contemplate and reshape their faith.
In this final book of his storied career, Spong continues to integrate a rigorous schol-arly tradition with the Christian faith and so offers a new approach, one that challenges Christians to explore their beliefs in new and meaningful ways.
- Publisher : HarperOne (February 13, 2018)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0062641298
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062641298
- Item Weight : 1 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.09 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #53,715 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Bishop has identified a problem - a symptom. Christianity is declining in the Western world. Those claiming to be spiritual but unaffiliated, mostly younger people called "Nones", are on the rise. So, there now appears a "gap between the academy and the pew" to use Spong's words. He tries to identify the reason, a diagnosis. He concludes that the core doctrines, the liturgies and teachings, of the Church are obsolete in today's world. His daughter, who holds a PhD in physics, remarked, "Dad, the questions the church keeps trying to answer, we don't even ask anymore." Advances in cosmology, science, and biology have made Church doctrine irrelevant. Educated modern people see little use for the Church's offerings in their daily lives. So the time is ripe for a Luther-like reformation.
He discusses 12 topics called "theses". They include God, the virgin birth, atonement theology, the resurrection, the 10 Commandments, and others. Each includes evaluation of current status, a "diagnosis", and thoughts about possible approaches, philosophical and theological remedies - "treatments" so to speak. I will first address the 12 theses before moving on to three major topics I do not believe are well reasoned.
I will discuss the twelve in order.
The first is God - Its attributes and nature. Spong holds that the popular concept has been that of a "theistic" god, an all powerful creator of the universe with ability to intervene in nature and human affairs. That concept remains strong and is evident in present day liturgical practice.
While the laws of cosmology and biology have not changed for millennia, what we understand about them has. In the past, a theistic deity was the answer to all that is unexplainable. God existed outside the boundaries of the world but had power to intervene in it. Discoveries by the likes of Galileo and Darwin called all of that to question. The world was not created from a primordial soup by separating heavens, seas and earth. And humankind was not created as a pure and stainless image of God only to become defiled by transgressing a commandment. Darwin has trumped Genesis. Yet much of that theistic belief system remains in the current consciousness of church leaders and their congregations. I will say more about the subject later. But, Spong says, it's time for a change.
The next five theses about the Incarnation, Original Sin, the Virgin Birth, Miracles, and Atonement Theology can be considered as a unit. In short, the idea that God became incarnate, literally en-fleshed with Jesus, falls apart with any concept of God other than as an all powerful theistic deity. The idea of a consubstantial Trinity as taught by the church is therefore a conceptual illusion. The idea of a son does not, and never has, embodied the idea of complete sameness. That would be what we call an "identity".
Neither is the idea of "original sin" sustainable. Adam and Eve were not created as pure and perfect beings in the image of God. Darwin taught us that. They could not and did not transgress God's commandment causing them to fall from grace thereby staining humankind with original sin. Therefore the present day mantra that "Jesus died for our sins" is a relic of the past, a hollow illusion.
Jesus died in the first century; is He still dying for me in the 21st? One could claim he died for the continuing sins of humanity apart from original sin. But considering all the killing, stealing, lying and suffering in the world during the past 2,100 years, one must conclude that the Jesus' sacrifice was in vain. Or perhaps we continue to do as we do confident that all will be forgiven because "Jesus died for our sins". Possibly. But if so Jesus' ethical teachings are meaningless because "all will be forgiven" anyway.
And so the idea of Atonement , the reparation for offenses and injuries we now commit, because Jesus died 2,000 years ago breaches the boundaries of reason. Worse, it has the same practical effect on ethical behaviors as the selling "indulgences", money payments made to the Catholic Church, for forgiveness of sins. We can buy our way out no matter what we do. That was one of Luther's main objections that led to the Reformation. So it could be said that Atonement Theology and the idea that "Jesus died for our (present day) sins" is self-defeating to Jesus' ethical message.
Bishop Spong points out correctly that we find a Jesus' Birth Story in only 2 of our gospels. And those stories are wildly different so we homogenize them at Christmas time. The Christmas creche showing both wise men and shepherds standing by, for example, is a fabrication - an impossible scene according to the Bible because only shepherds are present in one story, wise men in the other. There is nothing wrong with celebrating important events. But one should be careful about creating Santa Clause stories and then believing they are literally true.
Miracles make sense if Jesus were either God or the consubstantial offspring of (emanation from) a god. But Spong points out that the Jesus miracle stories simply continue an Old Testament trend whereby charismatic leaders perform miracles then pass the ability to a successor. The two here are Moses, father of the law, and Elijah, father of the prophets. Their successors were Joshua and Elisha. We know that the Gospels often build on Old Testament tradition and so we see a miracle working Jesus pass his abilities to his disciples continuing that Old Testament pattern - the father of the law, the father of the prophets and now Jesus who gives his ability to his disciples. Interesting, isn't it? The 3 synoptic gospels put Moses and Elijah with Jesus during his transfiguration (e.g., Mark 9: 2-8)
I must say, I see no rational objection to the main thrust of those 5 theses. They point to a major conflict between church doctrine and today's experienced realities.
We can discuss the theses about the Resurrection and Ascension together. Bishop Spong says without Easter there would be no Christianity. Historically, it is Christianity's raison d'etre. But none of the Bible accounts are reported by a personal eye witness. Furthermore, the accounts are not the same and even tend to contradict each other. One can't homogenize them like we do for the Christmas stories.
The earliest sources, Paul and Mark, do not attest to a resurrected and embodied Jesus. Scholars now agree that the last several verses of Mark (Mark 16: 9-20) were added to the original version. There was no post crucifixion appearance of a resurrected Jesus. Scribes apparently felt the need to fix a "deficiency". Indeed, Spong posits that the editorial addition of a resurrection story historically marks a misconception that corrupted the true meaning of Easter.
He opines that the "omission" may not have been a deficiency. The earliest Christians understood the resurrection not as a physical event but rather in a metaphysical sense. God raised Jesus to be part of what God is. In other words, the "seeing" of Jesus as resurrected was a "vision" but not in a physical sense as an act of seeing with the eyes. Rather it was an understanding about Jesus' essential nature as seen (i.e., understood) by the heart and mind. One can read the phrase "I see", for example, to mean the perception of a physical object, like a person. "I see", can also mean "I understand", or grasp, the meaning of an idea or concept. I believe it is in that latter sense that Spong "sees" the resurrection stories.
Spong claims the Ascension of Jesus is modeled on Elijah's dramatic ascension in which he rides a chariot into the heavens after vesting Elisha with his powers. Jesus ascends to the heavens but is one up on Elijah. He vests his powers not with a single person but with disciples in the form of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 8-11 & 2:1-18) at an event we call Pentecost.
The ancients conceived a 3-tiered universe with heavens above, the earth in the middle, and an underworld below. It is easy to understand how they could conceive an ascent into heaven and a descent into hell. But our concepts about the universe and the planets are much different today so the stories become untenable. Furthermore, there are other ancient ascension series. Among them are the stories of Hercules, the son of a mortal and a god, and Apollonius of Tanya an apparent competitor of Jesus (see B. Ehrman: "The New Testament", 2000, pages 17, 18). So, I'm not sure how to regard the ascension other than as an extension of the resurrection and in a manner similar to it.
Bishop Spong's thesis about Ethics opens by saying that the ancient codes (e.g., the Ten Commandments) must be abandoned in favor of "ethical relativity". His first example uses a football line backer swatting the behinds of linemen while exhorting them to tackle the opposing quarterback. But backside swatting parishioners kneeling at an alter rail would be deemed highly inappropriate. So we use different ethical standards in different circumstances - i.e., ethical relativity.
The Ten Commandments, in Spong's view, became an inflexible standard. A "decline in the cultural power attributed to the Commandments began in the twentieth century". He claims the Enlightenment eroded confidence in a supernatural deity making the Commandments less relevant. Spong speculates that perhaps there were just too many exceptions. So his church (Episcopal) eliminated reading them as part of its liturgical practice. It seems they caved to popular trends of the day as church leaders saw them.
The bishop also notes that customs and mores tend to change in a society. He argues that "moral absolutes could never be codified for all time". He goes on to list the Commandments finding a relativistic exception to each. For example, should one honor one's father and mother if they have been abusive? But he neglects overarching moral principles that should guide even changes to social custom.
Exodus, chapter 20, is the locus classicus for the Commandments. There are 4 worship related commandments and 6 ethical commandments. Bishop Spong correctly points out that the preceding chapters, Exodus 18 & 19, reveal how they came to be the law for Jewish people. They were not a "law of God" but rather were designed to meet real human needs. In other words, they were a social contract for very real people.
The work load of settling disputes among individual Jews was simply too much for one man - Moses. So they created a hierarchical system in which judges were trained to adjudicate issues for a manageable number of people using Moses' rules. Moses trained the judges. If an issue could not be resolved at that first level, it was referred to a next higher level (i.e., authority over 10, 50, 100, 1,000) until it reached the ultimate arbiter, Moses himself. See Exodus 18:18-26. The rules to be followed were said to have been given to Moses by God. The system resembles that used by the United States in which district court judges rule first followed by an appellate court that is superseded in turn by the Supreme Court. Witnesses take an oath on a Bible. But the Congress makes the law. The ultimate enforcer for the Jews was God (see Exodus 20:5-7). And He arranged an impressive display of power just to prove the point (Exodus 20:15-20). The courts and the police enforce US law.
So Spong holds that the Commandments are man-made, not God-given as Christians believe. They may have been relevant way back then but not now in a post-enlightenment world. Hence, he calls for "ethical relativism". More about that later.
The bishop does not say exactly what should guide ethical behavior in this post Enlightenment, relativistic world. He does suggest that the ethical system should be based on God's law of love, "if as we consistently assert", he says, "God is love".
He uses personal experience to develop his thesis about Prayer. The concept of a theistic god that intervenes in the events of the world has fallen of its own weight so prayer must take on a different meaning. He prayed for his stepdaughter who was a Marine combat helicopter pilot serving in Iraq. But there was no expectation of divine intervention. They prayed because "that is what love does" and it leads to a warming sense of connection, sharing, and commitment. I believe that the bishop would agree that praying is valuable, but it benefits the person who prays more than the persons for whom the prayer is offered.
The penultimate thesis is called "Life After Death". Only one thing is clear, "Heaven and hell as aspects of an old reward and punishment system must be discarded." The bishop has no concept of accountability. He sees the system as crude method of "behavior control". Transcendental concepts about some sort of existence after death of the body either have merit or they do not. But to see them simply as manipulation by the Church is to take a cynical view of one's own faith tradition. Perhaps the Bishop's claim reflects a perceived resistance to his idea of moral relativism.
Other than that, Bishop Spong seems quite uncertain. But he does believe in an afterlife of some sort. He seems to embrace the idea of a "oneness of life", a kinship with all living beings - the awareness of an inner self, a "collective unconsciousness" that binds us into being more than just finite. Perhaps this is similar to the Hindu concept of an essential self (atman) merging with the creator, Brahman, in perfect union like a drop of water merges with the sea. But ethical relativity plays no role in that system of thought. There is no "free lunch". It is not clear what the bishop means.
He does contemplate human evolution to a higher state of "infinite love and eternal life". But whatever that is, the concept of accountability, reward and punishment, plays no role. So, I suppose one could conclude that he does believe in a "free lunch."
He calls his last thesis is "Universalism". It is a "radical connectedness" "offering abundant life to all". Yet, we must also embrace "radical diversity" "Our liturgies must reflect those realities instead of simple nostalgia", says the author. That "oneness" was the meaning of the Pentecost, in Sponge's view, when the Holy Spirit was showered over the disciples. It was the meaning of Paul's admonition, "There can be neither Jew nor Greek ... for you are all one man in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28). You read it; you decide.
Comments: Observations & Reflections
Two theses deserve greater exploration. And I believe a fundamental New Testament principle is missing from the list.
First, Bishop Spong says God is defined by a concept called "Love". Yet he never says exactly what the word means. The idea is consistent with the Episcopal catechism but brings us no further than Rob Bell's claim that "Love Wins" (Bell, 2012). I am sure he does not mean the love of money or the whispers between kids in a car. It can't be like the love of a mother for her only child. Else cities would turn into a town of tears with each obituary.
While the Bishop does not tell us what he means by "love", there are well accepted concepts from other traditions. Buddhist, for example, have a concept called "loving kindness" or "loving friendliness". It is said to be a deep and genuine wish for the well being of all people, even one's enemies - but without emotional attachment. So a mother's child, family members, and the like don't count in this regard due to obvious emotional attachments. They even developed meditation methods to create and sustain such feelings and attitudes. Feelings of compassion and equanimity often follow.
The bishop could have used a number of transcendental models for God. The Lao Tzu says simply, "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name". "Tao" refers the principle underlying the ever changing universe.
Many notice that the Tao is similar "Logos", a prominent word in John's prologue, "In the beginning was the Word (Logos), ..., and the Word was God." The Greek philosopher Heraclitus' (ca 535 BCE) defined it. He claimed that listening to the Logos showed that all things are one. "And as a single unified thing there exists in us both life and death and the waking and the sleeping and young and old; ...because the former things have changed and are not the latter, and when those latter things change they become the former. God is day night, winter summer, war peace (i.e., all the opposites) ..." The idea could have been useful to the bishop given his ultimate conclusions about a "oneness".
The non-Canonical Gospel of Thomas says it this way, "... the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. ... Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there." (Sayings #3 & #77) Again, we see a unity of all things not just of humankind.
Finally, the Apocryphon of John, deemed heretical by the early church says, "I asked to know it (God), and he (Jesus) said to me, "It is a unitary principle of rule with nothing above it. It exists as god and parent of the entirety, the invisible One who is above everything, who exists as incorruption, which is the pure light into which no eye can look."
The text goes on describing this "first principal" as an immeasurable light that is both ineffable and eternal. It is interesting that the good bishop almost gets there in his Epilogue when he describes, "a sense reality and holiness" as the "infinite Other." But that is as far as he gets and in the end settles on the idea that God is love.
Second, the matter of ethics and the ten commandments requires discussion. Bishop Spong claims the commandments are relics of an ancient system that was conceived by humans - not God. So he proposes a moral system called "ethical relativism". It reflects philosophical ideas that right and wrong are not absolute; rather they are personalized according to individual circumstances. The concept can be used by societies to influence change in secular law, like promoting tolerance for other lifestyles. But it has harmful consequences for society if used for individuals because it justifies wrongdoing that damages the social fabric. Assault, stealing and lying are obvious examples.
The Ten Commandments apply to individual people (i.e., "You shall not ...) and was administered by judges as described in Exodus 18. The construct is similar to the administration of secular law in the US today. Spong sees the commandments as an inflexible set laws to be administered in robot like fashion - "moral absolutism". But the ancient Jewish system allowed for reasonable judgment by an appeals process just as we do today. The ten commandments should be considered principles or precepts that apply to a society instead of rigid "commandments" per se.
Advocating ethical relativism by which all actions are deemed morally equal is a prescription for social disaster. Life could quickly become "nasty, brutish, and short" as said by the social philosopher Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651) because people act in their own self interest without constraint. The only alternative to enforce order would be appeal to a king, emperor, or dictator - perhaps politicians - creating and using laws according to their own interests. There is no appeal to a more universal set of ethical principles. The real question is, What was the ethical quality of the transcendental principles underlying Mosaic "law?"
Unfortunately, philosophers provide no quick and easy answer. But the "utilitarian" philosophers and political scientists say that ethical norms should yield the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Evolutionary biologists combine utilitarian and Darwinian approaches. Neither view is either strictly absolute nor strictly relative. They both take a middle ground. Morality is a set of beliefs and social practices that promote the survival and harmony of a society and the people living in it. This appears to have both transcendent (e.g., concepts like a god or great philosopher) and an empiricist (i.e., survival in a Darwinian sense) qualities.
The issue then becomes the potential of those agreed upon principles, the "Commandments", to promote the greatest good for all of humanity. And here I review only the 6 ethical principles because we are considering ethics, not worship. History shows the ancient Jewish approach has preformed pretty well. Consider the following "Thou shall nots";
• Murder: Murder is a crime under US law. So are other less violent aggressive acts like assault. Many aggressive acts are not illegal but are condemned. The emotional root for murder is hate or aversion.
• Commit Adultery: Adultery is not illegal in the US these days. But it is grounds for divorce and it often leads to much conflict and suffering. Other sex oriented acts are illegal, like rape and gender directed abuse like spousal abuse. The emotional root can be either lust or hate.
• Steal: Robbery, fraud and the like are crimes. Lesser forms of taking things not freely given is, or should be, looked down upon. The emotional root is greed, avarice, desire - coveting.
• Bear false witness: This is called perjury if done under oath. But lying leads to lack of trust among people. Other verbal actions like gossip damage others even to the point of slander. The root is deception, a self-centered desire to deceive.
• Covet: There is no legal impediment here. But coveting is a mental antecedent to stealing and jealousy. The emotional root is again desire, greed.
The point is that those principals have endured for generations in societies as fundamental assumptions necessary to prevent life from becoming nasty, brutish, and short. It matters little that the ancient Jews cited their god as the source and the ultimate arbiter of compliance. Adding the affirmative commandment to honor father and mother to those prohibitions promotes family values. The worth of the system becomes clear. It makes little sense to abandon such universal principles in favor of a relativistic approach to morality. Indeed, one can preserve fidelity to a concept of God by simply claiming the Logos, an overarching first principle, instead of a theistic entity drove the ancient Jews to decide as they did. That was millennia ago. Times are different now as Spong says. But the (first) principles still apply.
The problem is that simply addressing overt behaviors, as civil law and the Commandments do, does not anticipate the psychological roots from which the behaviors arise. And those roots must be addressed if the full intent of the Commandments is to be realized. Relying on broad and diffuse concepts like "God is love" is no solution. Intentions informing overt actions must be understood and altered. And Jesus gave us a clue.
Finally, Jesus' New Covenant deserves discussion. It is the reason why his blood was shed, why he died, as said in the Eucharistic prayers of many churches. Jesus himself made the claim at the Last Supper according to all 3 synoptic gospels. For example, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." (Luke 22:20)
He also promised to "fulfill the law and the prophets" (Mt 5:17). That was during the Sermon on the Mount, after the Beatitudes and just before introducing his New Covenant. The claim appears to prefigure the introduction of a new ethical system based on the old one.
If there is a new covenant, there must be an old covenant. A covenant has the same meaning as an agreement, a contract or a testament. The Bible has an Old Testament and a New Testament; likewise an old covenant and a new one. The old covenant can be found at Exodus 20 where God opens his monologue by saying He freed the Jews from Egypt - his part of the deal. He then goes on to stipulate the Jews' part of the bargain, their obligation. There are 10 provisions the first 4 of which are worship related. The remaining 6 are ethical - the principles that govern relationships among the people. They are mostly (5/6) prohibitions.
The worship related provisions of the old covenant take up the most volume by verses, lines and words if not by number. Severe penalties for transgression are embedded in their midst (like "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation"). The six ethical provisions follow. The rest of the chapter demonstrates God's power to enforce his commandments.
How did Jesus fulfill the law with his New Covenant? We find a series of proclamations in the Sermon on the Mount that take the form, "You have heard that ... (old provision). But I say to you ... (Jesus' revision)." For example, about adultery we find, ".You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5: 27,28)
One can just see a lawyer editing an old contract making the changes necessary to a new agreement. In this case Jesus changed the moral model from that of an all powerful theistic enforcer to a matter of one's own intentions as they exist in the mind - or heart as we say. Intentions, of course, inform actions. Ethical actions follow wholesome intentions. Jesus understood.
He doubled down on the idea latter in Matthew (vv 15:10 et. seq.) by noting that the speech is not a matter of the mouth but of the heart. "(It is) not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man. ... what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander."
No civil law can enforce thoughts or intentions - and neither can a theistic God as the ancient Jews conceived It. Only individual people can monitor and modify the thoughts and intentions of their own mind; we are responsible. For example, some would teach that shame is a wholesome responses to intentions based on covetousness, hate, distain, ego, and so forth. Mental factors like fear of wrongdoing and shame counteract unwholesome impulses when they arise because their effect causes one to shrink away from wrongdoing. The unwholesome intentions are then replaced by thoughts of generosity, compassion, selflessness, equanimity, and loving kindness - the opposites.
Jesus added the instruction, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:34-38), to the traditional Jewish profession of faith, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6.4), when a Pharisee lawyer asked him about the commandments. Considering his New Covenant, perhaps it was just those wholesome thoughts and intentions Jesus had in mind.
Furthermore, we find very little in the New Testament Gospels about worship - unlike we what read in Exodus 20, for example. Jesus even worked on the Sabbath in violation of the fourth commandment as told in all 3 synoptic gospels (e.g., Mark 2:23-27 & 3:1-6).
The idea that ethics are rooted in the heart and can't be judged solely by overt behaviors was a radical teaching - not to mention de-emphasis of the worship rules. Those positions were very contrary to the interest of the Jewish temple cult. That may be why they arrested Jesus and took him to the Roman governor to be killed.
Jesus' New Covenant may well have been the first Luther-like reformation even though it happened long before Luther. So I am surprised to find no mention of it in this book.
Bishop Spong has identified a problem for his church - a symptom. He proceeds to find a reason why - a diagnosis. Next he considers theological and philosophical approaches he thinks might remedy the problem - a treatment. It is a sound approach. The symptom is clear; statistics reveal the problem. The diagnosis is well considered and defended. Much of liturgical practice, and many of the teachings that underlie it, are simply outdated. I do have reservations about his potential remedies.
It seems to me the bishop limited himself by restricting his thinking to the corners of canonized scripture. There is much to be found in the thought of early Christians deemed heretical by Rome. Similarly, there is no sin in considering the philosophies and practices of other traditions. To do otherwise is to take an ostrich like approach. Finally, he fails to consider the social utility of faith traditions for promoting peace, harmony and well-being. But present day church leaders are responsible for deciding a strategy - not Bishop Spong.
As to the five stars: The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, expatriated to Catholic France after the war, remarked that, "It is not only true that Christians need Jesus, but Jesus needs Christians for His energy to survive in this world" ("Living Buddha Living Christ", 1995, page 73). The monk is right. And the bishop has done his level best to keep Christ's energy alive by recognizing and diagnosing the problems. I wonder if ecclesiastical leadership will listen.
Top reviews from other countries
I couldn't put it down.
Traditionalists and Fundamentalists may find his thinking threatening or upsetting. I found it freeing and exhilarating, and also very challenging. We live in a world which in so many ways has lost its way. Here is an author who demonstrates that it is possible to have a living, vibrant faith which engages with the world and breaks down the barriers to find what unites us and what is entailed in becoming ever more whole and fully human.