Friday, December 23, 2005

Book Review: The Sins of Scripture

You don't often hear the word 'sin' applied to the Bible, but that is just what Bishop John Shelby Spong does with his new book entitled The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. The subtitle of Spong's book identifies his purpose in this provocative analysis of a number of passages of Scripture that Spong believes have led to various sins against people and the environment. Spong argues that, if the Bible is understood literally and given authority as the "Word of God" it inevitably leads to sexism, homophobia, child abuse, anti-semitism, dogmatic exclusivism, overpopulation, and a number of other environmental sins. Spong devotes separate chapters to these sins and explores the passages of Scripture that have often been used to justify them. For example, in his section on "The Bible and Women" he explores the the role that Genesis 2:18-23, 1 Corinthians 11:8-9, Leviticus 12:2, 5; 15:19-24 and similar passages have played in the oppression of women and the Christian church's well-entrenched attitude that women are inferior to men. He has an intriguing theory that, at the heart of sexism, is the male cultural fear of menstruation that began in Old Testament times. And Spong's discussion of anti-Semitism is very interesting. The Sins of Scripture provides a great deal that Christians need to consider and a good deal of Spong's analysis makes sense. There is no doubt that Scripture has been misread, misinterpreted, and abused by individuals and groups. However, Spong doesn't primarily appeal to these reasons for the "sins of Scripture". Instead, he argues that these "terrible texts" should be understood to be completely wrong - reflecting an ancient worldview that was misinformed about the truth. And herein lies the problem with Spong's book. On pages 176-177 of the book, Spong describes his overall agenda for Christianity - 'a true reformation' that will radically alter its fundamental nature by deconstructing it. Here is his vision for Christianity in his own words:

The deconstruction [of Christianity] begins with the dismissal of the story with which the Bible opens. It has already moved from being thought of as literal history to being viewed as interpretive myth. The next step is to dismiss it as not even an accurate interpreter of life. It is a bad myth, a false myth, a misleading myth. There never was a time, either literally or metaphorically, when there was a perfect and finished creation. That biblical idea is simply wrong. It is not even symbolically valid. It is an inaccurate idea that has helped to set the stage for the development of a guilt-producing, dependency-seeking neurotic religion. Nothing more! Whatever else we know about creation, we are now certain that it is an ongoing, evolving and sill-incomplete process. A further insight follows quickly from this: we can no longer properly conceive of God as resting from the divine labors of creation and pronouncing good all that God has made.

Since there was no perfect beginning, no Garden of Eden and no first man and woman who walked with God in perfect communion, there can also be no fall into sin and thus no act of disobedience that destroyed the perfection of God's world. These details cannot be true even as symbols. They constitute, rather, an inaccurate perception of human origins. We were created neither in the original goodness that Matthew Fox has proclaimed, nor in the original sin that has been established as the primary understanding of human life inside which the Christians have traditionally told their story, at least from Augustine on. Since these understandings are basic to the whole superstructure of Christian creeds, doctrine, dogma and theology, this realization means that they will all eventually come crashing down... Our humanity is not flawed by some real or mythical act of disobedience that resulted in our expulsion from some fanciful Garden of Eden. It is rather distorted by the unfinished nature of our humanity. The fact is we do not yet know what it means to be human, since that is a status we have not fully achieved. What human life needs, therefore, is to be called and empowered to enter a new being. We do not need some divine rescue accomplished by an invasive deity to lift us from a fall that never happened and to restore us to a status we have never possessed. The idea that Jesus had to pay the price of our sinfulness is an idea that is bankrupt. When that idea collapses, so do all of those violent, controlling and guilt-producing tactics that are so deeply part of traditional Christianity.

You get the idea... Spong wants to radically change the essential nature of Christianity. He wants to throw everything out and build a new religion from the ground up and call it Christianity. This overall agenda, which is evident in most of the books that Spong authors, overshadows his interpretation of the "terrible texts" he considers. Whereas other authors (not all) assume the inspiration and authority of the biblical text and demonstrate a similar conclusion to Spong's (that the Bible has often been used for evil throughout Christian history) they do so by pointing to the readers' misunderstandings, misapplications, and distortions of Scripture and the way that a correct reading of the text removes the justification for many of these "sins of Scripture". The fact that Spong wants to rip the heart out of Christianity means that many Christians will not even read his book. So he essentially ends up "preaching to the converted" - those that already believe what Spong does about Christianity. The very people who need to consider the sinful use made of Scripture - in particular, those who engage in a fundamentalist, literalistic reading of the text without considering issues such as cultural context - are the ones who will reject the good aspects of Spong's argument! For example, one of the reviewers on bought the book but decided, without finishing it, that it was a waste of money and "not for true Christians.' And Spong's poorly justified claims that Paul was gay and Jesus was married, for example, will turn many Christians away. There is no doubt that Spong's Sins of Scripture is a provocative read that has much of relevance to say to contemporary Christianity. However, his solution to the "sins of Scripture" is to change the essential nature of Christianity instead of changing the way that Christians read the text by promoting a more rigorous hermeneutic. Getting rid of Christianity as it now is may be one solution, but it is not going to be the solution for the majority of Christians. So Spong's book will essentially be one which highlights the problems but doesn't offer a practical solution. Another problem with The Sins of Scripture is that the other aim Spong had in mind is not adequately achieved. The subtitle of the book indicates that the author wants to "reveal the God of love". Spong deals with this in a somewhat cursory fashion and even suggests, at one point, that an in-depth treatment of the God of love will need to wait for another book. I have heard Spong speak on a number of occasions. His "mantra", which appears on p. 25 of this book, is that '[w]e are to build a world in which every person can live more fully, love more wastefully and be all that God intends for each person to be.' There is nothing wrong with these biblical aims for humanity. The problem with Spong's approach is that, despite his mention of God, he is looking for the human race to pull itself up by its bootstraps as it continues to evolve toward whatever we discover is actual human nature. So Spong wants to discard the biblical understanding of human nature on the presumption that we know better than the biblical authors, implement his own process for change, and hope we evolve to the place where 'we will oppose everything that diminishes the life of a single human being, whether it is race, ethnicity, tribe, gender, sexual orientation or religion itself.' The very best of Christianity has demonstrated that genuine equality is at the heart of the Christian gospel. It has also acknowledged the "sins of Scripture" outlined by Spong. But, in my view, Christians must reject Spong's solution to the problem and, rather than discard the inspiration and authority of Scripture, we must draw a sharp distinction between Scripture and our interpretation of Scripture (something fundamentalism fails to do and, ironically, Spong also fails to do). By humbly acknowledging the fact that Christianity has often perpetrated great evil on others by its misreading of Scripture and by ruthlessly returning to the heart of the gospel - God's persistent love of God's creation - change will certainly take place. To do that, however, humanity needs the God of Scripture who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, and all-wise to empower humanity to achieve God's vision of a redeemed creation. So read Spong's book. Just make sure you grab on to the baby as it flies past you with the bath water that Spong wants to discard. Related Links

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