Tag Archives: review

Ping Spong

The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love is Shelby Spong’s 2005 effort to deal with several problematic themes in the Bible. Divided into sections, each section contains several chapters dealing with:

  • The Bible and the Environment (Overpopulation and the Catholic imperative to procreate)
  • The Bible and Women (Misogyny in the Bible)
  • The Bible and Homosexuality
  • The Bible and Children
  • The Bible and Anti-Semitism
  • The Bible and Certainty
  • Reading Scripture as Epic History

Spong flip-flops on how to explain these problematic passages. Sometimes, he seems to say “We’ve been misinterpreting this all along”; with other passages, he seems to say, “Well, primitive times, backwards thinking.” But with certain core items, he simply disregards them as being unscientific and unable to teach us anything.

He deals with the major passages about homosexuality in the first manner. The command in Leviticus not to lie with another man as one would a woman has been misinterpreted throughout the millenia. What it means, Spong explains, is not to treat men in a subservient manner, not to treat a man like a woman. In explaining it this way, Spong is essentially saying, “This is not a homophobic text; it’s a misogynistic text!” Whew — what a relief. Apparently, the writer of Leviticus just meant “Don’t treat your lover as if he’s lower than you” or “Don’t treat him like a woman.”

The other method of dealing with troubling texts is to employ the “they didn’t know better; they were primitive people back then” argument. He does this with the misogynistic passages. He gives great detail about all the double standards in the Old and New Testament for women (women are ceremonially unclean longer when giving birth to girls; woman are not to hold positions of authority or even ask questions in church; when are to be sequestered when menstruating), and he seems simply to brush it aside by saying, “Well, we know God couldn’t be misogynistic, so these texts represent the times and culture they’re written in.”

Yet Spong occasionally dismisses whole episodes in the Bible because they simply can’t be true. For instance, the core of traditional Christianity is wrong:

Let me state this boldly and succinctly: Jesus did not die for your sins or my sins. That proclamation is theological nonsense. It only breeds more violence as we seek to justify the negativity that religious people dump on others because we can no longer carry its load. […]

We are not fallen, sinful people who deserve to be punished. We are frightened, insecure people who have achieved the enormous breakthrough into self-consciousness that marks no other creature that has yet emerged from the evolutionary cycle. (173, 4)

One reads this and thinks, “Well, what’s the point then.” The logical guess is that Spong will explain, “It’s not Jesus; it’s what he taught.” Yet many of the says of Jesus — particularly the “I am” statements in John — didn’t happen:

Of course, Jesus never literally said any of these things. For someone to wander around the Jewish state in the first century, announcing himself to be the bread of life, the resurrection or the light of the world would have brought out people in white coats with butterfly nets to take him away. (234)

There are so many problems with that that it’s difficult to know where to start. At the most basic level, this shows a profound ignorance of the nature of first century notions of mental health. We only have to look at other passages in the Bible to realize there were none. It was all attributable to demons and mystery. And there certainly wasn’t anything resembling a “funny farm,” even if we strip away the nineteenth century cliches of Spong’s metaphor. Unless Spong has some archeological evidence he’s keeping hidden, it just doesn’t have any credibility whatsoever.

If it almost seems like Spong rejects the existence of a personal God, it’s because he does.

Whoa! Spong doesn’t believe in a personal God, the kind of God that the monotheistic religions have been preaching for millenia? That’s fine — I don’t particularly believe in that God either, but what’s the point of rooting around in scripture to explain this or that when Spong doesn’t even believe in the God most theists hold to be, in one way or another, the author of that scripture?

That’s why reading this causes a certain sense of cognitive whiplash — and I’d assume it’s an experience common to most of his books. “We don’t have to throw out the Bible because of the homophobia that drips from its pages because those passages have been misunderstood for so long; but we do need to throw out the God who supposedly wrote the Bible because no one ever comes back from the dead.” Isn’t faith in that very thing the heart of Christianity?

Spong isn’t trying to revise Christianity as much as he’s attempting to create an entirely new religious system, one that puts all holy books on the same level as the Iliad or the Odyssey. I’m fine what that; that’s the level I put most holy books: instructive, but in no way more authoritative than any other book. But then to insist on calling oneself a Christian seems ridiculous.

And what’s the point of it all? No Christian who believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the actual existence of Adam and Eve, and the need to be saved from Original Sin is going to say, “Hey, Shelby — good point. I’m convinced.” The only people who will be convinced are fence-riders like Spong himself, people who want the cultural comforts of belonging to a religion without any of the bothersome necessities of believing in God, Jesus, etc.

Additionally, no atheist is going to be convinced. To non-theists, Shelby seems to be taking a Trans-Am, gutting it, moving the engine to the back, and turning it into a boat and yet insisting on calling it a Trans-Am. It’s not a Trans-Am, and Spong’s creation is not Christianity.

Spong hints at what he’s after:

Creation must now be seen as an unfinished process. God cannot accurately be portrayed as resting from divine labors which are unending. There was no original perfection from which human life could fall into sin. Life has always been evolving. The Psalmist was wrong: we were not created “a little lower than the angels” (Ps. 8:5, KJV). Rather, we have evolved into a status that we judge to be only a little higher than the ape’s.

This is a very different perspective. There is a vast contrast between the definition of being fallen creatures and that of being incomplete creatures. […] 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 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.

It is like an unstoppable waterfall. Baptism, understood as the sacramental act designed to wash from the newborn baby the stain of that original fall into sin, becomes inoperative. The Eucharist, developed as a liturgical attempt to reenact the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross that paid the price of our sinfulness, becomes empty of meaning. […]

The first step is found, I believe, in acknowledging our evolutionary origins and dispensing with any suggestion that sin, inadequacy and guilt are the definitions into which we are born. […] We might be a dead end in the evolutionary process, a creature like the dinosaur, destined for extinction. We might instead be the bridge to a brilliant future that none of us can yet imagine. (177-9)

Basically, Spong is talking more Arthur C. Clarke/2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else. Yet recall that the sequel, 2010, ends with a very Garden of Eden-esque situation:


Or maybe Spong has something else in mind. Maybe Spong doesn’t really know what he has in mind. Except that he’s a Christian, but only insofar as he reads the Bible and thinks Jesus was damn fine man (in as much as we can tell from his sayings, after we scrape away everything he obviously never said).

Spong calls himself a Christian, but it leaves me wondering what kind? It’s seems that, having been an Episcopal priest and bishop for so long, he simply can’t let go.

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Review: Letters Between a Catholic and an Evangelical

McCarthy admits up front, in his foreword, that both he and Waiss had one aim: to convert the other. That the book is published by an evangelical publishing house testifies to the fact that Waiss failed; that the book is not titled “Letters that Converted a Catholic Priest” testifies to the fact that McCarthy failed.

Who won the debate is more a question of readers’ preconceptions than anything else. Catholics will be unconvinced by McCathy’s arguments, and few Protestants will be moved by Waiss’s somewhat bland presentation.

Of the two, McCarthy is much more aggressive, and in many ways, much more rational. But there is a mystical element in Catholicism that doesn’t mix well with pure rationalism. Recall that after consecrating the host in Mass, priest speak of the “Great mystery of faith.”

At the heart of the book is the question of authority: both accept the Bible as an authority, but evangelicals stop there, where as Catholics see Tradition and the Church as on equal footing as the Bible, comprising together the Word of God. Much of the book, then, revolves around Waiss trying to show how the Church’s extra-Biblical notions (i.e., those not specifically detailed in the Bible, such as the papacy, Mary’s Immaculate Conception, etc.) are, in some way, Biblically based while McCarthy chips away at Waiss’s arguments. The tables turn from time to time, especially discussing “sola scriptura,” but by and large, it’s a game of “Prove it from the Bible.”

As such, McCarthy and Waiss toss one phrase (or a derivative) at each other quite often: “No where in the Bible do we find X.” McCarthy fills in the variable with Papal authority, Marian devotion, the importance of Tradition; Waiss replaces “X” with the notion of “sola scriptura,” the Trinity, and a couple of other ideas. With the exception of “sola scriptura,” Waiss’s contention seems to be that McCarthy and evangelicals are essentially “guilty” (my term, not his) of the same thing they accuse Catholics of: incorporation of extra-Biblical doctrines. Waiss could have pushed McCarthy a bit harder on this point, I think, for he doesn’t even mention a host of non-Biblical based notions that “sola scriptura” evangelicals accept: Sunday worship, non-observance of Jewish holidays (i.e., no where in the Bible does it explicitly say that followers of Jesus are to stop observing the Jewish festivals), Easter, and Christmas come to mind.

This shows the Protestant notion of wanting to have its theological cake and eat it, too. Protestantism accepts the early Church councils’ decisions about the New Testament canon, the proper day of Christian assembly, the appropriateness of celebrating Jesus’ birth and resurrection, but most denominations (especially evangelicals) are unwilling to accept the Catholic Church’s continuing authority. This is one of the paradoxes of the Protestant movement, which necessarily implies that the Church started off correctly, but somewhere got tangled up in a mess of legalism and false belief. Sadly, questions like “At which point?” and “Why would God let such a thing happen despite his promise to the contrary?” aren’t mention in the book. It leaves me feeling that Waiss pulled some of his punches.

On the other hand, McCarthy demolishes some Waiss’s arguments in support of Catholic theology. His handling of whether Jesus had half-brothers (i.e., whether Mary remained a virgin her whole life and whether “brothers” in the New Testament should be translated “cousins,” as the Church maintains) is well done, for example.

As I mentioned earlier, who won the debate depends on readers’ preconceptions. As a non-Christian skeptic, I found the debate to be a draw. This is because “Letters” is a debate about the tenants of a religion based on a self-contradictory book, a notion neither McCarthy nor Waiss would take into account. For example, is one saved by faith alone or by faith and works? It depends on where you look in the Bible. Did Saul/Paul’s traveling companions on the road to Damascus hear a voice or not? It depends on which chapter of Acts you read. Does the bread and wine become Jesus’ actual body? It depends on how you read a couple of different NT passages. With such a flawed starting position, a draw is the best outcome either participant could hope for.

When such contradictions arise, the great literal/figurative differentiation arises. Indeed, much of the book also seems to be an argument as to whether or not to interpret this or that passage literally or figurative, with each side accusing the other of taking the passage out of context.

On the other hand, it is refreshing to see debate that doesn’t often (though sometimes, to a slight degree) slip into personal insults. While many Protestants (and this almost always includes fundamentalists, and often includes evangelicals) think the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon and the Pope the Anti-Christ and many Catholics regard Protestants as heretics, McCarthy and Waiss keep things civil the whole time.

One final criticism: the length precluded truly in-depth discussion, and many of McCarthy’s and Waiss’s comments go unanswered.

Overall, I would say it’s an interesting read for the simple fact of seeing to opposing views clearly (though perhaps too succinctly) presented.

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Review: Christianity on Trial

I’m not sure whether the thesis of this book could best be summed up as, “Christianity isn’t all that bad” or “Christianity has made the world the wonderful place it is today.” That depends on whether you’re trying to summarize the intended or actual thesis.

This purports to be basically a book of Christian apology, in a sense: not defending the faith’s tenants, but defending the faith’s acts. It rightly points out that there is a lot of criticism directed toward Christianity that, were it directed toward any other religion, would be construed as bigotry. That’s true enough, and a fair criticism. On the other hand, the book seems to imply that the majority of contributions Christianity has made to civilization are positive – that the scales tip toward the good. That’s fine and good, but it doesn’t provide enough proof of that. We never get any idea if the people and groups in each chapter are exceptions to the rule, or the standard. I got the feeling that the authors didn’t know either, but were trying to pass them off as the latter.

This is particularly noticeable when we consider the two topics conspicuously missing from the book: Christian anti-Semitism and Christian misogyny. The environment, democracy, and science all rightly get chapters, but nary a word about misogyny, and only lip-service to anti-Semitism (“Okay, okay, Luther was anti-Semitic, but look at all the good things he did!”). The closest thing to mentioning misogyny, on the other hand, is perhaps a reference to the (to use their woefully inadequate understatement) “unfortunate” Salem witch trials.

On the whole, I remain unconvinced of Christianity’s virtues through the centuries. It’s a human institution, filled with the hatred, bigotry, and stupidity common to all people.

Still, it did make me realize that condemning the Apostle Paul for his views on slavery is to use an anachronistic morality to judge him. This is a common theme in the book, and somewhat rightly so. We can’t condemn society X for being cruel when it was no crueler than any other contemporary society, even if it is vastly more vicious than our own. We can comment on it, but it doesn’t make them immoral.

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