Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

A review of the latest book from former Bishop John Shelby Spong.

For nearly four decades John Shelby Spong has played the role of a priestly provocateur, attempting to undercut “literalist” readings of the Bible in an effort to salvage Scripture for modern contexts. This book is no exception, and in many respects it represents a culmination of his task, because Spong here attempts to say something (however brief) about each and every book of the Bible. More specifically, his particular aim is to teach the Bible “to laypeople in the same way it is taught in academic centers”, believing that competent biblical scholarship both undercuts traditional religion and enlivens a new consciousness towards God.

From the outset it is important to acknowledge that there are many things which can be appreciated in Spong’s work. His concern to situate the Bible in its historical and cultural context is one I share, and his willingness to ask hard questions of the Christian tradition is noble and right. In some cases, Spong knows his facts and adequately demonstrates the illumination that critical scholarship can bring. And I, too, am happy to join him in demythologising the traditional Christmas pageant, with its crude conflation of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.

Where the book primarily falls down is its failure to be true to its own aims. Spong claims that he is harvesting the insights of contemporary scholarship. Perhaps for his next book, he might like to read some. This retired bishop of Newark appears to have stopped reading biblical scholarship when Ronald Reagan left the White House. The evidence is stark: Re-Claiming the Bible ends with a bibliography, which I assume is representative rather than exhaustive. Nevertheless, in a list of more than 60 books (excluding Spong’s) only 11 were authored in the last twenty years, and at least 6 of those 11 were not even written by biblical scholars.

This deficient reading list at least helps to explain some of the stranger moments in Reclaiming the Bible, such as when Spong confesses that he knows of no major scholarly work on Jeremiah. No major scholarly work? Five minutes at a library catalogue would have easily turned up Jack Lundbom’s three volume Anchor Bible commentary, or Walter Brueggemann’s many volumes—to name only two—but perhaps the point is that Spong just hasn’t been to the library lately.

Not only has Spong not read enough contemporary scholarship, what he does choose to read is narrow in its scope. Spong’s area of expertise is the Gospels, which he claims belong to the genre of Jewish liturgy rather than history, imaginative fiction rather than factual narrative. The way Spong represents it one could be forgiven for thinking this is the mainstream, consensus view of the academy. In reality, it is heavily based on the work of one scholar, Michael Goulder, and Goulder’s arguments have definitely not won the day. On the contrary, if there is anything approaching a consensus in scholarship today it is that the Gospels are ancient biographies, a genre which was normally expected to deal in historical facts.

But the narrowness of Spong’s reading is seemingly deliberate, an outgrowth of his binary categorisation of Bible readers. On the one hand, there are informed people like himself, who know the incontrovertible truth that much of the Bible is false, and the good parts which remain must be treated ahistorically. On the other hand there are the ignorant and uninformed, fundamentalists who think the Bible magically dropped from heaven. This is simply a false dichotomy, an attempt to obscure from view the thousands of scholars who sit happily between those extremes, many of them participants in both the ‘traditional’ church and the ‘critical’ academy.

It is these scholars, like James Dunn, John P. Meier, N. T. Wright, and Richard Bauckham, which Spong simply refuses to read. To be sure, in any church one will be able to find a simplistic acolyte who has a poorly formed basis for their belief, but the same problem recurs in any social and intellectual movement. Did every Democrat who voted for Obama have a good reason for doing so? Is every Greenpeace member competent in environmental science? The presence of naïve belief on the part of some does not thereby render the whole spurious. In a similar fashion to Bill Maher in his documentary Religulous, Spong feels the need to look smart by making his debating partner a straw man.

Perhaps the final comment to make is to question the value of Spong’s entire project. Following in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, Spong seeks to edit out those portions of the Bible he finds difficult and distasteful, because they do not accord with his modern sensitivities and progressive values. So Nahum and Habakkuk are out, as is 1 Timothy, whilst Revelation is not even worthy of study. But what is evidenced in all of this is that the Bible does not so much contribute to Spong’s worldview as it functions to endorse it.

Yet what has transfixed believers for generations about the Bible is the belief that through it humanity is able to ‘hear the voice of a God’ who stands outside of us and above us, a voice calling us beyond ourselves with our limitations and fallibility. If the Bible is only useful because it backs up what we’ve figured out for ourselves, there appears little need to reclaim it?

Mark Stephens is a Lecturer in Biblical Studies, at Wesley Institute, and is a Fellow of CPX.