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Spong’s positive and negative Christianity

By Steve Parker
Bishop John Shelby Spong visited Adelaide recently to deliver a series of three public lectures promoting his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious.
Spong is a controversial figure evoking enormous amounts of criticism
from the evangelical end of the theological spectrum, in particular. I
went along to hear all three of his public lectures to try to find out
what his essential message is for myself. Spong has a very negative
message about traditional Christianity and a positive* message about what he sees as the true meaning of the Christian message.
A “negative” message about traditional Christianity
makes the obvious point that we are now living in a different time to
those when the biblical books were penned. Whereas the first century
believers accepted a three tiered universe that stopped just above the
roof of the sky, we now know so much more about the universe and how it
works. Science has increased our understanding of the natural world to
such an extent that, according to Spong, the language used to express
the first century believers’ experience of God is outdated, irrelevant,
and unbelievable.
For Spong, we can no longer talk, for example,
of a virgin birth, a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus, or
miraculous healings. According to Spong, none of these beliefs make
sense to a modern person living with the knowledge we have of the world
and the universe. He also rejects the substitutionary model of the
atonement (that Christ died for humanity’s sins instead of humanity
Spong also believes that fundamentalist Christianity, in
particular, represents a narrow-minded belief system that is unwilling
to move forward in its understanding of the original meaning of
Christianity. He believes that Christian fundamentalism is exclusivist
and promotes racism, sexism, and homophobia. Much of Spong’s life has
been spent focusing on social justice issues around these themes. He is
a vocal defender of the equality of humanity, the right of women and
gay and lesbian people to serve as equals in the Christian Church, and
the acceptance of homosexual people within the church community as
living a legitimate lifestyle, consistent with their unchosen
orientation, in the context of loving relationships similar to
monogamous heterosexual relationships. He is highly respected by many
for his work in this area.
It is easy to see why Bishop Spong
has evoked such emotional outrage from fundamentalist Christians and
significant criticism from others. His teachings strike at the heart of
much that is held, by many Christians, to be essential in defining
Christianity. This is the “negative” side of Spong’s message. Spong
also has a “positive” message about what Christianity has to offer.
A “positive” message about the Christian message
constantly recurring theme in all of Spong’s lectures is that
Christianity, rightly understood, has an incredibly positive message
for society. Spong reassures his audiences that he is a committed
Christian, believes in God, and prays daily. Clearly, this language has
a specific meaning for Spong. For Spong, God is a presence which
suffuses the world. The God presence found its highest expression in
the life of Jesus Christ. For Spong, the life of Jesus provides the
clearest expression of God’s intentions for humanity:

  • to live life fully
  • to love wastefully
  • to be all that one can be

is a “mantra” for Spong that expresses the essence of the gospel. Every
one of his lectures finishes with the reiteration of these three
themes. And excellent themes they are!
Very few Christians, I
imagine, would disagree with these emphases. Unfortunately, for many
Christians, they are overshadowed by Spong’s “negative” message to such
an extent that they are not heard. And for those on the other end of
the theological spectrum, the “negative” message is so powerful for
them that the they wonder why bother with Christianity at all. They
would argue that you don’t need Christianity to assert the value of
living life fully, loving wastefully, and being all one can be.
(Following one of Spong’s lectures, I had a conversation with an
ex-Christian who made precisely that point.)
For traditional
Christians, the literal, historically embedded beliefs about Jesus
Christ (eg, the virgin birth, miracles, the resurrection) are
indispensable in defining Christianity as distinct from other
religions. Thoughtful and honest Christians can surely agree that new
forms of expressing the gospel of Jesus Christ need to be found for the
21st century. And they can surely agree that Jesus’ life shows humanity
what it means to live in the presence of God and be empowered, by the
Holy Spirit, to live fully, love wastefully, and become fully human.
many Christians will also want to argue that this can only be done by a
God who is able to work supernaturally – any lesser God is not enough
and, without such a God, Spong’s vision of living fully, loving
wastefully, and being all one can be will be an unfulfilled yearning –
a God-shaped hole in the human heart that only God can fill. There is a
challenge here for traditional Christianity: the Church, which is often
the worst advertisement for Christianity, needs to live out its good
news in everyday living so that God is, indeed, understood to be a
loving God of infinite mercy who accepts all and empowers them to live
fully, love wastefully, and be all that God intended them to be.
I am using the terms “negative” and “positive” to indicate that Spong
is critical of Christianity and yet wishes to affirm that Christianity
has a significant message for the modern world.
Steve Parker heads the Adelaide, Australia, Adventist Forum chapter and blogs at Thinking Christian where this report originally appeared.

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