Challenging the Bible
An interview with Bishop
By Ravi Dykema
The Bible is, arguably, the Western world's most widely read, frequently
quoted and generally venerated text. In religious circles, it is beyond
reproach. How, then, did a leader in the Episcopal church come to call
some of the Bible's teachings "toxic" and label the book itself "the
tribal story of a particular people... not the word of God"? John Shelby
Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, is a leading
and provocative spokesperson for a progressive and scholarly approach to
Christianity. Now considered the pre-eminent voice for liberal
Christianity, Spong began questioning some interpretations of the Bible
when he was only 14 years old.
"I was raised in a church in the South that taught that segregation was
condoned by the Bible, that women were second-class citizens, that it
was okay to hate Jews and people from other religions, that homosexuals
were mentally sick or morally depraved," Spong says. "As my
consciousness began to grow, I began to question whether these were
proper interpretations of the Bible."
Since his retirement in 2000, Spong has taught at Harvard University and
the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, has been a scholar in
residence at Christ Church, Oxford, and is a fellow of St. Deiniol's
Library in Wales. He is the author of 14 books, including Why
Christianity Must Change or Die (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), A New
Christianity for a New World (HarperCollins, 2002) and his newest, The
Sins of Scripture (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). Here, Spong speaks with
Nexus publisher Ravi Dykema about evolving interpretations of
Christianity, his experiences of God and prayer, and the book he wanted
to call "The Terrible Text of The Bible."RD: How did human beings come
to religion in the first place?
JSS: I think human beings are almost, by definition, religious people,
in the sense that we ask questions of meaning, we anticipate future
events, we deal with the issues of mortality from the first time we see
a dead bird as a little child. It's almost inevitable that we become
religious people. The question is, what kind of religion is it? Is it
life-giving? Or is it life-denying? So much organized religion, in my
opinion, ends up being life-denying.
RD: Are you speaking about any kind of organized religion, not just
JSS: I think I could make the case for any kind of organized religion,
but I'm not an expert in those, so let me narrow my focus to talk about
Christianity. The primary message of the Christian Church is that we
were born in sin and we need to be rescued; we cannot rescue ourselves,
so God comes to our rescue, pays the price of our sin and transforms us
through the death of Jesus.
Well, I've never met anybody who was helped by being told how wretched,
miserable and sinful they are. Yet that message permeates Christianity.
I think there's another way to tell the Jesus story. I don't see Jesus
as rescuing the fallen; I see Jesus as expanding the potential of life.
The primary reason the old idea of rescuing the fallen is no good is
that there never was a time when we fell from perfection into sin.
That's an ancient mythology that's been totally displaced by the idea
that we are an evolving people. We have evolved from single cells into
complexity, into the division between plant and animal, up until the
time when we finally came out of the sea and took up life on the dry
surface of the earth.
What makes you and me unique is that we have developed
self-consciousness to a fine degree, by which I mean we are aware of
ourselves as "selves," we are aware that we are separate from the
universe. We are fearful because the world is so vast and we are so
small. The powers of nature are so great, and our power is so inept. So,
in order to cope with the incredible anxiety that human
self-consciousness produced, I think we created God in our own image,
and then portrayed this God as having supernatural power that we didn't
have. Then we created a story: "If we praise you sufficiently, God, and
if we do what you want us to do and live the way you want us to live,
you will work for us, and then we will have your supernatural power that
will enable us to deal with the anxieties of life."
That's sort of the way the story has gone. But the time has come for us
to think of Christianity in a different way. Instead of thinking of God
entering human life from outside in the person of Jesus, we have to
begin to see human life evolving to the place where it opens itself into
an experience of divinity. I'd like to turn the whole Jesus story around
and look at it from a different vantage point, to consider that he was a
human being who achieved such promise of humanity that he entered into
what I think God is: mainly, the power of life, the power of love and
what Paul Tillich, a German theologian of the mid-twentieth century,
called "the ground of all being." As for the status of Western
Christianity, we are in a place where our task is to redefine the
primary symbols of our faith or tradition in a more human direction.
That's the thing I spend my time doing.
RD: Who is your audience?
JSS: My audience is made up of two groups of people. The first group
includes people whose roots are deep in the Christian faith, but for
whom the traditional symbols, as traditionally understood, no longer
make sense. The miraculous God, the supernatural God, the God who
controlled the weather, the God who sent sickness, the God who fights
wars and protects us, that God consciousness has been dying for about
600 years, and it's pretty much gone. That's why the mainline churches
are more or less dead. Some people hang on because they're confident
that there's something of God that's real, they want to be part of it,
and they don't know any other place to go except inside churches.
The other audience is the audience that has left. I call them the Church
Alumni Association, citizens of the secular city. They are a bit
nostalgic about this faith of their childhood, but they aren't really
interested in trotting it out or becoming involved with it again as it
is presently organized.
When I look back at the Christian faith, I see that we have had to
retranslate, almost reinvent ourselves a number of times. We were born
in a Jewish world, as part of a Jewish faith tradition. We had to
translate ourselves into the neo-Platonic thinking Greek world; that
took us about 400 years. Then, finally a man named Augustine, the Bishop
of Hippo, recast Christianity in terms of neo-Platonic thought. He was
the primary Christian theologian from about 400 to about 1300. Then what
happened in the Western world was that Plato ceased to be the way people
thought. Aristotle was rediscovered, and the modern, educated world
moved toward Aristotelian thinking.
RD: Could you translate that briefly for us=97Platonic versus Aristotelian
JSS: That's a good question, but it's a whole lecture in itself. Suffice
it to say that it's simply a way reality is perceived: Aristotle would
be much more scientific; Plato would be much more theoretical. This
shift occurred after a man named Thomas Aquinas arose from within the
ranks of the Christian church in the 13th century, and recast the
Christian faith so it became an Aristotelian, atomistic way of
understanding the symbols of the Christian story. That view lasted for
about 300 years.
Then the enlightenment began, and the Eastern thought began to flow in,
and people began to be much more complex, and modernity was born. The
Protestant reformation was an attempt to recast the Christian faith in
terms of the new learning of the 16th century, the enlightenment
learning. It was the first time that the Christian church did not have
the capacity to keep itself unified as it recast itself, so it split
into Protestant and Catholic traditions.
Now we've come to another point in our history. It's the 21st century,
and somebody has to rise from within this faith tradition and
retranslate it for the post-modern world. That world is made up of a
number of concepts=97for example, the Earth is not the center of the
universe, therefore, God is not a being who lives above the sky, who
splits the Red Sea from time to time, or creates a miracle, or whatever.
RD: Who or what is God to you?
JSS: I don't like to talk about it in those terms; it's impossible to
describe who or what God "is." Suppose you were a horse, and you were
asked to describe what a human being was like. You couldn't do it;
there's no way a horse can escape its horse-ness enough to be able to
imagine what it's like to be human. In the same way, there's no way a
human being can escape his or her human-ness to be able to imagine God.
We can talk about how we've experienced God, not what or who God is. I
experience God as the power of life, the power of love and the ground of
being. I don't say that's what God is; I say that's my experience of God.
RD: And what is your experience of prayer?
JSS: Some people think prayer is telling God what to do. I don't think
that's the case. I have a daughter in Iraq, and I pray every day because
I love her. Does that mean she won't get hit by a rocket or drive a
Humvee over a land mine? No, it doesn't. Some people think prayer stops
bullets or rockets or land mines. It doesn't. That's magic, that's not
God. Sometimes, you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If
you're really thinking prayer can stop rockets or bullets, you have to
ask why some people do get hit by rockets or bullets. Are they people
who no one prayed for? Are they people who God just didn't like? I don't
Prayer is not adult letters written to Santa Claus, and God is not some
parent-like figure up in the sky who's going to take care of us. Those
ideas must change. We have to start at ground zero and ask what it means
to have a real connection with God and what it means to pray. We have to
recast our whole understanding of God. We live on the other side of
Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Sigmund
Freud, Albert Einstein, Steven Hawking, a whole group of people who have
recast the way we think about reality. Darwin, for example, is the one
who made us face the fact that the primary way we tell the Christ story
doesn't work anymore.
RD: How is that?
JSS: There never was a time when we were created perfect and fell into
sin and needed to be rescued. We are evolving people; we are not fallen
people. We are not a little lower than the angels. We're a little higher
than the apes. It's a very different perspective.
RD: It appears to be the opposite of the vision of humans coming from a
perfect state: we're getting smarter and more conscious as we evolve, as
opposed to getting dumber or more sinful.
JSS: That's right. It's not going to be a straight upward progression,
but there's no doubt that consciousness is growing. Prejudices die
regularly in the Western world. We don't burn witches anymore. We've
almost gotten over our racism. We're fighting now with our homophobia.
We finally began to treat women equal to men. In fact, in 1724 the
Western world learned that women were co-creators of life=97that's when it
was discovered that women had an egg cell. Up until that time, the
general consensus was that men created life and planted it in the womb
of the woman.
RD: Was Christianity, to some extent, founded on that belief that men
were the ones who created life itself?
JSS: Yes. That's why the virgin birth never gets rid of the human
mother. The story only gets rid of the human father. So Jesus' life was
the life of God nurtured through the Virgin Mary. That's because the
virgin birth died as a literal story as soon as we discovered that women
had an egg cell. It's interesting to watch what the Roman church did
RD: How did church leaders rectify that?
JSS: In the 19th century, they developed the idea of the immaculate
conception of the blessed virgin, so that her egg cell could also be
divine. But it took them about 150 years to adapt to the new insight.
They're not too swift on things like that.
Now, if Mary has an egg cell, then Jesus gets 50 percent of his genetic
make up from his mother. And if his mother is a child of Adam, she, too,
is fallen=97so Jesus is not perfect. That's the way the argument went. The
church had to find a way to protect Jesus' perfection so that he could
do the work of salvation=97which, in their frame of reference, only God
could do, because God had to come into this world from outside this
world to rescue the fallen creation.
What we now need to see is that human life doesn't need to be rescued
from a fall that didn't happen. Human life needs to be empowered. We
have to begin to see the work of God as expanding the humanity of people
so that they do not have to relate to one another out of the survivor
mentality of fallen people.
People ask, "Does that mean you don't think human beings are capable of
evil?" Of course not. Human beings are hardwired by however many
millions or billions of years to orient toward their own survival.
That's why we're tribal people. That's why we're prejudiced people.
That's why we treat women as second-class citizens, that's why we are
homophobic, and that's why we make religion a weapon to prove we're
superior to other people. We are in a survival mentality, and that's
hard-wired into our humanity, because we are the winners of an
evolutionary struggle of millions and millions and millions of years.
The trouble is, the same thing that enabled us to survive evolution is
also going to kill us, because in the final analysis, if survival is the
primary motivation of every human being, then we will finally be in a
situation where might will make right and only one person will survive.
Those are the assets that got us through the evolutionary struggle, but
they haven't made us human. Our problem is not that we're fallen; our
problem is we haven't become human yet. The question is, what can make
us human, so that we can give life away and give love away and not be
grasping after trying to protect our own lives all the time? That's the
way I see the Jesus story, and I think it's a powerful and profound story.
RD: The Christian church, some would argue, imparts moral values and
virtues, and if those are accompanied by some beliefs that sit
uncomfortably with others, so what?
JSS: You need to identify the values that come out of that kind of
belief system, because I don't see them. All the polls I look at say,
for example, that adultery is committed as much in the Bible Belt as in
any other part of the country. The same goes for abortion, child abuse,
spouse abuse or murder. The Bible Belt, the religious South, is the
section of the country that practiced slavery until the war made them
give it up. They practiced segregation. They practiced lynchings. I
don't see any great value in that.
There are some great values in Christianity, but I think the values are
located more deeply in our humanity than they are in our religion. There
are certainly some survival values. If you're going to live in a
community, you have to refrain from killing one another and stealing
from one another. You must have honor and honesty in your dealings with
one another. But I think the deeper thing that we need to do is to
become so fully human that we don't grasp at life; we give life away. We
give love away. We give being away. That is the ultimate work of religion.
I see Christianity in very humanistic terms. I think the story of the
Christian faith is how you can become more deeply and fully human, not
how you can become religious. And I don't see any indication that being
religious makes you more moral. Look at the Roman Catholic Church. The
people they regard as the holiest have been guilty of rampant child
abuse. Is that moral?
RD: But the church might argue that the incidence of child abuse within
the priesthood is no greater than the incidence in the population in
general, and it's a consequence of being human.
JSS: I don't think that's accurate. I think they just covered it up. And
is it moral to consider women property, or hate homosexuals or blacks?
The 20th century was a turning point; it freed and emancipated women,
broke the back of segregation, and began the struggle to give justice to
gay and lesbian people. But the Christian church, in both Catholic and
Protestant forms, resisted every one of those humanizing developments.
The church was on the wrong side of all three of those fights.
RD: On the wrong side of desegregation?
JSS: Yes. Some people in the church, like Martin Luther King, Jr., came
out against segregation. But if you look at the bulk of organized
religion, you will discover that it endorsed slavery and quoted the
Bible to approve it; the Pope even owned slaves. I grew up in North
Carolina being told that the Bible approves slavery and segregation,
that it was the will of God.
RD: Was there a particular quote from the Bible that you heard as
JSS: I heard plenty. The Hebrew scriptures say it's okay to enslave
anybody except your fellow Jews. It says you should enslave only your
neighbors. I say to people that means Mexicans and Canadians are a bit
at risk if we want to be literal about the Bible.
The text that was used to support segregation in the South was out of
the Noahs' Ark story. After the flood, Noah drank too much wine and
passed out, naked. Ham, Noah's youngest son, and Ham's son, Canaan,
looked upon Noah in his drunken nakedness. As a result, Ham and Canaan
were condemned by God to a life of servitude because they looked at
Noah, rather than covering him up as the other two sons did. The
argument was that the descendants of Ham and Canaan were the
black-skinned people of the world, and that they were simply acting out
their punishment; that God had punished them through all eternity with
the role of second-class citizenship and segregation, because of this sin.
In another supporting argument for segregation, Paul addresses the
people in his epistle to the Colossians, and he tells them how to treat
their slaves. "Slaves, obey your masters. Masters, be kind to your
slaves." Paul was in favor of a kinder and gentler slavery; it never
occurred to him to raise the question about whether slavery itself was
immoral. His views were translated as, "Your rule is to be kind to black
people; you don't beat them." It's very much the way we treated women in
the 14th and 15th centuries. A woman was not human, and you should be
kind to your wife like you are to all dumb animals. That was the mentality.
I'm suggesting that it took the breakdown of organized religion and the
demolishment of the power of organized Christianity in the Western world
to finally realize the emancipation of women and give them the vote in
1920. Women couldn't even own property in their own names until the last
quarter of the 19th century in America. We didn't educate women, because
the leaders then didn't think they were educable. That changed when a
shortage of teachers developed, because men didn't get paid enough to
teach school. Then men, who held the positions of power, sent women to
Men didn't like to empty bedpans, so we made women nurses. Then men
didn't like to do the administrative stuff, so women were allowed to
become secretaries. That's the way they entered the work force. Then we
began to educate them because they had to be educated. But it wasn't
until after World War II that most of the great universities of this
country became coeducational. I'm the father of four daughters, and I'm
pretty sensitive about that.
RD: I'm still curious about this question we were discussing earlier: I
know some people believe that they are sinners, and that Jesus is the
son of God, that he died on a cross and has a divine capacity to forgive
them of their sins. Is that harmless, in your opinion? Or does holding a
belief such as this carry with it some difficulties?
JSS: I think Jesus is a fact of history. I think a man named Jesus of
Nazareth lived and was crucified. I think his death interpreted his life
in a fantastic way, because if you study that life carefully underneath
an overlay of theology and mythology, you'll find that the power of that
life was that he was constantly giving himself away. He was constantly
calling people to be all that they could be. I find it fascinating that
Paul, writing to the Galatians, responds to the question, "What does it
mean to live in Christ?" by saying, "There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
The Jesus experience expanded people into a position where they didn't
have to have defensive tribal lives, "God loves my people, my tribe, and
doesn't like yours." The Bible is full of such references. When Moses is
called to Egypt to set the people of God free, he does that by sending
plague after plague on the Egyptians and killing the first born of
Egyptian families and drowning the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. It's
not a very pleasant view of God if you happen to be Egyptian. In that
view, God hates everybody "we" hate.
But then the Christ experience, as articulated by Paul, suggested that
we don't have Jews and Greeks anymore. And Luke tells the story of
Pentecost in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. He says that when
the Holy Spirit fell upon the church, the result was that barriers
faded, and every person could go out and communicate in whatever
language they heard or understood. That's not a miracle story. That's an
expression of what it means to be lifted to a whole new level of being.
Look at what religion does today. In the name of God, terrorists killed
3,000 people in the World Trade Center. In the name of God, George Bush
sends armies into Iraq to kill people. In the name of God, Palestinians
kill Jews, Jews kill Palestinians, Catholics killed Protestants,
Protestants killed Catholics. Surely there's got to be something more to
God than that.
I think if you're convinced that you're evil, and that God has had to
rescue you, then the best you can be is grateful. But nobody ever loves
the person they have to be perpetually grateful to. That's just not the
way it works in humanity. You need to be set free. You need to be loved
just as you are so that you can become all that you can be. That's the
direction we have to turn the Christian message; when we do, it becomes
I look at American Christianity today and I'm almost in despair. I don't
want to be identified with it. The Christian vote in America is an
anti-abortion, anti-homosexual vote. I consider that to be anti-female
and anti-gay, and I don't want to be identified with a God who is
RD: Those two issues seem to me to pit a theocratic view of government,
one that would adopt policies consistent with a particular
interpretation of the Bible, against Western democracy, which idealizes
freedom, individual rights, and the pursuit of wisdom and understanding.
JSS: Well, there's one other interesting thing about Western democracy.
It didn't arrive at the end point that Karl Marx thought it would=97that
wealth would become more and more concentrated in the hands of the few,
that eventually the few would be killed by the many who were deprived,
and that a different kind of government would then develop. What
happened in Western democracy is that we began to understand that a
democratic system can't work if half of the people are starving and the
other half are dieting.
We began to temper Western democracy with what I'd call a social
contract. We put in Social Security, graduated income tax, workers'
compensation. We developed strong unions to negotiate with business
owners so workers got an equitable share of the profits. We have a
democracy within the bounds of a constitution which provides certain
guarantees related to the basic humanity of every person. I think that's
the best way to go. I think the worst way to go is to have somebody
think they speak for God. If you look at history, every nation that has
operated as if it spoke for God has become violently destructive. For
example, the Holy Roman Empire: they developed the Inquisition and
burned at the stake everybody who disagreed with them. They developed
the Crusades, which is still feeding the anti-Muslim mentality in our
RD: When I am confronted by someone who tells me that the wisdom and
understanding I've developed over a lifetime is simply wrong because it
contradicts what's written in the Bible, I feel offended.
JSS: Well, you ought to. The Bible was written between 3,000 and 2,000
years ago, and it's filled with the knowledge that people had in that
period of time, some of which you and I rejected long ago. The Bible
says that women are property, that homosexuals ought to be put to death,
that anybody who worships a false God ought to be executed, that a child
that talks back to his parents ought to be stoned at the gates of the
city. Those ideas are absurd.
Now, I treasure the Bible. I live in it and work on it all the time. But
it is not the word of God. It's the tribal story of a particular people,
and the best thing about that story is that the story keeps growing and
evolving. In my last book, The Sins of Scripture, I traced the
development of tribal religion, which included ideas like God's killing
the Egyptians because they hated the chosen people. Then a God of love
finally appears in the Book of Hosea, about the 8th century. A God of
justice appears in the Book of Amos in the late 8th century or early 7th
In the Book of Malachi, you begin to get a universal sense of God.
Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, says, "From the rising of
the sun to its setting, God's name shall be great among the Gentiles."
This encompasses the whole world. Suddenly it's not the Jews against the
Gentiles, or my tribe against your tribe. Later, in the person of Jesus,
you get the next step, when Jesus says love your enemies, bless those
who persecute you. That's a long way from "Let's go down and send
plagues on the Egyptians because they're holding the favorite people
Some parts of the Bible are dreadful. In fact, my working title for The
Sins of Scripture was "The Terrible Text of The Bible." And, you know,
The Sins of Scripture is an interesting title; most people don't put
sins and scripture together in the same title. It jars people.
RD: It's an oxymoron of sorts.
JSS: It is, and it isn't, because the Bible is full of dreadful things.
There's a Psalm that says "Happy will you be when you take your enemy's
children and dash their heads against the stones." Don't read that to me
on Sunday morning and say "This is the word of the Lord." It's like that
crazy man down in Alabama who wanted to put the Ten Commandments in his
courtroom. He didn't realize the Ten Commandments defined women as
"property." That would be an interesting basis of law. "You shall not
covet your neighbor's wife, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that
is your neighbor's." Your neighbor is clearly a male, and the woman, the
ox and the ass are property of the male. That's not morality I will
RD: But the basis of the judge's wish to display the Ten Commandments
was to exercise freedom of speech by public displays of religion. How
does that strike you?
JSS: I have no problem with anybody who wants to bear public witness to
their religion, but I don't think they can do it on public property.
They have to do it on private property. There's nothing unconstitutional
about that. If I want to put a Christmas tree in my yard, or three
crosses for the crucifixion story, that's fine. But if I try to use
public property or a public school as a way to impress my religion on
other people, I think that violates the constitution.
We live in a very pluralistic society today. There are Buddhists,
Hindus, Jews, atheists, Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and
Christians like me. There are a wide variety of religious expressions in
this country. I think they all must be treated with respect and none of
them must be given priority in the public arena. In the private arena,
you can do whatever you wish, and people do. These crazy evangelical
preachers get on the radio and TV and say incredible things.
RD: Such as?
JSS: Well, Pat Robertson said the feminist movement was just a bunch of
lesbians who wanted to leave their husbands and kill their children. I
quoted him in my last book. It's a fantastic statement. And Jerry
Falwell says, on Pat Robertson's program, that the reason we got
attacked on 9/11 is that we were accommodating the ACLU and abortion and
homosexuals and feminists in America, so God smacked us down.
RD: So Osama Bin Laden was an agent of God in that case?
JSS: That's what he's saying. I know Jerry fairly well, and he's
probably not bright enough to recognize all of the implications of what
RD: We're beset in our times by some large environmental issues:
pollution, global warming, overpopulation; the list goes on and on and
on. How do you see Christianity addressing this?
JSS: A whole section of the last book I wrote was on the environmental
crisis. And, again, we've used the Bible to justify it. The first
command given by God when Adam and Eve were pitched out of the Garden of
Eden in the Book of Genesis is, "Be fruitful and multiply, and subdue
the Earth." We've been trying to do that for a long time, and now the
Earth is fighting back. I'm not sure that we're going to survive as a
RD: Don't you think there's some hope for our survival in a re-awakening
of spirituality that mobilizes or empowers us?
JSS: Absolutely. Most of all, I think we have to recover our spiritual
nature. The way we have interpreted Christianity does not do that. I
want to see Christianity enhance our humanity instead of rescue us from
some fall. I don't want us to be depending on this supernatural God up
in the sky; I want us to recognize that God is part of who we are and
that we have to live out the meaning of God with other people. That
means we must live in mutual respect and interdependence; it means we
have to limit our own desires in order for the body politic to survive.
We're either going to be driven to a whole new sense of radical
interdependence where we are, in the Bible's words, our neighbor's
keeper, or destroy ourselves.
RD: And do you think Christianity is up to the task of transforming in
the way you're proposing?
JSS: I wish I knew. I know that Arnold Toynby, the great historian, said
he had always hoped the religions of the world would evolve until they
began to bring the very best of each tradition into one tradition. He
hoped that Christianity would be the one religion that finally
incorporated the values of Hinduism and Buddhism, and enriched itself
with them. But toward the end of his life, Toynby said the Christianity
he saw developing was brittle, imperialistic and incapable of reforming
And I still hope. I wouldn't be in this position if I didn't. I love the
church. I love the Bible. But I think we're in a time where we're
desperately in need of a great reformation.