Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World"

John Shelby Spong's reputation rests (or should rest) not only on his achievement of having published over twenty books on religion and the Bible, but also on the fact that he has risen to high rank in his church (Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey for twenty-one years until his retirement) despite religious beliefs and attitudes toward the Bible that would have had him burned at the stake as a heretic only a few centuries ago. Even in our modern and supposedly more tolerant age, Bishop Spong has received eighteen death threats. All from Christians.

The present volume continues the themes of Spong's previous books. In his writings, he claims (and "re-claims" here) that 1) the Bible is a great and valuable book; 2) most Christians are quite ignorant about the Bible, confining their knowledge of it to their Sunday school stories and the passages frequently quoted in their pastor's sermons; 3) the Bible is not - and should not be considered as - the "Word of God"; 4) the Bible is mis-used when cited to justify injustice or cruelty, such as genocide, slavery, second-class status for women, or discrimination against homosexuals.

Title: Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World
Author: John Shelby Spong
Publisher: Harper One
Genre: Scripture analysis
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 414
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN10: n/a
ISBN13: 978-0-06-201128-2
Price: $28.99
Reviewed by Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters
Two things should be emphasized about this book and its author. Spong knows his Bible thoroughly, including not only what Christian folks study in their Wednesday night "Bible Study" but also what the many academic Bible scholars have been debating and concluding for over two centuries. And, secondly, Spong loves the Bible (at least as he interprets it), even though it is not, in his view, divinely inspired.

The bulk of this book consists of a careful examination of each book or group of books of the Bible, in the order in which they were originally written or compiled. Spong gives the reader an easy summary of the conclusions of modern scholarship as to the approximate date that each book was written, who the authors probably were (and Spong emphasizes that the author rarely was the person whose name has traditionally believed by the devout to be the author), and the political and social conditions under which the book was written. He gives a vivid picture of the history of the Israelites and early Christians, both political and religious, and shows how those events are reflected in the biblical writings - and, in many cases, it is clear that those events were the impetus for the writing.

Modern Old Testament scholarship is dominated by the adherents of what has been called variously the "Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis" or the "Documentary Hypothesis," and Spong explains carefully what that means and why he (and so many others) accept it as a generally accurate explanation of how these scriptures came to be. The result is that the reader, armed with this information, sees each scriptural book as though taken back in time, reading the book hot off the presses (or, more accurately, with the ink still not dry from the copyist's pen). The same methods of "higher criticism" have now also been applied to New Testament studies, and Spong relies heavily on that scholarship.

When Spong gets to the New Testament, he shows how our general ignorance (one perhaps should be kinder, and say "lack of knowledge," although Spong does not hesitate to call it "ignorance") has led centuries of Christians to misunderstand their scriptures. His treatment of Paul will upset many, even though Paul's writings (at least the authentic epistles by him, that clearly bear the mark of his style and his time) are among the most authentic and definitely the earliest we have of Christian scripture. Spong emphasizes that Paul gives us almost no details about the events of Jesus' life, and seems quite unfamiliar with Jesus' teachings, his parables, or even his miracles. Most upsetting to Christians will be Spong's attempt to deduce what Paul's affliction (his sin) was, since Paul mentions several times his struggles to overcome it. Spong guesses that Paul was homosexual.

He reminds us forcefully that the gospels cannot be taken as accurate history, and gives us the compelling reasons: they are not written by eye-witnesses; they are late; they contradict each other on important facts; the events are clearly retellings of Old Testament stories (and were intended as such, for a Jewish audience). And, most surprising of all, they were written to be used as commentary in the Jewish synagogues, for each of the important events in the Jewish liturgical year. Spong gives us an overview of the Jewish feasts and holidays, and shows how the stories as presented by the gospel writers (whoever they were - they were probably not the men whose names are traditionally associated with them) to correspond to those liturgical themes. Thus, the gospels are Jewish liturgical manuals, not history.

Conservative Christians, who view the Bible as the inspired Word of God, whether "inerrant" or admittedly containing a few unimportant scribal errors, will not like this book, even though they could learn much from it. Nor will Latter-day Saints, who will have even more difficulty with it, in spite of the Mormon belief that the Bible is the Word of God only " far as it is translated correctly." (Articles of Faith, 8) For Mormons, who accept the Book of Mormon as true, the idea of present biblical scholarship that the later chapters of Isaiah were not written until long after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (and thus after Lehi had left) make it difficult to explain how those chapters can be quoted extensively in the Book of Mormon, since they could not have been on the Brass Plates. Another problem for Mormons, as documented by Spong, is that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, which Jews call the "Torah" or the "five books of Moses") did not yet exist as the "five books" until after the Babylonian Captivity, long after Lehi had supposedly taken them with him on the Brass Plates when he left before the Captivity (1 Nephi 5:11).

When B. H. Roberts, official historian of the church and a
high-ranking church official, was confronted with such problems by a brash young student, he replied, "This shows that the scholars are obviously wrong!" Spong acknowledges mistranslations in the Bible, as claimed by Mormons, but it will be no consolation to Mormons that one of the errors has been repeated in the Book of Mormon ("virgin" for Hebrew "almah" at 2 Nephi 17:14 = Isaiah 7:14).

Nor will Mormons like Spong's discussion of prophets. Prophets play an important role in Mormon doctrine, as they did among the Israelites. But, according to Spong's analysis of Old Testament prophets, the Mormon idea is not biblical at all. Spong shows that the ancient prophets had no ecclesiastical or organizational authority. They held no office. They were not elected or appointed or subject to approval by the people. They were gadflies, whose power lay solely in the words that they felt compelled to utter. Spong names examples of modern prophets: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

But Spong apparently directs his book (implied by the title) not to the religious, but to those who have no religion, whether due to active rejection of religion or simply never having felt the need for religion. In this, unfortunately, I feel he fails. Why would a non-religious person, not looking to religion for answers to life's problems, turn to the Bible? And if that person should take Spong's book to explore the Bible as a guide to a better life, he will come away convinced by Spong's excellent scholarship and analysis that the Bible is so subject to misinterpretation, having such a long history as the justification for its believers' cruelties and injustices over the centuries (which Spong freely acknowledges), that one must wonder why the Bible should be so venerated as an authoritative guide. To put it another way: I think the title is misleading. A previous Spong book had a title which would have been more appropriate for this book: "Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism" (Harper One, 1992).

But for anyone who is willing to look with an open mind at what scholars have concluded about the Bible, this book is an excellent introduction. Spong has a talent for comparing ancient events and personages to our contemporary scene. He retells some of the well-known Bible stories in a modern, almost TV-script style, that brings them alive (although he does invent some details to make them more interesting).

The usefulness of the book is lessened by the complete lack of an index, and no index of scriptural citations. Footnotes are sparse, and are mostly references to source titles, like "See the bibliography." Yes, there is a large bibliography.