Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong used to be a big deal. In the 1980s he appeared on talk shows and wrote provocative books suggesting the Virgin Mary was impregnated by a Roman soldier, or Jesus’ body was torn apart by wild dogs instead of resurrecting. In later years he rejected “theism” altogether. Despite his clerical collar, he’s essentially a materialist who rejects the supernatural. For him Christianity is chiefly an instrument for socialization and political justice.
One of Spong’s books was “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” its thesis being that orthodox Christianity would be rejected by rising new generations, so the oldsters needed to get hip, like he had. But he was essentially peddling an already aged form of Protestant modernism that peaked 100 years ago. Unsurprisingly, during his 20 year reign over the New Jersey Episcopal Diocese, there was a 40 percent membership loss. Who really wants to go to church to hear that Jesus is not divine, didn’t rise from the dead, doesn’t forgive sins, and doesn’t offer eternal life?
Several years ago IRD Anglican staffer Jeff Walton, visiting a liberal Methodist seminary to hear Bishop Spong, joked he could find the event by simply following the old people. Even on a college campus, Spong’s audience was all white headed, probably mostly retired oldline Protestant clergy who still can’t figure out why their theology and churches had failed.
Anyway, I’ve subscribed to Spong’s weekly email for years but rarely read them, as he has very little new to say. But today I did ready, mildly enticed by the headline “Jesus and Elvis.” A questioner to Spong compares the Savior with the musician, saying he admires both but the fans of each “freak me out.” Despite claims by “fundamentalists,” he says the real Jesus was “anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer, never anti-gay, anti-abortion and never anti-premarital sex among other parameters.”
Spong chastises the questioner a bit, explaining that Jesus “called people to wholeness,” while Elvis was “hedonistic” and died fat, addicted to drugs and booze, revealing “pretty substantial differences.” But Spong admits both had “devoted followers and one could even say that the followers of both were unable to accept the reality of their heroes’ deaths.” Spong readily agrees that Jesus’ followers have been often quite wicked, a favorite theme of his own, but he points out that the church has at least “raised up within itself visionary voices that bear witness to unpopular truths that eventually have forced institutional change.” No doubt Spong has himself in mind but he modestly cites others like radical Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether and gay advocate Bishop Gene Robinson, another failed Episcopal bishop whose diocesan numbers plunged. In contrast, Spong notes the “followers of Elvis Presley have never raised up minority voices to purge and to purify their movement.” Good point!
Spong insists the “Bible asserts time and again that Christianity is called to be a minority movement, but always affecting the majority. We are told in the New Testament to be the leaven in the dough that causes the bread to rise, to be the salt in the soup that gives it flavor and to be the light in the darkness that will not be extinguished.” Spong says he’s a Christian despite the church’s sins because “minority Christian voices can and do purge institutional Christianity of its excesses and of its life-diminishing prejudices.”
Interesting that Spong cites the Bible and New Testament as definitive authorities for his views to which others should submit. Maybe he’s still rhetorically clinging to the southern “fundamentalism” of his youth that he’s expended decades mocking and disavowing. Spong sees himself and other enlightened voices as the prophetic minority witness within a large corrupt institution, the church, which has been largely failing to represent its Founder for virtually its whole history. But what higher truths above church and Bible credential Spong et al? He’s never really clear. Spong likes to cite “science” with the sneering confidence of a village atheist, but science says nothing about the moral imperatives of fighting racism and homophobia that are central to Spong’s career.
So Spong’s final authority is Spong and the kindred spirits, mostly all modernists, he finds along the way to echo his own views. It’s a narrow perspective, very captive to the here and now, and even then to a certain segment of politically correct, Western liberal opinion. But Spong soldiers onward, with fewer and fewer listeners. At least he’s remained resolutely consistent in his 35 years of scoffing critique of orthodox Christianity.
Of course, the church continues onward regardless of its scoffers. For that matter, although of less cosmic import, so do the followers of Elvis, who likely are as indifferent to Spong’s criticism as are the followers of Jesus.