August 1, 2014

Jesus, Elvis & Bishop Spong

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.

11 Responses to Jesus, Elvis & Bishop Spong

  1. Jamie Delarosa says:

    Let’s not forget that Spong’s diocese saw its numbers decline by half while on his watch. I agree with him, Christianity must either change or die – he chose the left-wing side, which is dying.

  2. MarcusRegulus says:

    Alas, the numbers for the less “progressive” churches are beginning to go down also. Somewhere along the way, both (all) sides failed in catechesis. My personal opinion, worth what you paid for it, is all of the churches identified with too narrow a subculture, and with changing demographics, the subcultures are also changing/declining. Along with the churches which chose to anchor in those waters.
    Of all the “progressive” mouthpieces out there, I still find value in Bart Ehrman’s scholarship (but I Do wish he would stop trying to convince his inner adolescent Fundamentalist), Marcus Borg is a bore, and Spong is essentially dishonest for continuing to take money for an office he doesn’t believe in (how the Hell can one be an apostle of Christ if you don’t believe in his divinity?)
    Withal, the 21st Century is going to be interesting. Churches which have been used to controlling the culture are going to have to change (into something resembling truly embattled discipleship) or die. Not a “real” persecution, but more of being ignored for failure to speak beyond the concerns of the church leadership.
    In this regard, it has always been amusing to me the one Church science fiction writers portray as being viable a millennium hence is the Catholic Church, notorious for not modifying its doctrines to follow the winds of popularity. (The Quest For Saint Aquin, A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc.)

  3. elvischannel says:

    The church doesn’t continue onward; the church continues in stasis. Liberalism is what continues onward, which explains the dying of liberal Christianity. Continuing onward means eventually leaving liberal Christianity completely. That could mean turning Unitarian Universalist, turning New Atheist, or leaving all labels behind to become completely secular or establishing oneself as an individual church with a uniquely individual theology. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I need a liberal sanctuary in a red state. The UUA is thriving in red states for that reason. In blue states and in many western nations Unitarian Universalism isn’t even needed because the entire societies accept the UU Seven Principles and are in fact UU societies in themselves. The church will continue in stasis but shrink as secularism becomes the dominant cultural milieu–which it already is by some measures.

  4. Dan Leifker says:

    I disagree with much of Bishop’s Spong’s thinking, but I wouldn’t be so hard on him. He has asked a lot of really interesting questions over the years and forced a lot of people to re-examine their beliefs from unexpected perspectives. How the dust ultimately settles, of course, is hard to predict. But if current trends continue, many mainline denominations may be hollowed-out shells within 50 years, replaced by thousands of “micro-Christianities” anchored to local megachurches.

    • Carlos says:

      I’d say that is pretty much inevitable. If we have to go back meeting homes, that won’t be a bad thing either. The mainlines are just liberal dinosaurs, someone needs to certify them dead.

  5. Eric Lytle says:

    People under 50 probably aren’t familiar with the name James Pike, but he was the Spong of his generation, a very liberal Episcopal bishop who was a serial adulterer, alcoholic, chain smoker, pro-gay, pro-abortion, and dabbled in the occult in trying to contact his deceased son, believing his son’s ghost was rearranging his books and clothes. Ironically, one of Pike’s slogans was “fewer beliefs, more belief.” He got what he wanted – attention from the media. What he was called to do – build up the church and increase it – he was a total failure at. The Episcopalians seem to prefer bishops who will never hear God say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

  6. accelerator says:

    I don’t like him, but I would say Spong was very effective. Who now believes in “Living in Sin” (the title of one of his books) for example? And the population is pretty affirming of gay marriage as time progresses, less tolerant of “fundamentalists.” Meanwhile, the mainlines were not nearly as liberal as they have become, and his cause has been canonized in the official ECUSA. Things are more polarized today, and there are more Evangelicals, but the turf he sought to change — culture and the mainline — has indeed been changed. The sad thing is he always seemed pathetic, but by the profile of the current culture he appears to have been prophetic. He could easily be the President’s Bishop!

  7. Thomas says:

    Jesus only could have been anti-abortion and disapproved of homossexuality. That was the dominant mentality in Judaism of His time and its impossible to find any quotes in the Gospels to claim that Jesus would have approved of the death of unborn babies much less of immoral sexual behaviour.

  8. Citizen_Jerry says:

    St. John Chrysostom was right. The road to hell is paved with bishops’ skulls.

  9. Namyriah says:

    Spong dyes his hair…. sorry if that sounds superficial, but here’s this guy who spent his whole career trying to be theologically “hip” and “relevant,” and what did it get him? A little bit of notoriety among ex-Christians, people who left the churches while he himself hung on to collect his pension, making his living trashing Christianity. Pardon my bluntness, but I believe there is a special place in hell for clergy who commit their lives to destroying the religion that pays their salary.

  10. Cathy says:

    I went to church with Spong for a number of years, unfortunately. He is a total narcissist. Sure, he might ask what seem to be genuine questions but his problem is he has no ANSWERS. He makes it up. He is as clever as a fox. He knows how to bamboozle people with unchecked lunacy and intellectual fol-de-rol.Smoke and mirrors.He is not innocent, Okay? My favorite sermon was the one after a young woman died a tragic death and he said he couldn’t believe in a god who allowed this. Really? Please exit the pulpit and get lost. Sure, I pray for the guy but this is totally a farce, just like a lot of the present Episcopal church. The best I hope for is going to a church near me where at least I’m not offended every Sunday. Yes, he and his ilk did their best to hijack the plane for their own agenda.

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