Sometimes when I read a book, I wish that I could discuss it with someone. This is true of a book written by John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism. I read it a couple of years ago and I have been suggesting it to my book club ever since. Finally, it has been decided that Spong’s book be our next read. I am two chapters in and, already, I am seeing things I missed the first time through.
This is what is written about the author on the back cover of the book: “John Shelby Spong is the Episcopal bishop of Newark and is also author of Living in Sin?, This Hebrew Lord, Beyond Moralism, and other books.” Given a Bible for his 12th birthday with the instructions from his mother to read it every day, he began what one would call a love affair – love-hate affair might be a better way to put it. Once the Bible entered his life, it was meant to stay. He could never “ignore it, forget it, or walk away from it.” He said that from that time forward, he to “engage it, probe it, dissect it, transcend it. It is a volume that has been a source of genuine life for me.”
His engaging and dissecting led him to the path of biblical scholarship and one only has to read a small passage to know he has looked at the Bible from just about any angle possible.
This morning I read what he eventually came to see as problems with the Bible, or at least problems with what he had been taught about it. He cites first language problems. A simple one he shares is the translation of the passage that talks about the camel going through the eye of a needle. The Aramaic word for camel and the word for rope are almost identical, he says. He suggests that maybe what Jesus actually said was, “It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle…”. It is a more appropriate metaphor, he says, yet still possesses the power of the impossible.
He also wrote about differences in moral codes that we today would find repugnant. Examples Spong gave included the endorsement of behaviors outside the Hebrew clan including murder, theft, rape, dismemberment, and slavery. Even within their own community, violence was seen as God-directed, such as killing of children who disrespect their parents or the stoning of wives caught in adultery. When I read the examples I was struck by the similarity between divinely endorsed behaviors and what we are now witnessing in the actions of extremist groups in the Middle East. Those with roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition should be careful about pointing fingers…three are pointing the other way.
The New Testament is not exempt. “There are passages in the Gospels that portray Jesus …. as narrow-minded, vindictive, and even hypocritical.” Yet other passages present an opposite Jesus who exhorts people to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors.
I have been down the path of discovering the dark side of the Bible myself. I have read it several times and done a considerable amount of research. Yet, I notice that many people who vehemently defend the Bible as the literal Word of God have not actually read it from cover to cover. The Bible is not an easy read. Try trudging through Leviticus and Numbers and you will know what I mean.
The most significant point Spong makes is the effect of the violent and judgmental passages on societies since. We see the impact on women who are portrayed in the Bible as incompetent, weak, temptresses and on children who are said to have been born into sin and rebelliousness. Not only have the Scriptures been used to justify violence toward women and children, but throughout history it has been used to justify war, oppression, and genocide.
It all sounds so bleak, these early words by Bishop Spong. But I have, as I said, read the book before and I know that this man’s love for the scriptures as a source of spiritual guidance and inspiration will win out in the end. I would highly recommend the book. I would also recommend to people who profess that the Bible is the infallible and literal word of God to read it.