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John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile: A New Reformation of the Church's Faith and Practice. HarperSanFrancisco [sic]1998.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


In his great nineteenth century polemic Some Mistakes of Moses Colonel Ingersoll anticipated the day when ministers of the Christian denominations would be freed up to speak their minds.

They should no longer be chained and tied to confessions of faith, to mouldy books and musty creeds.... As we become more civilized, more and more liberty will be accorded to these men, until finally ministers will give their best and highest thoughts. The congregations will finally get tired of hearing about the patriarchs and saints, the miracles and wonders, and will insist upon knowing something about the men and women of our day, and the accomplishments and discoveries of our time.

That's Bishop Spong. And he has suffered exactly the reprisals Ingersoll predicted he would have to suffer: "the priests... will not allow the people to change; and when, after a time, the priests, having intellectually advanced, wish to take a step in the direction of progress, the people will not allow them to change. At first, the rabble are enslaved by the priests, and afterwards the rabble become the masters." Even so, in this fascinating page-turner of pastoral theology, Bishop Spong recounts the less-than-enthusiastic response his long years of liberalizing the faith have sometimes garnered. One shocking tale recalls how at the funeral of his first wife, as the bishop knelt in meditation by her casket, a little old church lady suddenly loomed over him and whacked him across the shoulders with her umbrella, spitting, "You son of a bitch!" As she left, she cackled how she'd been waiting to make her theological statement for years and was glad to have the chance at last!

But the vitriolic reactions have been more than outweighed by the gratitude borne by many who have found Bishop Spong's quest for a modern Christianity much to their souls' liking. Like Bultmann and Bishop Robinson before him, Spong has assured them that it is possible to retain Christian faith and yet think freely in the world of scientific modernity. But is it? In Why Christianity Must Change or Die, the bishop systematically dismantles the incredible creed of Christian traditionalism, with as little reverence as he admits it deserves. His proposed reformation is largely devoted to theological ground-clearing. His new Christianity is admittedly still vague and hard to see in the millennium-eve darkness. But Spong presents the basic ingredients of a recipe. It boils down to three main elements. First, he rejects theism in favor of a more philosophical Tillichian understanding of a divine Ground of Being. Second, he advocates Whiteheadian Process Theology (an impersonal but evolving God-analogue), which makes creative transformation the raison d'ętre of all existence. Third, the Christian brand name is to be secured by the retention of Jesus as role model.

None of this is particularly new; indeed it strikes me as ironic how Bishop Spong largely asks us to look not forward into the millennial future but rather backward into the textbook of the theological past. The Ground of Being notion is, as Tillich always readily admitted, no new idea but comes directly from medieval Christian mysticism and philosophy. The antiquity of the idea by no means counts against it. The problem in making it the foundation stone for a 2001 theological odyssey is rather the untenable metaphysics, the Logocentrism if you will. Isn't it the hypostatization fallacy to make an abstraction like "Being" into an ontological entity? ("Maam, the reason your boy's out setting fires and slashing tires is, he's got a case of Juvenile Delinquency!") Some might think the resulting essentialism incompatible with Process thought, which holds there is only becoming, never static being. You wouldn't expect to find "Ground of Being" talk in Process Theology, and one suspects the two appear cheek by jowl here because they both appear in the oeuvre of John A.T. Robinson (a revered mentor of Spong), the Ground of Being in the earlier Honest to God and Process Theology in the later In the Beginning God and The Human Face of God. But I suppose one can harmonize the two if one wishes by equating the divine ground with Whitehead's "primordial" nature of God as opposed to his "consequent" nature of God. (Or should the quote marks be around the word "God"?)

Ingersoll poked fun at those clergy who in his day sought to salvage the tale of Joshua stopping the "orbit" of the sun. They couldn't very well deny heliocentricity, so they claimed God altered the refractive index of the atmosphere in order to extend the daylight for Joshua's benefit! That way one might seem to save the appearances, though Ingersoll showed how implausible a dodge it was (still is--apologists still use it!). I want to suggest that what Bishop Spong and Tillich were doing with the conceptual legerdemain of Process thought and the Ground of Being is pretty much the same schtick. The thought of God's personality now sounds to them as crudely mythical as the earth-orbiting sun, but what they propose in its place is as much a verbal obfuscation as Joshua's Daylight Savings Time. 

The third strand in Spong's threefold cord is the most surprising, given his forthright advocacy of critical biblical scholarship in such books as his Liberating the Gospels. For in Why Christianity Must Change or Die he makes another move typical of earlier generations of ostensibly critical Anglican scholars: having demonstrated how thoroughly unbiographical, unhistorical, the gospels are, he goes on to treat them as if they were true likenesses of Jesus after all. The assumption seems to be that even though the material is all legendary, secondary, history spins only certain types of legends about certain types of people. So Jesus must have been the kind of person the gospel texts make him. This sort of conclusion renders the whole critical enterprise superfluous. But it is rather the conclusion that is superfluous, since one silently selects only those texts that fit one's theological agenda. Whence came all the other texts, like those which presuppose Jesus as a dogmatic megalomaniac boasting of his own divinity and damning his opponents to perdition? Why mustn't the historical Jesus have been like that? Fundamentalist apologists like N.T. Wright think he was, with justification equal to Spong's. It is surely an odd procedure first to deny the value of all the evidence and then to use it anyway. That is to treat the gospels like the Shroud of Turin: okay it's a forgery, but let's still think of Jesus as looking that way. But it is typical of "reasonable" Anglican biblical scholarship.

It is the bishop's goal, like that of Jesus in Mark 5:24-34, to stop the hemorrhaging, in this case, the mass exodus of Christians from the Good Ship Lollipop and into what Spong calls "the church alumni society." But one must needs ask why the bishop himself has not become Director of Alumni Affairs? It is not that he knows where his eucharistic bread is buttered, for no one can charge John Spong with not speaking his mind fearlessly. But is he perhaps a practitioner of what fellow Anglican priest Don Cupitt calls a theology of nostalgia? (And is not Cupitt himself another?) In a striking phrase, Cupitt says "traditional Christianity is our Old Testament," implying he himself is heralding, midwifing, a new Joachite Age of the Spirit, against which Christianity as we have known it must be regarded as a mere cocoon. Spong seems to share this assumption. But if so, then we ought not blind ourselves to the fact that for Christianity to change on such a scale, and for it to die--are one and the same thing. One may then piously keep vigil for its resurrection, but Cupitt and Spong are sophisticated enough to know resurrections do not happen. They are part of that outworn chrysalis. And yet I think we can speak of a kind of afterlife for Christianity. We need to seek after a different set of analogies. I will borrow a few from the world of television.

Christianity is already dead, or better, cancelled. But it lives on in syndication--reruns! And, stale as it is (how many Advent seasons can you pretend you are "preparing for Jesus' coming into the world"?), there will always be people who cannot seem to get enough of the same old episodes (read: gospel lectionary readings, Easter celebrations). They are like incurable fans of The Honeymooners and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. "Oh boy, it's the Chuckles the Clown episode!" In short, Christianity as Nick at Nite.        

But sometimes a canceled series is able to pass on some of its DNA to a spin-off. They canceled Mary Tyler Moore, but then Lou Grant premiered. They canceled Cheers, but now Frazier is going great guns. Christianity has this sort of afterlife (or, better, half-life) insofar as it has spun off successful series like Mormonism, Urantia, the Summit Lighthouse, and the Unification Church. Soon some of these may rival the best ratings of the original.

Other canceled series are not blessed to be thus reincarnated. Some shows survive only in the nominal sense that animal corpses provide carrion nutrient for jackals. Think of M*A*S*H. Okay, it did beget a spin-off, Trapper John. But the title character wasn't even played by the same actor. The real "survival" of M*A*S*H was in the form of a series of Xerox commercials where they reassembled the whole cast (aside from Alan Alda, who presumably had better gigs awaiting him) as a bunch of white-coated technos of some sort praising the merits of photocopiers. No sooner did Seinfeld cancel itself than one of its most hilarious characters, shyster-lawyer Jackie Childs, began appearing in the unlikely medium of minivan commercials. But where is the analogy to canceled Christianity in all of this? Dead as a religion, Christianity has bled its decaying mythemes into the intestines of popular culture, where the scraps of Norse and Greek mythology have long been assimilated into pop culture entertainments like Hercules movies and TV shows and Marvel Comics' The Mighty Thor. In fact, I dare say, thanks to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Norse thunder god has more devotees today than he did during the heyday of living Norse religion! Egyptian religion, too, hangs on in ghostly form in mummy movies and cartoons.

In precisely the same way, many Christian mythemes have made a triumphal entry into the world of pop entertainment. For those who prefer sentimentality, there is the cloying providentialism of Touched by an Angel and Highway to Heaven. The old myth of angelic "Watchers" who fell for the fetching charms of mortal women is reflected in modern fictions like the Nicholas Cage movie City of Angels and Christopher Walken's and Jennifer Beal's Prophecy II, not to mention the JLA comics miniseries "Paradise Lost," in which the guardian angel Zauriel abandons heavenly immortality out of love for his attractive mortal charge. The same JLA series makes brilliant use of straight biblical apocalyptic, when we behold the Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter, and Superman trading punches with gigantic angels with bull- and eagle-heads and bristling golden wings. Apocalyptic Armageddon provided the fuel for the late, lamented dramatic FOX series Millennium, as well as the effective Omen series and the Gnostic horror movie Prophecy. And needless to say, the central Christian myth of a suffering redeemer has not waited till now to spawn innumerable "Christ figures," from Billy Budd to the Silver Surfer.

Some popular fiction, like that of Shakespeare and Dickens, is eventually recognized as great literature, while other pop fictions form a museum of curiosities. Some of the examples just mentioned may one day be relegated to either category. But for my money, all of them have made attractive new use of the mythemes in question. Their assimilation to the form of superhero graphic art and fantasy film serves to defamiliarize them and to fire the imagination anew. The same myths and symbols had become moribund through the impossible demands of orthodox religion that we must believe them. To invoke the shade of Ingersoll one last time,

These myths, though false, are beautiful [or at least, we might say, fascinating], and have for many ages and in countless ways, enriched the heart and kindled thought. But if the world were taught that all these things are true and all inspired of God, and that eternal punishment will be the lot of him who dares deny or doubt, the sweetest myth of all the Fable World would lose its beauty, and become a scorned and hateful thing to every brave and thoughtful man.

This, I think, explains the defensive fear of many Unitarians and secularists in the face of myth. Similarly, liberal Christian apologists like Bishop Spong are, I think, misguided when they try to save their religion by ejecting from it the attendant myths. It is the religion which has perished, its stink well evident ("Him who has a nose, let him smell."). And it is the myths as myths that are worth saving. There is some confusion here as to which is the baby, which the bathwater.

Christianity is dead. But its myths may yet live. Like Southeast European republics that emerged, eyes blinking from the unaccustomed sunlight, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the biblical myths may find a new lease on life in the wake of the death of the religion that for so long conscripted them. 



Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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