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Spong’s Errors in the Name of God

28th August 2005

The Globe and Mail has published a review of John Shelby Spong’s latest book, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). The review, entitled “Errors in the Name of God,” is quite positive about the book (to say the least), though it should be noted that the review was by a “lapsed Catholic neo-Taoist sensualist” (huh?). I have note read the book, but from what I can glean from the review it looks like it will be just as controversial — and as misinformed — as Spong’s other works. Here are some excerpts from the review:

Error in the name of God

By ANTONELLA GAMBOTTO

If John Shelby Spong knows fear, he never shows it. Foaming evangelical detractors depict him as a sly Mephistophelean backslider, alleging bad faith and wicked tricks — omission, distortion — but he holds firm. Spong, the bestselling author of Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism and an intellectually ferocious retired Episcopal bishop (of Newark, N.J.), celebrates expansion and diversity within the church, rejecting prejudice, murder and punitive stupidity in the name of God.

His latest book is simply spectacular. A scholarly expose of the Bible’s fatal ideological and factual errors, The Sins of Scripture not only challenges injustices excused by fundamentalists as the “mysterious” ways of God, but presents the blueprint for a far more accurate and honest Christianity.

“I believe now that these insights would have come to me even sooner had I not been what the Bible seems to regard as a privileged person,” he writes. “I do not refer to my social or economic status, which was modest to say the least, but to the fact that I was white, male, heterosexual and Christian. The Bible affirmed, or so I was taught, the value in each of these privileged designations.”

The philosophically primitive rigidity of dead white males aside, how is it possible for the Bible to be considered the “Word of God” when it consists of 66 books (more if you count the Apocrypha) written over the course of more than 1,000 years? Spong asks: “Can such a claim stand even the barest scrutiny?” At a loss as to how God can be saddled with the motivations of authors warped by the “tribal and sexist prejudices of that ancient time,” he is left no choice but to enter the ring swinging.

The errors in translation and interpretation revealed by Spong call for a complete restructuring of the Christian faith. Matthew, whom he accuses of manipulation by tearing stories from their Hebrew context, “bases his virgin birth story, for example, on Isaiah 7:14. Yet he translates that text to read that a virgin shall conceive (see Matt. 1:23) when the text in Isaiah not only does not use the word ‘virgin’ but says that a young woman is with child.” This pregnant “virgin” promptly became “the ideal woman against which all women were to be measured. . . . Since it is quite impossible in the normal course of events for a woman to be both a virgin and a mother, every other woman was immediately, by definition, assumed to be less than the ideal.”

With a trial lawyer’s acuity, Spong follows the evolution of the “virgin” myth throughout history. Mary first became a virgin mother in the ninth decade, when Matthew, and then Luke, promoted the grotesquely tabloid concept. Entering the creeds in the third and fourth centuries, it became the “chief bulwark in the battles that engaged the church in later centuries as that body sought to define the divinity of Jesus.”

In short, the Western Catholic tradition could not glorify a woman unless she had been both desexed and dehumanized — that is, debased.

Spong’s primary — and most devastating — charge is that Christian evangelists have made an idol of the Bible itself, worshipping the Word of God above God. “Religion has so often been the source of the cruellest evil,” he elaborates. “Its darkest and most brutal side becomes visible at the moment when the adherents of any religious system identify their understanding of God with God.” It’s an infinitely elegant distinction, and one with serious repercussions. “[W]hen one is ‘born again,’ one is newly a child. It represents a second return to a state of chronic dependency. Perhaps what we specifically need is not to be ‘born again,’ but to grow up and become mature adults.”

The Sins of Scripture should not only be read by all those who consider themselves Christians, but also by those whose lives have been deformed or lessened by the word of anti-Semites, homophobes and misogynists masquerading as mouthpieces of God.

From this review it appears that Spong is primarily taking potshots at texts and issues that are rather complex (e.g., the use of the LXX instead of the MT in Matthew’s virgin birth narrative). Since I haven’t read it, I should refrain from further comment. At the very least it would be good to see some serious reviews of this book, rather than the popular and very un-critical review that the Globe and Mail published.

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