Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

John Shelby Spong has been no stranger to social conflict and controversy as reflected in the Episcopal Church, in other churches, and in religion in general. His life experiences and extensive education alerted him to the irrationality and evils of racism and sexism and the exclusion of large portions of the population from spiritual expression through the Church. His love of the Church, the Bible, and the Gospels impelled him to seek reconciliation and inclusion for all people with a focus on growth through open study, questioning, education, and debate rather than a traditional acceptance and enforcement of Church doctrine and interpretation. Instead of rejecting the Church, he has sought to bring it into the modern world.

Born in 1931 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Spong was baptized and raised in the Episcopal tradition in the segregated South. He experienced as a child the operative assumption of the correctness of racism and sexism, “blissfully ignorant of evil” and profiting from it. He also recognized the Church’s discomfort with anything sexual and its connection to racial issues of the times. His mother’s Christmas gift of a King James Bible started a “lifetime love affair with the Bible” and a thirst for biblical knowledge. Influenced by priest and role model Robert Crandall, Spong determined that the priesthood was the only possible career for him.

Spong graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1952. By age twenty-one, he was married and a graduate student at the Virginia Theological Seminary. In 1955, he was ordained to the priesthood. In 1976, he became the eighth bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Numerous events in his young life would awaken his perceptions of the injustice of both racial and sexual prejudice. Although strongly committed to the Church and its precepts, Spong was influenced by a number of mentors, including Rector...

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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Spong’s Christianity challenges many traditional, literal interpretations of God as a father figure, residing somewhere “above” and meting out rewards and punishments according to one’s behavior or misbehavior. The development of the Christian creeds and the Trinitarian formula have undergone many revisions and interpretations, becoming convoluted and excluding those who do not conform. Spong sees the traditional Church as clinging to the idea that God’s truth can be fully revealed, reduced to prepositional statements, and subject to the Church’s complete possession. This, he states, is idolatry.

According to a literal scriptural interpretation, for example, sexual behavior is to be practiced only within legitimate marriage bonds, and only in a male-female relationship. Spong counters that sexuality is a gift from God, which, although it is not to be abused, is to be enjoyed and celebrated. Responsible sex can be seen as living in a partnered relationship that is faithful, monogamous, and intended by both partners to be lifelong; Spong applies this thinking to both heterosexuals and homosexuals. He also asserts that racial minorities and women must be seen as individuals worthy of ordination and consecration.

For Spong, God must be worshiped with the mind as well as the heart. People seek to hold onto faith but cannot deny their modern education. A religious dividing line falls between the ultraconservative religious right and the liberal wing of the Church. Conservatives are threatened by any questioning and reexamination of doctrine concerning the Trinity, prayer, the Virgin birth, the identity and persona of Jesus, and the Resurrection, and they meet any challenge with hostility. Spong points out, however, that a literal interpretation of the Bible allows no reconciliation of diverse individuals with the Church, leaving many without a spiritual basis for Christianity in their lives. He therefore challenges people to question and examine the Bible’s stories and to reconcile them with modern reality. Spong argues that conservatives talk only to each other, seeing those who disagree with them as mentally unbalanced, immature, or un-American. Spong also criticizes liberals, however, as weak, silent, and waffling when they do not stand up for their own ideals and beliefs. He terms spiritual seekers like himself as “believers in exile” who are faced with theological irrelevancy reinforced by underlying biblical ignorance.


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Robinson, John A. T. Honest to God. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1963. This book served as a keystone and turning point in Spong’s life by addressing and explaining the major issues in the Church that troubled him.

Spong, John Shelby. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Discusses alternative ways to view biblical material in a nonliteral context.

Spong, John Shelby. Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. San Francisco: Harper, 1998. If Christianity is to survive and be relevant in the modern world, it must respond to the needs of modern people.