Reclaiming the Bible from Fundamentalists
While I have not read Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, I have read this recent article on Huffington Post discussing the concept. I think the article illustrates a fundamental flaw of modernity: you are either liberal of fundamentalist. There is no middle ground. There is no alternate interpretation. You either dismiss any factual truth of the Bible entirely or you take everything literally even if that takes ignoring any other form of reason.
The bulk of the article talks about how stupid literalists are in their interpretation of Scripture. I’ll split his critiques into two categories. The one category that I can find a little more valid is when he critiques the fundamentalist insistence that the Bible contains the exact literal dictated words of God (at least in their original transcripts). This idea of literal inerrancy is a new doctrine, only a couple of hundred years old, and I feel confident in saying it has never been held by the majority of the world’s Christians at any one point in time. I do not believe that the Bible is primarily about establishing precise literal historical fact. That’s a modernist concern, not an ancient Israelite or ancient Greek concern.
Where I do disagree with him is when he dismisses anything miraculous in Scripture simply because it is miraculous. After just ridiculing the modernist fundamentalist assumption that the Bible speaks in these objective literal ways, he now relies on the assumption that scientism – the philosophy that if it can’t be proved in a lab it is not true in any sense – can give these objective literal answers for everything. So obviously the so-called witnesses of the resurrection were just making it up and willing to do so to protect their story. Obviously the virgin birth didn’t happen, even though it is one of the oldest church dogmas, because virgins don’t give birth. (Personally, I don’t think the virgin birth really matters but I do generally accept it as literally true because of the weight of early tradition behind it).
I also disagree with his claim that there are no legitimate Christian scholars who do argue for these miracles. My New Testament professor was fairly liberal by most people’s judgements. He did great, honest, academic work. I remember when we discussed the historical Jesus in one class and he without flinching included those scholars such as N.T. Wright who believe in the miracles of Scripture and in the traditional claims about Jesus. I have no idea how you can read the works of those like Wright and then claim that he is just being dogmatic and not really examining the evidence. That’s not to say that you must agree with his conclusions, but to treat him as an illegitimate scholar is a massive stretch of disrespect from Spong.
Where does this come from? As I said in my introduction, a lot of it goes back to the false dichotomy of fundamentalism vs. liberalism. Because Spong rejects inerrancy, he therefore concludes that there is nothing true about it beyond being a good motivational story. At least that’s how the article presents his reasoning; perhaps he has actually wrestled with the various nuances of understandings between those two extremes but he doesn’t express them. I definitely think that the purpose of Scripture is fundamentally to enlist us to the cause of the Kingdom of God, not to satisfy modernist ideals of historical precision a few thousand years before they were established. I therefore join him in critiquing fundamentalist interpretations.
But I also wouldn’t even use phrases like “the Kingdom of God” if I didn’t think that a historical Jesus talked about it and embodied it most of all by his death and resurrection. I do think there’s room to argue on such things as the flood, but I agree with many Christians that if the resurrection did not happen, Christianity is meaningless. It’s the pinnacle of the entire narrative.
So with all due respect to Spong, I’m curious how many people will really benefit from his book. Fundamentalists will dismiss him as a heretic and not even read it. There are many good inspirational stories in the world, so by reducing the stories of Scripture to only that, does he cut out anything special about the Bible? I suppose many liberal Christians will enjoy it, but I don’t think they’ll really grow through it because they already agree with the general concept anyway. I think what we really need more of are those who are able to see the grand narrative of Scripture with its purpose of recruitment without dismissing any factual truth to its stories. Brian McLaren tends to fall in this category, as do Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo, and Rob Bell just to name a few. In my opinion, these authors are really wrestling with the issues, staying true to the history and to the message of the text far more so than Spong.