This month I want to report on two items that I have encountered over the course of the last month.
Contributions of John Spong
I have read a number of John Spong’s books and find his study and scholarship to be top notch. He asks the questions many of us have thought about and he has also done the work to research the answers to those questions. I just finished reading his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism and it is no exception.
Spong’s main idea is that fundamentalist notions of Biblical morality and biblical inerrancy fuel prejudice, misogyny, sexism and homophobia.
However, he goes on to point out this does not mean that the Bible is a lost cause. On the contrary the Bible is a dynamic document, dramatic and relevant for our time. However, if ownership of the Bible and for that matter Christianity is ceded to the fundamentalists then many will continue to see the document is irrelevant and antiquated for its time.
Rescuing the Bible is a matter of reconciling scientific breakthroughs with the context in which the Bible was written. Our understanding biblical context has grown greatly in the last 200 years as we learn more and more about the times of Jesus and those who wrote these documents; including what documents were chosen to be included in the Bible and how these documents came to be written.
To ignore this question means that we limit knowledge, religious understanding, insight into spiritual development to a definition written about in the first and second century. There are concepts in the Bible, religious and cultural traditions which are repugnant to us now. They are misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and racist. They support slavery, murder and other anachronistic anti-people social practices.
Backward concepts are supported through literalism and fundamentalism: concepts like menstruation being unclean and those with disabilities and being cursed by God
As Spong points out, “Womanhood is insulted in verse after verse of the Torah. At one point Moses expresses anger that the women were allowed to live (Num 31:15).
He points out further that these problems of literalism are not unique to what is called the Old Testament. There are a number of occasions when Jesus is portrayed as narrow-minded, vindictive and even hypocritical.
Taken literally, the Bible supports a god who picks sides amongst people, who is vengeful, nationalistic, cruel and sadistic. Literalism and fundamentalism promote the concept of a chosen people and therefore those who are unchosen.
Spong calls for genuine biblical scholarship: scholarship which examines the situational context of how these stories of the Bible and of Jesus came to be written. This scholarship requires us to recognize that there were many different authors of biblical passages which have varying descriptions of God as both omniscient and inept. A literal interpretation of the Bible presents us with many problems as Christians. It steeps us in ignorance and the narrow-mindedness of pre-scientific understandings. Those who insist on Literalism are pushing Christianity to the brink of extinction as a spiritual ideology. Our traditional patterns of thought have not been challenged enough.
Michael Blair – some straight talk
Second, I want to report on an excellent sermon provided by Michael Blair at a Toronto Southeast Presbytery meeting I attended recently. Michael is a senior United Church leader in our church and as a person of colour and a gay man he has a unique perspective on such church topics like inclusion, hospitality and equality. Michael’s words may be hard to hear but they are worth listening to. My notes from his talk are as follows:
Church began as a movement, driven by practicality, limited by resources, as opposed to as we are now, driven by fear of Catholicism shoring up the protestant fortress. We are challenged by the context of appreciating difference. The goodness of god’s creation is found in the differences we have. We are struck with a desire to conform - a sameness. We are afraid to embrace difference. An intercultural church acknowledges differences as opposed to looking for conformity. There are 3 things to consider. We need to have courageous conversations; conversations which are more about process than content; sacred conversations about race, gay and lesbian issues, inside the church. We need to realize that our missionary enterprises created these anti gay and lesbian views that we are hearing from those who have come here now as immigrants. We tend to pour buckets of water on anyone with any spark of evangelism and social justice. We need to deconstruct our language and re-understand our uses of worlds like hospitality, inclusive and equality. These bespeak of a host/ guest relationship where the guest doesn’t have to do anything. Similarly, inclusive suggests that we include the other. But who is the other? It is not a space about mutuality; that you have something to give me. Finally equality suggests we all start from the same place. We do not. We need equity, where everyone gets what they need. Third there is the necessity to seek first, to understand rather than to be understood. It is not us and the other but an understanding of how our differences enrich us. God is calling us to some place other than what we have contented ourselves with.
Jim McKibbin, AOTS (As One That Serves) Past President