In what he describes as his last book, John Shelby Spong concludes his writing career with a cumulative work that echoes many of the challenges he has suggested throughout his career in various forms. This particular work is a concise argument with regard to the fact that many of the doctrines, creeds, and theological ideas that the Church holds simply do not and, he would argue, cannot engage the modern mind – even the minds of Christians any longer.
He opens the book with a short summary of his writing career and then lays out some of the questions he seeks to address, “which cover everything from God to Christ to prayer to life after death.”
His opening point is that the church is dying. Christianity is dying. His conclusion as to why this is is that the church has become so inflexible that it holds to doctrine and dogma far more than it dedicates itself to the experience of God. He then sets out to examine some basic tenants of the Christian faith and argue that they don’t have to be dogmatic, they don’t have to be taken literally, and that if we can consider some of the terms of the Christian faith without the theological and traditional baggage attached to them, we might find that there is still a living faith to be found inside and, perhaps more importantly, through the Christian faith.
To that end, Spong does what he does best: he shakes the reader up with what might seem deliberately antagonistic, anti-religious sounding chapter titles. Even some of his writing sounds like well-rehearsed heated rhetoric, which is likely is, drawing from his own journey in the faith as well as his past writings and weekly column. His words are well practiced and, though troubling for some to read, have a sense of genuineness that is both charming and threatening.
He beings with a chapter titled Why Modern Men and Women Can No Longer Be Believers. It is of no surprise that Spong does not find readers from the more fundamentalist wings of the Christian faith.
To begin his book, Spong makes reference to the question of the authority of the Bible. “One learns quickly in such an environment [church] that claims for the “authority of the Bible” – filled, as that book is, with stories of an invasive, supernatural deity performing miracles – are ignored, and all attempts to define “the true faith,” or to pronounce anything that deviates from a traditional understanding to be “heresy,” is more a conversation-stopper than it is a way to dialogue.”
There is, he goes on to say, a desire for a real experience of God on the part of the faithful, but that the church is often not the place that provides that. There is also, he argues, “a game being played in contemporary church life where truth is suppressed in the name of unity.” His point here is that there are points, ideas, theologies, and historical understandings that are taught in seminary that, for the sake of the unity of the congregation (one might surmise) are not discussed with the general populace of the church. Why not? Because the education of the pastor and the faith of the congregation may be on two very, very different levels. Therefore the pastor, who might seek dialogue, can only keep silent for the sake of those who claim the “authority of the Bible” while not being completely aware of what that Bible does or does not say.
Spong then moves to “Stating the Problem.” To do this, he offers a short history of the reformation and explains that Luther, he believes, was seeking to enter into a debate about the church and suggesting reforms. However, these suggestions were not received as such and the debate turned into something unexpected and completely different. The reaction to Luther was anger, violence, and upheaval. Not the intention of Luther, but, as Spong is seeking to point out, it is the reaction of those entrenched in ideologies to react strongly against those who would state a different claim or challenge the authority of the status quo.
Spong is seeking, in some way, to make this last book his own 95 Thesis and challenge the rank and file Christians to seriously consider a top to bottom revisioning of the faith. This comes, Spong explains, from the fact that the amount of human knowledge that has accumulated since the time of the writing of the Bible has far outstripped some of the thinking that the Bible contains. From geology to astronomy, we know things about our universe that the Biblical writers simply could not. As such, we have to come to recognize that many of the ideas in scripture “rise out of a world that no longer exists.”
The question Spong asks is this: can the Christ experience be separated from the dying explanations of the past? To begin to answer that question, Spong states that there has to be a jettisoning of a tremendous amount of theological baggage. “People need to feel the dead weight of traditional theological claims before they can open themselves and their ancient words to new possibilities.”
Spong then lays out his 12 points of contention:
1. God – what does this word even mean?
2. Jesus the Christ – can we lose the idea of the incarnation?
3. Original Sin – a pre-Darwinian mythology that is post-Darwinian nonsense.
4. The Virgin Birth – we have to stop thinking of this as a literal possibility.
5. Miracles – not magic.
6. Atonement Theology – these (and there are more than one) are theologies that present a barbaric God and Jesus as a victim as well as turning us into guilt filled creatures.
7. Easter – what does it mean that God raised Jesus?
8. The Ascension – This assumes a three-tiered universe. Is there any other way to consider this idea?
9. Ethics – ancient codes can no longer hold weight. We must become situationalists.
10. Prayer – we need to think of it in terms of transcendence, not the means to get God to do something on our behalf.
11. Life after Death – must be explored as transcendence and love vs. the idea of a place.
12. Universalism – “Sacred tradition” must never provide a cover to justify discrimination.
Each “thesis” has its opening argument, followed, usually, by a chapter or two of arguments. The difficulty of the text is that some of these thesis questions are so interwoven with each other that his ideas aren’t always fully developed until later chapters, the best example being the section on “Original Sin” which necessarily has ties to the later thesis on “Atonement Theology.” In his work, dealing with one deals with the other.
In other chapters, his arguments are not as clearly articulated nor do they seem to be as well thought out. Some of them seem to be more filler than substance, though they are logical offshoots of his larger points.
John Shelby Spong is no stranger to controversy – either in addressing it or, in many instances, creating it. His outspokenness on issues of human sexuality and his willingness to radically redefine traditional elements of the Christian faith is nothing new. His most recent and, according to him, last book Unbelievable is something of a conclusion to his larger body of writings. In some ways, though, it would make a good introduction to his collected works. Like the letter to Ephesians which scholars believe was written by a disciple of Paul to introduce the collected epistles of the Apostle, Unbelievable is a concise work that provides a quick articulation of Spong’s theology, rationales, and conclusions to adapting the Christian faith for the modern world.
Spong has clearly come to believe in the conclusions he presents. As I have said, it is a good summation to his larger written works. If it were not, I would suggest that this book should have been a multi-volume tome in which he truly takes the ideas presented to task in a way that is not as quick or as simplistic as they are presented here. What one does find is that in this work, Spong takes for granted that the scientific arguments he puts forward are fact, are inescapable, and that religiosity has nothing to offer.
Granted, there are clearly places in the Bible that cannot be justified scientifically such as the sun being stilled in the sky in Joshua, the three-tiered universe, or even some of the miracles. However, their truth is as true as any story in which one finds direction or meaning. A person who pours over Shakespeare and finds that all of life can be encapsulated in the words of Hamlet or that the Tempest is a parable for living are not refuting the realities of the world, merely defining the world via a particular lens. So too is the work of religion. When religion becomes absolute, however, it is dangerous.
What Spong is arguing for is a non-theistic (perhaps a-theistic) religiosity. This is not new. It is, perhaps, one of the more succinct arguments for his point of view. Combining such ideologies as expressed by Tillich, Hans Küng, and Joseph Fletcher as well as some of the more radical views of Robert Price, though not going as far as he would, Marcus Borg, and Franklin and Shaw (The Case for Christian Humanism). Spong’s arguments are far more centralized and quickly accessible, but not necessarily original.
Spong is something of a signpost to other authors, though he does not always give them a name or point directly to them, which is a weakness. This book is a primer for so many other works and a digest of some heavy topics within the Christian academy. Spong could have used this book as a launching pad for discussion by offering bibliographies at the end of each chapter to point to books that have already discussed his points in depth should the reader wish to explore more. Instead, one gets the sense that Spong is attempting to pass his conclusions off as something new. They are not. They are, likely, summations of his larger and previous works. These works may have indeed provided the bibliography or suggestions for further readings. Unbelievable does not and is, therefore, a weaker work.
The writing style of this book has some flaws. There is a sense of delayed gratification with the opening chapters as Spong lays out the issues he will set out to tackle. He sets up more and more questions like a History Channel docu-series before a commercial break: “Could this be the proof of King David in Jerusalem? Does this tomb hold the bones of Jesus?” This may be, in part, because his Thesis 3-8 all, in some fashion, are extrapolations of Thesis 2. Thesis 3 is more fully answered in Thesis 6. This could have reduced his thesis from the Biblical number 12 down to 6 or less if he had pulled them all into tighter groupings.
What this leads to is a book that is unbalanced. Some of the works are strong and well thought out, but others, especially Thesis 5, 7-8 are lackluster, quick, and seem quickly thrown together. Some of these passages have great passion, especially his thesis on ethics. His arguments about prayer, life after death, and his conclusion therein are more personal (perhaps more pastoral) than scholarly. This is not to denigrate them, but to point out that there is passion here, but that doesn’t always make for a good argument. It is more his own personal conclusions than it is a reasoned-out articulation of an argument such as he offered in the passages about God or ethics.
Likewise, his quick nods to textual critical approaches to the Bible, Darwin, Freud, and the “irrationality” of some of the Christian doctrines are, it seems, expected to be enough to convince the reader. What we find is that Spong is writing from the point of view of someone who is already convinced of the merit of his argument, but does not, apparently, wish to share all of his work in reaching those conclusions. He couldn’t have done so and hoped to have created a popular best-seller. To that end, a book like James the Brother of Jesus by Robert Eisenman which clocks in at a massive 950+ pages is a profound work of scholarship with profound implications but not a page turner or a tome written for the New York Times booklist. Spong throws out only enough to give credence to his views, and hints that in some of his previous books, he took more time in formulating the arguments than he has for this one.
As for his opening argument, Spong was not attempting to provide a roadmap to a new Church. “I am not ready to surrender Christianity to a secular future. I am not willing to abandon the Christ experience, which I still find real, simply because the words traditionally used to describe that experience no longer translate meaningfully into the language of our day.” However, by the end of the book, one wonders just what Spong would consider a modern Christianity. Like some early critiques of Christianity during the time in which it was seeking to articulate itself within the bounds of Judaism, if what you suggest is a radical redefinition of the latter to explain the former, then you aren’t talking about the same thing anymore. Likewise, to say that you were a capitalist as defined by a communist reading, one has to conclude that you really weren’t a traditional capitalist at all.
Spong seems to want to have his cake and eat it too. To remove all that he suggests within his book is to so deplete the Church of traditions that there is little that remains to connect what is left with the ancient church at all. In his suggesting to be rid of supernaturalism, he throws out the ritual and liturgical uses of the Biblical texts. One need not accept them as literal – a claim Spong does make repeatedly. But one doesn’t have to excise them as Jefferson did to find meaning within them. Spong surely wouldn’t seek to remove the fantastic from Aesop’s fables because to do so removes the point. However, given this example, Spong would say that if we can read Aesop’s fables without feeling the need to take them literally, we can find meaning. Likewise, Spong is arguing, we can engage the Christian faith without the need for literalization or supernaturalism. Yet, as he tends to do, his recommendations are more of a carpet bomb approach than that of a scalpel.
In review, there are other books and authors that articulate similar ideas as that of Spong. None, it would seem, offer the radical push that Spong seeks, otherwise he would need not have written. Like the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke, “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you.” As such, it could be better.
Spong was intending to write a closing book to his career. This is it, though it could have been stronger. This feels more of an extended epilogue than it does a self-sustaining work. If one were to read it as a series of farewell sermons, on the other hand, then the book would be exceedingly provocative. As it is, it seems more of a pastoral musing on a series of theological arguments which are quickly indexed and should point to a larger reading list as well as a deeper appreciation of the fact that for many reading this, it will be something of a first exposure to ideas that have long circulated. However, given the style of Spong’s writing, it feels less like an introduction than a conclusion. “I decided that the time had come to put all those theses together in a primer – this book – and to invite a vigorous debate.”Perhaps that is how he intended it to be read.
 Spong p. 13.
 Ibid p. 4-5.
 Ibid p. 7.
 Ibid p. 25.
John Shelby Spong
San Francisco: HarperOne
John Shelby Spong
San Francisco: HarperOne