"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Book Review: "Why Christianity Must Change or Die"

Not long ago, I read John Shelby Spong's Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile, in large part because a good friend of mine is quite a fan of Spong. I had not previously read anything of his, other than short excerpts or statements here and there. I knew him by reputation, of course, and so was wary, but it's never right to criticize someone without giving them a fair hearing, so I had mostly reserved judgment - until now.

Honestly, I had to force myself to finish it. It's not that I hate 'that heretic Spong'; I found in reading him that I could at least appreciate his forthright approach, and he certainly seems a bold and unconventional thinker. And it wasn't so much that I found his style irksome and overly wordy, although there was that (for example, the frequency with which, about every page or so, he begins or ends a thought with wording to the effect of 'but I must stress that this God is not the theistic, external God of traditional Christianity, because that God is unarguably dead, and all the outdated assumptions of theistic religion are simply no longer operable in our postmodern world').

No, the reason it was such a struggle for me to get through this book could be summed up in a statement of Karl Barth's: 'Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.' I discovered pretty quickly that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, for me to enter into a conversation with Spong, because the entire book is based on a premise with which I disagree (the aforementioned 'theisic God is dead' premise). The modern era has indeed issued challenges to many of the traditional doctrines and assumptions of the Christian faith, and the Church, in consequence, has changed significantly over the last two centuries. But I'm simply not convinced that these advances in human knowledge have rendered the historic, orthodox assertions of the Church to be entirely obsolete, and I don't think Spong did a very good job of presenting a convincing picture to the contrary. He mostly just mentioned a few major developments (e.g. Copernican revolution, Darwin's Origin of Species, etc.) and then proceeded to assume that "theism is no more." For example, Spong repeats numerous times his belief that our modern knowledge of the cosmic order has drained all significance from the incarnation, the ascension, the afterlife, etc. Here is an excerpt from page 205:
"There appears to be no place in our universe for heaven. It has been radically dislocated from its ancient spot just beyond the clouds. If heaven is no longer a locatable concept, then we have to recognize that neither is God, since heaven was God's abode."
This seems to me to be overly simplistic, to say the least. Not reason enough for me to throw out 2000 years of spiritual depth, experience, and development.

I would not, therefore, say that this book presented a challenge to my Christian faith, per se. However, as an individual who has grown up and found expression for that faith in the Anglican tradition, it did give me cause for concern (among other reasons) about the current and future state of the Episcopal Church. Spong was a long-time bishop of that church. As such, he took sacred vows, before God and the Church, to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" and "to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church" (from The Book of Common Prayer: Ordination of a Bishop). At his ordination, he publicly led all present in affirming the creed, the very words that he used in the opening of this book as a demonstration of how those very essential and foundational beliefs of the Church are no longer believable. Apart from what this may imply about Spong's character, the more pointed concern for me is what it says about the church that would elect and confirm him as bishop, and subsequently allow him to continue in that very influential office.

Ultimately, I guess I didn't enjoy this book because it was simply not written for me. I am not a "believer in exile." But I am also neither an ignorant, unthinking pew occupant, nor an angry, dishonest reactionary, fearful about my ability to maintain an unjust status quo institution. Unfortunately, those three types seemed to be the only ones conceivable to Spong in this book.


  1. Did you find yourself wanting to send him a note asking him to "man-up," renounce his orders and refuse his pension? I did.

    1. Ha! Well, it does seem to me that there is a degree of intellectual dishonesty on display here. I'm sure Spong, and others like him (and I must admit I do worry about the extent to which his views are shared by those within our church), would say that they are in fact being more honest than most by seriously facing up to their convictions. But if one finds he can no longer in good conscience recite the creed, than it seems to me that the honest thing to do would be to admit that one no longer considers oneself a Christian. A more appropriate title for the book would be 'Why Christianity Should Die and Be Replaced By Something Else', because what Spong advocates is clearly not the Christian faith, by any basic, objective, historically accurate definition of the word. And I certainly believe that words have meaning.