Book Review: The Sins of Scripture
Retired Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong once again takes up the fight against simplistic fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, examining and deconstructing what he calls its “texts of terror,” which are used to marginalize, abuse and exploit women, gays and Jews, among others.
Starting with an account of his “love affair” with the Bible and how his understanding of it evolved, he concludes that as much as he loves it, he cannot believe that it is literally the “Word of God.” There is too much in it that is problematic or out-and-out repulsive and he does not accept the pious attempts to explain these parts away. His stated aim, however, is not to destroy but to create, and to go beyond these timebound texts to find the God of love. While he certainly ends up giving an uplifting vision, I am not sure that it is one that will appeal to many people over the traditional one.
Most of the book is devoted to an examination of the “terrible texts,” placing them in historical context (often exposing later accretions that have nothing to do with the original meaning), and attempting to show why they are inconsistent with a religion that proclaims a loving God. Spong spends entire sections on the Bible and the environment, women, homosexuality, children (in which he argues against portrayals of God as an “abusive” parent), and anti-Semitism. He also has a chapter on the need for certainty, which he finds damaging and feels needs to give way to a tolerance for ambiguity. The last section, “Reading Scripture as Epic History,” is a detailed examination of how the various books of the Bible came to be written. (Speaking of tolerance for ambiguity, I wish that he had been a little less definite in this part and more clear that much of the story he tells is necessarily speculation.
My main difficulty with this book may have something to do with the fact that I come to it as a Jew, and while I believe that Bishop Spong has consciously worked hard (and for the most part successfully) on eliminating any residual anti-Semitism from his fundamentalist upbringing, I still see vestiges of Christian triumphalism and a view of Judaism as somehow inferior and obsolete. Ironically, I noticed this the most in his section on “The Bible and Anti-Semitism.” Writing about the final split between Christianity and Judaism, he says, “Traditional Judaism could not and would not change. Anything that gets so rigid it will not adapt to a new reality will finally die.” The last I noticed, Judaism was still in existence. On the Jewish attitude to the Hebrew Scriptures: “They invested these scriptures with both absolute authority and literal truth...Nothing more is essential; nothing more is necessary.” Has he never heard of the Talmud? Also, Judaism has never read even the Torah, the most sacred of the scriptures, literally in the sense that Christian fundamentalists read both the Old and New Testaments today.
I sincerely doubt that this book will win over any doctrinaire biblical literalists (of whatever persuasion), but apart from what I must consider to be the glaring weakness detailed above, it may be very useful in showing those who are more open to persuasion that not only do they not have to denigrate others to be “good” Christians, but that such attitudes are directly antithetical to the “abundant life” that Jesus (and the Hebrew Scriptures) promised.