What is Christianity?

[A review of books by Spong and Wright, originally posted on my old blog on June 4th, 2007]

I deliberately chose to read the two books I am writing about in parallel, more-or-less simultaneously, so as to better be able to reflect on the similarities and contrasts between them. Both are written by authors who are bishops in the Anglican/Episcopal church. One is John Selby Spong’s A New Christianity for a New World, while the other is Tom Wright’s Simply Christian. Already from their book covers one can get a sense of their different approaches and perspectives. Spong’s book is subtitled Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born, while Wright’s is subtitled Why Christianity Makes Sense (the latter being even more starkly in opposition to the title of another of Spong’s books, Why Christianity Must Change or Die).

Let me say from the outset that both books reflect a profound spirituality and a deep concern on each author’s part to be a Christian and relate this to the world they live in. Spong’s book reflects most clearly the modern experience, of becoming aware of the fallibility of tradition and Scripture, of finding that in light of science and reason one cannot simply repeat the same old language in the same old way. Spong is deeply passionate about avoid idolatry, and already in the preface he emphasizes that “To suggest that God and one’s own understanding of God are the same is not only to stop growing, it is to die to the quest to truth” (p.xviii). Theism clearly developed, from animism through polytheism and beyond, and so why should one stop at the notion of a God who is a being among others and combines all the possible polytheistic deities into one? (see p.49). We also ought to be suspicious, he warns, when the concept of God we are defending is that of a being whose primary concern is to care for us human beings in our little corner of the planet/galaxy/universe (p.61). Spong states many times throughout the book that he is seeking to continue the work of John A. T. Robinson, whose small but powerful book Honest to God raised the questions Spong also addresses regarding the meaning of God – Spong’s aim is like that of Robinson, Tillich and Bonhoffer, namely to rethink our image of God as not merely a being but as Being itself.

Spong states confidently that “Hysterical fundamentalism is not the way into the future; it is the last gasp of the past” (p.54). Although Spong denies interpreting Jesus as merely a teacher in the manner of classic Liberal Protestantism (pp.147-148), most of the time his approach seems to be precisely that of classic Liberal Protestantism. He believes that the mythical and even the theistic components of the Christian message were additions to it and can be stripped away to reveal a core that will speak to us today. If only he listened to Schweitzer, whose unveiling of the historical figure of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher who was mistaken about the end of the world brought the original quest for the historical Jesus to a close, and to Bultmann who courageously acknowledged that the mythological is part and parcel of the Gospel, and we must find ways of interpreting the myths themselves in meaningful ways today if we wish to preserve and promote the Christian faith (p.102).

While Spong is clearly what might be called an “old fashioned modernist”, Wright speaks more to the postmodern experience, and although his name is never mentioned, it is clear that the postliberal thought of George Lindbeck and narrative theology is at least part of the framework he is working within (p.190). Wright takes an appreciative stance towards not only Christianity but theism, although his theism in which heaven and earth are separate but overlap might also fit the panentheism he mentions but dismisses (pp.58-59,61,128), since he is willing to state that God is not a being in our world (p.56). But Wright’s powerfully eloquent prose seeks to tell the Christian story rather than rewrite it. But this does not mean that Wright allows certain conservative and fundamentalist readings of the Bible to dominate – far from it. Wright only rarely addresses such views directly in the sense of discussing concepts like Biblical inerrancy (pp.182-184), but throughout he is seeking to offer a portrait of what it means to be a Christian that challenges fundamentalism and other viewpoints he considers problematic by using the resources provided by the Christian tradition. In other words, the language that Spong finds no longer meaningful, Wright finds meaningful and where necessary he wants to rehabilitate key terms rather than discard them (see e.g. pp.123-124). And so, for example, Wright does not discuss the divinity of Christ, for example, in terms of modernist rationalism: since God is the light in which we see, according to Wright, rather than something we look for, it would make little sense to do so. Yet he offers ways of thinking about the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament that challenges certain understandings that are commonplace in churches today, such as when he suggests that the divinity of Christ is not so much something he possessed and was aware of as a vocation to which he was called (pp.118-119). Such an interpretation is in many ways every bit as radically in contrast to certain conservative Christian assumptions as Spong’s, but Wright’s radical challenge draws from the Bible rather than drawing from contemporary disdain for the Bible in certain circles.

While Spong writes for those who view Christianity from the standpoint of modernist skepticism (and shares that skepticism), Wright is addressing postmodernists who are disillusioned with attempts to bracket out spirituality and to regard reason and science as all-encompassing and all-powerful. There is an interesting contrast between stories each tells. Spong tells at one point of a deeply moving sermon preached by a student, in which floodwaters begin to rise and threaten to destroy a town, but because of a desire to cling to all the familiar things there, the inhabitants do not flee when they have the chance. The floodwaters are the creeds and other antiquated elements of Christianity that are making it a place impossible for rational people to inhabit. Its language has become meaningless, its patriarchy has become offensive, and yet when we know we should leave these things behind the voice of comfort whispers to us to just leave things as they are (pp.234-236).

Wright also, coincidentally, tells a story about rising waters and a town. In a land where there is a rational (and apparently benevolent) dictator, in response to erratic and at times dangerous springs of water in the area, the whole thing is paved over, so that the inhabitants can get their water through pipes and a system. But eventually the paved-over springs burst forth and break through. This is intended to illustrate the way in which spirituality, stifled and marginalized in the Enlightenment era, is now bursting forth again (pp.17-20). People are thirsty. They are not now always seeking to quench that thirst in a meaningful way, but they are tired of having these aspects of existence paved over and ignored as well. This is the essence of postmodernism, the rediscovery in a Ricoeurian second naïveté that there was something valuable in the things the “Age of Reason” set aside as mere superstition.

How does one live within the Christian tradition? This is the question both books are attempting to address, although both leave certain fundamental questions to the side at times. Spong’s book is the less satisfying in terms of his understanding of what Biblical stories mean and how to interpret them. It is not surprising that some of the best work in bridging the old and the new in a way that takes the old seriously – whether that of N. T. Wright, John A. T. Robinson, or Rudolf Bultmann – was carried out by people who had expertise in New Testament studies. At times Spong’s claims (such as that the New Testament documents are merely stories composed to follow and coincide with lectionary readings) are so far from the mainstream that it makes it hard to take his other statements with which I am sympathetic seriously.

I find more helpful the approach of Keith Ward, who seeks to acknowledge both that Christianity provides a rich wealth of positive resources that can have a positive role in our faith and our world today, while also acknowledging that there are things that we simply cannot accept and continue to pass on today. Both Spong and Wright acknowledge this, in different ways. Spong wants a radical change that rewrites Christianity, while Wright wants a radical change that rediscovers precisely those emphases that much contemporary Christianity misses. Often, both are hoping to see the church move in the same basic direction, in spite of these different approaches.

Wright acknowledges that, for example, when people today latch on to Celtic Christianity and Celtic spirituality as a way of quenching a thirst with waters from these classic ancient sources, few if any of them really want to follow the practices of St. Cuthbert, who stood praying while standing up to his waist in the sea (at Lindisfarne or Holy Island in Northumbria, in the northeast of England – I lived in that area for a number of years and can confirm that the water really is very cold, although it is also a wonderful place that anyone who has the chance ought to visit). Seeking to appreciate and even inhabit a tradition does not mean simply repeating it. Wright has a helpful treatment of authority, in which he suggests that the authority of the Bible and Christian tradition is like the authority of earlier chapters in a novel: characters do not simply repeat things they do in earlier chapters, but their actions in subsequent parts of the story carry forward the directions and impetuses of what went before.

There is surely an extent to which the different visions of Spong and Wright reflect their different national contexts. England has been through the process of secularization, and in spite of its institutional church is in many respects post-Christian. Wright is thus truly addressing an audience that, having had tradition and superstition thoroughly shaken to the ground by the critical thunderstorm of rational inquiry, is ready to go back and see if anything in the rubble can and ought to be saved. America, on the other hand, still seems to be in the heat of modernity’s final (or maybe not so final) thrashes of life, as the religion and science discussions (for example) continue to be carried out in the context of an Enlightenment framework, by rationalists and fundamentalists who are both working with the assumptions of modernity. It is striking that Richard Dawkins’ writings tend to be most critical of American forms of Christianity and its fundamentalism and young-earth creationism. There is a danger when modernity is given postmodernity before it is ready. If one embraces the postmodern before modernity has had its full impact, it can represent a return to naïveté rather than a second naïveté. It can be an attempt to avoid the critical power of rational inquiry rather than to see what remains beside and beyond it.

Both Wright and Spong agree that Christianity ought not to be ultimately about some things one believes but about living in the context of a story that shapes our lives (Spong p.243; Wright p.240). Spong’s aim is the admirable one of having his grandchildren be able to say “God is real to me, and Jesus is my doorway into this reality” (p.246). But I’ll let Wright have the last word, “The church, for all its faults, is at its heart the community of those who are trying to follow Jesus, and in whose company those who are starting to explore these things for themselves may find help, encouragement, and wisdom. As we might say to someone starting to enjoy music: don’t just listen to it, find an instrument and an orchestra and join in” (p.240).

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    McG wrote:At times Spong’s claims (such as that the New Testament documents are merely stories composed to follow and coincide with lectionary readings) are so far from the mainstream that it makes it hard to take his other statements with which I am sympathetic seriously.“Something needs to be in the general mainstream in order to be taken seriously? I don’t ned to remind you that the “mainstream” has often been way off-course (e.g. the ether, the flat earth, Galen’s humours, the Scopes trial, etc).Wouldn’t it be better to point out why you find this notion of his (that the NT consists of stories to coincide with and follow some proto-lectionary) so repugnant? I think his point is at least arguable and should not be so easily dismissed. “Everybody knows that’s just wrong” is the worst kind of rhetorical fallacy.Needless to say, I much prefer Spong to Wright (whose work I am also familiar with). I don’t share your view that Wright is postmodern in any measurable or significant way. He’s way too into absolutes for that label. Would you elaborate on what you mean by calling him that?always enjoy reading your postsÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    “Wright is addressing postmodernists who are disillusioned with attempts to bracket out spirituality and to regard reason and science as all-encompassing and all-powerful.”Who exactly does Wright say advocates science and reason as “all-encompassing” and “all-powerful”?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for both these comments. I am certainly willing to entertain ideas that are outside the mainstream. But Spong presents claims like this as though they are simply self-evident, among scholars if not among lay people. I have occasionally encountered ideas of this sort, but have rarely found them persuasive. That NT authors developed stories based on prophetic texts in the Jewish Scriptures, yes. But creation of whole books around the lectionary? I’d welcome a full-scale argument for that case, and would weigh it seriously, but in the absence of such a case being argued I cannot simply accept the idea because it fits conclusions that either Spong or I might like to draw.Wright’s views that relate to the Bible, even those I disagree with, are based in well-argued Biblical scholarship. And so even though I found myself very sympathetic with Spong’s plain-talking straight to the point honesty, Wright’s book made a better impression on me than I expected it to.As for who might view science as offering all-encompassing explanations, Gene Roddenberry and Daniel Dennett come to mind… :) But I read the books and wrote the review a while ago, and so I don’t recall Wright mentioning anyone in particular. At any rate, when it comes to the modern vs. postmodern, I am unhappy with any version of the latter that seeks to sidestep the explanatory power of science within its appropriately-defined domain.In the end, both Wright and Spong offered much that I found compelling and some things that I did not…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    Dennet is pretty clear about the limits and scope of reason and science. I’m not sure how to characterize Roddenberry. In most of these sorts of claimed cases, I would argue that it’s attacking a giant straw man. Science is by its very nature of a specific and limited scope, though this happens to be a strength more than a weakness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I thought Dennett viewed Darwin’s theory as a “universal acid”… :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08014885672703727636 Ken Brown

    Indeed, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea goes much further than simply making science king, it comes close to giving natural selection itself that role, extending it even to cosmology and society. Perhaps this is just inflated rhetoric, but he seems almost gleeful to have found such a “universal acid” that leaves “nothing” unchanged.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07306357650551548310 Brian

    “a being whose primary concern is to care for us human beings in our little corner of the planet/galaxy/universe”Most SciFi books/movies etc depict non earth life as being a threat to us, however, I am convinced that any other satient life that may exist will know God, because God made the whole universe, so why would he not make himself known to the whole universe? This line of thought is in CS Lewis’s SciFi trilogy, where live on Venus (or was it Mars) knew God, but didn’t sin because sin was localised on earth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    McG wrote:That NT authors developed stories based on prophetic texts in the Jewish Scriptures, yes. But creation of whole books around the lectionary? I’d welcome a full-scale argument for that case, and would weigh it seriously, but in the absence of such a case being argued I cannot simply accept the idea because it fits conclusions that either Spong or I might like to draw.Q’s invitation :)”The numerous biographies of Jesus and the ‘Acts’ of apostles must have been mainly composed during the age of the Antonines, and were doubtless called forth by a public need in the churches, analogous to that which has called forth a multitude of Lives of Christ during our own time. There was an intense craving, both in the interests of spiritual satisfaction and in that of controversy, to emerge out of the atmosphere of vague intuition and reminiscence into the daylight of historic portraiture. And, frankly, there is in the nature of things, little more reason for approaching these documents with an awe-struck respect, as for [xvi] something of Divine inspiration in a special sense, than for so approaching the ‘Lives’ which have proceeded from the pens of our modern evangelists and historians of the ‘apostles.’[…]Not but that we keenly sympathise with those who cannot willingly part with the illusions of ages. But to surrender illusions on any vital subject means a momentary pain exchanged for a permanent good. What is life but an ‘education by illusion?’ What is the pursuit of Truth but the pursuit of light, through all eclipses never quenched? Veritas, laborans nimis saepe, extinguitur nunquam. When once the New Testament books shall be assigned the place in literature and in ecclesiastical history which belongs to them, their varied contents will assume a new significance, and receive a critical appreciation denied to them, so long as the artificial assumptions as to their date and character continue.” – From the preface of Antiqua Mater by Edwin Johnson – 1887I’m reading the hard copy volume presently, but it’s available online here. When you have some time, I’d love to hear your reaction to this neglected “full-scale argument”.peaceÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    In the case of Spong’s point, my criticism was not of the idea that the Gospel authors, while making use of earlier traditions, some of which might be called ‘oral history’, some of which might be called ‘folklore’, and most of which one probably could not place definitively in one category or the other, also at times created stories to illustrate points, symbolize truths, and fill gaps in the story. But to claim that they were creating their stories to follow a hypothetical lectionary turns oral history and folklore into something much more speculative. It has never been convincingly demonstrated that any of the Gospels is arranged around a lectionary (although I have read attempts to make such a case, for instance in relation to the Gospel of John). What irked me was the citation of a fringe viewpoint as though it were common knowledge in order to support his point. If I were to allow Spong to get away with that, I’d have no basis for arguing against the young-earth creationists without being justifiably open to accusations of hypocrisy!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    For the record, I agree with you completely that Spong, in using the word “lectionary” there, is overstating his position. In the heat of our passions we are all prone to fall into that particular temptation, and I suspect that even Spong would admit in retrospect that his phrasing here is less-than-ideal. But to focus on this overstatement and close off to the gist of his point—i.e. that the composition of the NT very probably followed a proto-liturgical kerygma and that the individual books that comprise it reflect a need to conform “history” (though I doubt GMark was written as a “history” proper, but that is for another time and post) to the nascent faith, instead of the other way around . . . this seems like a dismissive over-reaction to me. An escape hatch.I find absolutely no hypocrisy in what Spong it trying to say there (in his own idiosyncratic, controversial way, of course).For what it’s worth, I am quite enjoying the work I cited from and highly recommend it to anyone interested in this subject. At the very least it will serve to illustrate that the ideas presented therein are not “radical” or even “new.” I also happen to find his thesis (Johnson) to be rigorously argued and spot on in many respects. My invitation was sent to you, a man whose critical skills and honesty in discourse I respect, not because I want to convert you in any way, but because I genuinely would look forward to such a discussion. But I also understand that people have extra-bloglical lives to live and may be too busy to read everything that is recommended to them, . . . especially since there are episodes of Lost and Galactica to not miss. (just a friendly gibe from someone who watches zero hours of television programming a week)😛peaceÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    For the record (as that seems to be the phrase of the day), I wasn’t accusing Spong of hypocrisy. My point (which I presumably didn’t express all that clearly) was that if I did not call Spong on citing a fringe view as though it were decisively demonstrated, I would be hypocritical when I accuse proponents of various forms of pseudoscientific creationism for doing the same thing. The hypocrisy, were there to be any, would have been mine, not Spong’s! :)