Death on a Wednesday: John Shelby Spong and Norm MacDonald

Death on a Wednesday: John Shelby Spong and Norm MacDonald September 15, 2021

UPDATE: I’ve corrected this post with the proper spelling of Norm MacDonald’s name. Should have double-checked the first time!

I came home last night to discover on the internet that Norm MacDonald had died of cancer at only 61 years old. I’ve always thought he was very funny and, like Matt, would have been willing to listen to him read the phone book if he was so inclined. Of course, someone would have to go find one and explain what it was, which I’m sure would be a hilarious enterprise if described by MacDonald. The thing I didn’t know was that he was a self-identifying Christian and that he had a lot of interesting things to say about that.

Verily verily, the contrast between the thoughts and feelings of Norm MacDonald during his life and those of John Spong is in itself a fascinating picture of the age. Spong, who I was a lot more familiar with before last night (I usually only manage to learn about famous people when they die), was sure that Ye Olde Gospel was a horrible embarrassment to “Christians.” He thought the idea of the Son dying for the sins of the world was “barbaric,” thereby missing exactly the point of the cross of Christ. Indeed, it is, but it is the icon of our barbarism, our low wretched estate when we organize the world without God. Our sin is what produces the cross, and yet God uses it to turn death itself upside down and destroy it so that we can be saved from a death that goes on forever.

Spong’s grotesque brand of unbelief was also racist. As Walton points out, he

struggled to understand a rapidly growing Global South Christianity that embraced traditional church teachings and upheld a high view of scripture as trustworthy and the Word of God — teachings that he insisted in his 1999 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die were detrimental to the church’s ability to reach modern people.

In a 1998 interview with the Church of England Newspaper, Spong said of Christians in Africa: “They’ve moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They’ve yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world. That’s just not on their radar screen.”

In dismissing African and Caribbean bishops upset by his remarks, Spong countered, “that’s too bad: I’m not going to cease to be a 20th-century person for fear of offending someone in the Third World.”

And yet, when he died, the usual progressives blessed him for, as Diana Butler Bass tweeted, “expanding our vision of a loving God.” I don’t know what is very loving about that kind of attitude towards a whole continent of believing Christians, nor what is loving about rejecting God as he chooses to reveal himself, but I know we’re not supposed to notice that. Some kinds of racism have always been acceptable.

MacDonald on the other hand, had this to say about God and his relationship to humanity:

Some people believe that man is divine, like kind of a hippie idea. I can’t believe that because I know my own heart, and I know that’s not true. Other people believe that we’re wretched like the cynics or the atheists would believe we’re all just wretched nothingness, just animals, just creatures. I can’t believe that. It doesn’t make any sense, that we’re just beasts. I will say that Christianity has this interesting compromise where we’re both divine and wretched, and there’s this Middle Man that’s the Savior, that through Him we can become divine, but we’re born wretched. I kind of like that one, because it sort of makes sense.

The thing that strikes me more than anything is the good-humored humility of MacDonald’s version. Not particularly crushed to earth, and yet willing to examine himself and his own heart as evidence, MacDonald doesn’t throw away other people but invites them to an open and expansive vision of, one might notice, a “loving God.”

Truly, as I’ve noticed before, the death of humility is also the death of humor. If you imagine that you can tell God and all the people who humbly worship him according to his own self-revelation in the scriptures that you know better, you are going to constantly miss the irony, the humor, the funny jokes all around you, of which you might be the most obvious one.

Christians always nurse a great longing to be “winsome,” to be able to talk in a free and easy manner about their beliefs without putting everyone off and making everyone angry. But I think the only way to do that is to actually believe so completely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that the truth comes out the mouth in the most unexpected and unlooked-for ways. Out of the heart, of course, the mouth speaks. If you believe in The Truth, everything you say and everything you are is going to gradually conform itself to it, or rather Him. But if you believe in your own wretched self, your venomous unbelief in God will reveal itself in all its shabby, strident, dare I say “fundamentalism.” For that is what Spong ended up being–so uncompromising in his unbelief that he was willing to destroy the church rather than himself walk away from it. There’s nothing funny about that, nor winsome.


Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash

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