Jessica White | Staff Writer
Few people can hold the attention of the Chautauqua crowd for five days. Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong is one of those people.
Spong was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J., for 24 years before he retired in 2001. He made headlines in 1981 when he ordained the first woman from the Church of England, and again in 1989 when he ordained the first openly gay priest. Spong has been labeled a radical and a heretic, but his admirers laud him for his contemporary interpretations of the Bible.
Spong, a committed Christian who has spent a lifetime studying the Bible and whose life has been shaped by it, said he is not interested in Bible-bashing.
“I come to this interpretive task not as an enemy of Christianity,” he said. “I am a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply.
But I also recognize that parts of it have been used to support prejudices and to mask violence.”
Spong’s nearly two dozen books on his studies and teachings have sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, and the theme of this week’s Interfaith Lecture Series shares the title of his newest book, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.
He will speak about the New Testament as an evolving story, the myth of Judas Iscariot and other themes from his recent book at 2 p.m. today through Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Today’s topic is the Judeo-Christian faith story and how much of it is true history.
Spong said a series of lectures he gave several years ago at a resort area in western North Carolina inspired his new book.
“I suddenly realized that even very well-educated people in other fields don’t seem to be educated very much in the Bible,” he said. “I discovered that people were really interested to know that the Bible is a lot more than they thought it was. That gave me a sense that there was a hunger out there for knowledge of the Bible that’s not superstitious and dated.”
Though Spong anticipates some scorn for his new-age ideas, he said he is not interested in debating with critics.
“I’m happy to talk with (critics), but the audience I want to address is not the religious people who are upset at modern biblical scholarship,” Spong said. “I want to address intelligent people who have never heard some of the things that are true about the Bible and so they have left organized religion totally because it doesn’t make much sense to them.”
Spong said his fundamentalist background has led him to struggle with his own critical rethinking of the Bible. He was raised in an Evangelical church in Charlotte, N.C., that taught him segregation was God’s rule, women were inferior to men, it was fine to hate other religions, and homosexuals were either mentally ill or morally depraved.
“The Bible was quoted in that church to justify each of those prejudices,” Spong said. “I just think that’s a dreadful way to use a book that’s about the gift of life and love in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I spent a great deal of my life getting over those prejudices and recovering the Bible.”
More than 80 years later, many of those prejudices still remain, Spong said. And though the Christian story is a powerful story, many people don’t truly hear it because of the negatives that are attached.
“I hear people still quoting the Bible to say that a woman cannot hold authority over a man because that’s what Paul says in Corinthians,” he said. “I don’t think you ought to begin to confuse cultural norms in the first century with the word of God.”
This will be Spong’s sixth time to Chautauqua. His weeklong series two years ago had some of the most-attended lectures ever, said Rev. Joan Brown Campbell.
“I just love Chautauqua,” Spong said. “The audience is always intelligent and responsive, and I have a wonderful time when I’m there.”