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sydneyanglicans.net – Here I Stand: John Shelby Spong

13 Oct

I have been reading Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love & Equality, the autobiography of Bishop John Shelby Spong (Harper Collins pb 2001). I find it fascinating and inspiring, though not without its faults. The review named above, however, is quite revealing about Sydney Anglican attitudes.

Those of us who have become acquainted with Spong only through his controversial writings will be surprised to discover another side to the man as he tells his own story. The tenderness of his references to his first wife Joan and his obvious devotion to her throughout her long mental and physical illness is immensely attractive. His courage in the face of the racial segregation rampant throughout America in the 1950s and 1960s, his willingness to take a stand, face the consequences head on, and the intense personal loyalty he displayed to those who shaped his life and thinking (e.g. Bishop John Hines and Bishop John A. T. Robinson), are all admirable qualities. Readers of this book will not be able to escape the conclusion that Jack Spong is a man who feels things deeply and attempts to live out his convictions with integrity.

Nevertheless, the book also parades the flaws that have become all too obvious in his previous writing. There is an arrogant tone to the book. Spong repeatedly casts himself in the role of a rare and genuine leader, one of very few who sees things clearly and accurately. All those who disagree with his ideas or oppose his initiatives are portrayed as fearful, ignorant, and often rude and dishonest as well…

Jack Spong clearly believes he has been involved in an honest search for the truth of God. He insists that throughout his entire career he has sought “to give a credible voice to Christianity that was in dialogue with the real world”;. He belittles “those who act as if there is something called ‘the faith once delivered to the Saints’.” Yet the sad truth is that he has so immersed himself in the world broken and distorted by sin that he has become a part of it, unable to see the answer any longer and unable to bring anything other than the chimera of false comfort. Our world does not need to be confirmed in its rebellion but rather called to faith and repentance in the light of the incredible mercy of the living God.

I am sure you heard the mind shut loudly there.

By contrast, Diana Butler Bass on BeliefNet finds “Bishop John Shelby Spong’s liberal conclusions are more convincing than his premises.”

Throughout “Here I Stand,” Spong reveals himself as a child of an old world, the segregated South—a world he has not entirely escaped. Born in a white hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, Spong portrays his South starkly in terms of good and evil. Racism and patriarchy reigned in this neatly divided, orderly—but morally inverted—society. What Southerners thought was right was wrong; what they thought wrong was right.

The church empowered Spong to make the right moral choice in this “culture war.” He rose to prominence as a black sheep of the South—a liberal churchman, a prominent New Jerseyan, a champion of causes repellent to the southern kinfolk.

But Spong remains a southerner of a certain age, entangled in 19th-century attitudes about race, sex and class. To him, these issues resolve into black-and-white causes that must be fought to the bitter end. And, in traditional southern fashion, his weapon is an intellectual rationalism…

Outside that culture, however, the rationalist liberalism that Spong defends is gone with the wind. Most Americans, particularly Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, care little for moral certainty and civil wars; they inhabit a world of moral ambiguity and intellectual paradox, where a thinker like Spong appears as a proponent of old-time religion, however new-fangled: a literal-minded evangelist who wants everyone to agree with him. His dictum “the heart cannot worship what the mind rejects” rings hollow to people born in a post-Christian world. A post-modern rendering might be “the heart seeks to worship that which the mind can not fully grasp.”

Mysticism and ambiguity, not Spong’s rationalism and certainty, are already defining the “church of the future.” Most Christians living in a post-Christian America are not particularly worried about “theism,” or the historicity of the Virgin Birth or resurrection—nor do they want their spiritual communities consumed by in-house culture wars. Ultimately, Spong, attacked by his foes as a radical, is not radical enough. He is a product of the waning Enlightenment, the flip side of fundamentalism, a son of the Old South…

She is right about Spong’s roots in the South, and that side of the book I find absolutely fascinating because it takes me well beyond my previous stereotypes. I would also commend the book to anyone who doubts that racism is both irrational — totally — and a psychopathology. But I am not sure I am quite as pomo as Diana Bass, pomo though I am up to a point. I still feel that the Enlightenment “grand narrative” has something to offer, and “babies and bathwater” cliches definitely come to mind here.

A third review comes from Gregory C. Jenks, religion scholar and Anglican priest on Sea of Faith Australia.

As Spong tells the tale, the same church that sustained him as a young boy growing up in poor circumstances after his father’s death was rigidly segregated. Blacks were excluded. They had their own institutions and ministries within the Episcopal Church: separate congregations, youth organizations and even hospitals. This segregation was validated by appeal to the Bible, and any race mixing was said to be against God’s will. In similar vein, women were excluded from leadership roles and positions of power in the church. Again, the Bible was used to validate the suppression of women and their silence in the church…

Underlying this early experience of church (with its self-serving disdain for blacks, women, Jews and homosexuals—the latter too evil even to mention) was a confidence that Christians enjoyed a unique relationship with the Supreme Being who was in control of everything. “God controlled the weather, cured the sick, defeated our enemies and regularly came to our aid when we prayed. It was a snug, completed, closed and secure system.”

As he recounts the story of his own personal and professional journey, Spong is tracing the unraveling of this seamless cloth of Christian confidence. He was to become a restless critic, even if he has never lost his love for the church…

There are two further aspects of this book that especially impressed me: one personal, the other corporate. The book does not conceal the private tragedy of his first wife’s mental illness and his inability to be fully there for her. It also exposes the backroom politics of institutional church life, including bishops who adopt homophobic postures to mask their own secret gay identity.

Finally, read Derek Miller on Whosoever, an online magazine for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trangender Christians.

“Here I Stand” is a book that recognizes and celebrates this most remarkable figure. Spong beautifully summarizes his theology as he provides a detailed narrative of the experiences that have shaped his life. His life story is an exciting and suspenseful journey. It amazes me that one man has accomplished so much. Fans of Bishop Spong will love this book; critics of Spong will inevitably loathe it. If you happen to be one of those people that counts himself or herself among Spong’s disciples, reading this book will be a life-giving experience. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed visiting the major junctions of Spong’s life and seeing the forces that have shaped this man into a legendary person. From yesterday’s racial tension to today’s irrational homophobia, this book captures it all. But above all else, it is ultimately an appealing self-portrait of a man who has made himself one of our generation’s most vocal, noble, enchanting, and lovable public figures.

I am captivated by the voice that comes through Here I Stand, more so than through some of his other works I have read; I recommend the book strongly.

Sample Spong for yourself on this transcript from Compass (ABC, Sunday 8th July 2001).

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Posted by on October 13, 2005 in Australia and Australian, Bible, book reviews, Christianity, culture wars, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, Gay and Lesbian, interfaith, personal, Political, Pomo, racism, Top read, writers

 

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