Bishop John Shelby Spong's Newsletter
Bishop Spong's Newsletter By Fred Plumer
Good morning friends. I am the Board President of ProgressiveChristianity.org and have held that position for over 12 years. Our organization has been the publishers of the Bishop Spong’s newsletters and the owners of the John Shelby Spong website for nearly five years now. The website is titled, A New Christianity for a New World. I hope you all avail yourself to this treasure of fascinating and interesting articles by Bishop Spong that go back almost 20 years. As subscribers you have access to these absolutely wonderful writings of one of the best authors of our time. If you have trouble accessing these nearly two thousand articles by Bishop Spong please contact our office and we will help you. This morning, however, I want to share with you some of the things we are doing with your subscriptions newsletter.
As you know, Bishop Spong had a serious stroke several months ago and for a long time we had hoped he would recover enough to continue writing this column. Well, the good news is he has recovered quite well and he continues to improve. He is back to his 3 mile walk every day on his treadmill. He is driving and he finished his “final” book. However, after some serious pondering, he decided it would be in his best interest to let the column go. As you can imagine, putting out a weekly column, with the details and research he always included, was extremely demanding. We were disappointed.
We immediately began looking for a “replacement” for Spong. We actually interviewed several people but it became clear rather quickly, there was no permanent single individual who could put out a regular column every week and maintain the interest of you, our readers. That is when we decided to look at some of the other talented writers that already had columns who had been heavily influenced by Bishop Spong. We thought it would be something special to see how some of these writers not only had been influenced by Bishop Spong, but also what they were doing and how they were using Spong’s ideas. We have to remember Spong was talking, preaching and writing about a “New Christianity,” not yesterday’s leftovers.
So let me explain how we picked these writers. First, we talked to Bishop Spong and he recommended three people. We expanded the search and found a few more candidates. Once we had this group we then talked to them all and explained exactly what we wanted and needed; and a couple dropped out right then. That left us with a group of eight. All of them are trained clergy from five different denominations. Each one of them already had a blog page and we had already reviewed their writings. Most of them have written at least one book and we took the time to read them. We did this with all eight of the candidates.
You may be wondering if we have had some kind of a framework or expectations from our writers. I suppose the honest answer is yes. We did and do have certain expectations about what we wanted from them. Of course we had a pretty good idea at this point about what they believed and were writing, but we wanted to be certain.
First, they must have a clear idea about what the Bible is and what it is not. That is, they must realize that the Bible is not a historical document that tells the story of the Jewish people from Adam and Eve to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) were created by at least forty different authors who did not write or even think in literal terms. Each author, having his or her idea about what happened, always had a bias. The Bible was spoken or written starting over as much as 3,400 years ago, but it was actually not canonized until the second century ACE. There are a great many differences, and biases in the entire text. However, anyone who wants to seriously study will realize what these differences are and how they came to be. We expected that kind of study.
As far as the New Testament was concerned, we had similar expectations. As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan once wrote in the book, The Last Week (Harper/San Francisco), the gospels are not a straight forward story but were rather a “combination of history remembered and history interpreted.” They all have been “updated” for the time that they were written. That is probably a 90 year span. And finally the writers had to know the differences between the description of Jesus by Paul, as well as the different depictions of Jesus we find in the gospels. We did not assume that they would all have the same interpretation of our view on the Bible but we wanted them to point out their differences and how they came to those conclusions.
The Second requirement was the writer had to have a clear idea of who Jesus was. The concept of an all-powerful, “Divine being” who was sent by his Father (God) to save the world, is at its best, a poetic myth. Those of us who have studied for years, and most of our readers, know this as well. And yet when we work up the nerve to enter a church, even one that professes to be a Progressive church, we find this story repeated in the prayers, the liturgies, the tapestries, our hymns, and even the sermons. I have been told to relax when I complain about these things. I am told they are just stories, or rituals. And yet, I would find myself quietly critiquing the theology, or trying to find the symbolic meaning. We did not want our writers to do that to you.
Jesus was a man born just like you and me. He grew from a child, born to a very young, poor Galilean woman and against all odds he became a respected teacher, a rabbi even. He had a deep level of compassion for all living beings that astounded everyone he met.
Why was he so special? It may have been the fact he was most likely considered a mamzer, an Israelite of suspect paternity, at least in his early life. That may be why he supposedly never married. It may have been the influence of John the Baptist and his subsequent death. It may have simply been the fact that he was born a poor Galilean who struggled against oppression his whole life. He had a rough life but he somehow overcame all of these challenges. In the midst of all of these difficulties he found a way to find peace, clarity, and the discovery of the important things in life. He seemed satisfied, even happy at times. He taught where he was welcomed and had followers that tried to live by his model. He gave us all a road map to a wonderful place in our world, regardless of our financial means or stations in life.
We wanted our writers to already know this Jesus.
The third thing we wanted was some clarity about God. I tried here not to have a bias but rather to listen. We have several ideas about this “God thing” as one of the people in an audience once called it. What we did not want was a God-man. That is the assumption that there is a God up there that has human attributes, is Jesus’ father, intercedes in history and listens to our daily prayers.
We wanted people to be aware of Bishop Spong comments about God. The most common one is: “You can be part of who God is and he becomes part of what you are.” I believe he was saying something like, we can evolve to be fully in one with Oneness or Unity of the world.
You may find it interesting to know that our one atheist writer was Spong’s first pick when we asked for suggestions. Rev. Gretta Vosper could challenge all of us to really know what we mean when say, “God.” I hope you read her carefully. There is a reason the Bishop Spong loves her and what she is doing.
Just for the record I do not believe that there is a God out there. What we call God is everything. It is all of me and I am part of it. We can discover this with meditation and self-discovery. But we did not ask the writers to follow my beliefs about God. We did rather say if you are going to write about God, then please explain what you are talking about. So far I believe that this has been true.
And finally we wanted to our writers to explore how to expand this “New Christianity” into the everyday lives of others. We were not interested in providing mental gymnastics or expressions of superior intellects. We did not want to be simply impressing you with the superior intellect of our writers. We did not want articles that were boring or so light you could not help but yawn. I hope we have achieved that.
However, this brings me to the main purpose of writing this article. This is truly your subscription newsletter. If you decide that you do not like what we are doing, you have the right to cancel your subscription. We know that. However, we need some input from you if we really want to tailor this newsletter to your taste. I already have had one person let me know that they did not care for a particular writer. Unfortunately a second respondent told me that this was the best writer we had and that we should let him write every week.
We will of course have to work through some of those kinds of things. Please let us know what you are thinking. We have just recently completed going through one full cycle so you should have an idea what each of our contributors has to offer. We have given them permission to strike out on their own and I think you will enjoy them even more.
But most of all I want to thank you all. We know that you are a very special group of people and that is the main reason we wanted to continue to publish the newsletter.
~ Fred Plumer, President
Read the essay online here.