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18 September 2014: Part XXVIII Matthew: The Parable of the Loaves and the Fish

Sukkoth is complete. There will be six to eight Sabbaths to engage the synagogue before the next celebration, the festival called Dedication, arrives. In Aramaic the word for “Dedication” is “Hanukkah,” and thus this festival acquired its popular nickname. If Matthew is following the liturgical calendar of the synagogue, as I have maintained, he must …

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Q & A:

I was raised as a very religious child in a Russian Orthodox household, beginning to serve in the altar at age three. At the age of fifteen I realized that many things did not sit that well with me and I felt I no longer needed the Church. I was compelled to conceal this as a great secret and kept up appearances for several years. When I finally came out, I was met with anger and hysteria. Almost twenty years later, my mother still denies the whole truth, that I do not share her beliefs. While I am in many ways still “allergic” to Christianity, your books have been a great help on a very long road to religious recovery that I began a couple of years ago and for that I deeply thank you.

I have to say honestly that sometimes it seems to me that you draw from the positive aspects of the gospel to create a version of Jesus that is incomplete and dismisses other key aspects of his ministry. In particular, there is one thing that all scholars seem to agree on that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. However, I can’t remember ever encountering much about this in your books. What to you is the significance of Jesus as someone who preached an end to the world and a general resurrection? Do you believe this to simply be a philosophy wrapped up in his time and place?

Also, I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on the devil and hell, aspects most Christians grew up very aware of. Can you recommend anything that specifically addresses the development of these ideas and the cultural and historical significance?

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11 September 2014: Part XXVII Matthew: Sukkoth, Jewish Thanksgiving Day

Matthew Shifts the Emphasis from Crops to Converts; From Harvest to Judgment Our study last week has helped to make it obvious, I hope, that Matthew borrowed many of the symbols of the Jewish harvest celebration, Sukkoth, and transferred them to the story of Jesus’ passion which came to be associated with and located in …

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Q & A:

Would you please state the "case" for the Jews not murdering Jesus? I am now, by my son's marriage, part of a large Jewish family and have become aware of the simmering prejudice against the Jews. I hear comments ranging from off the cuff comments at a dinner party, "Of course, the Jews did it," to the local Catholic priest reading St. John's gospel on Good Friday, where the claim is made that the Jews crucified Jesus. My experience in attending the Anglican Church leads me to expect the priest would then speak to the claim and explain some well understood theological arguments to the contrary, but no. I have read your book, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Gospels with Jewish Eyes, but I find it hard to counter all the arguments that are raised when I try to bring some theological and historical common sense into this. I am preparing a letter, as strongly worded and to the point as I can make it, to send the priest which I would like him to receive before the next Good Friday. My very best wishes to you and your endeavors to save us from that pretzel mind.

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4 September 2014: Part XXVI Matthew: Sukkoth – The Harvest Festival

Labor Day is over. Little children, carrying new book satchels and wearing new clothes, have found their way back to their schools. University students have returned to their campuses and the football season is well underway. Summer’s vacation time is over. So it is time for this column to return to its theme for the …

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Q & A:

From time to time, my wife and I update our papers and documentation that will be needed when we die. The standard liturgies, readings, etc. as found in the Anglican Book of Alternate Services (or the Book of Common Prayer) do not fit very well with where we are in our spiritual journey. Do you have in your library a liturgy or liturgies that would fit more closely with many of the ideas and thoughts that we have come to know and love in your books and speeches?

We want to have a funeral service that is based on contemporary biblical and theological scholarship. We do not want to listen to pious talk about everlasting life or to be told that in heaven there is a mansion with many rooms. We do not want to listen to nostalgic visions of a place where we will once again be reunited with our loved ones and friends who have gone before us. It would be of far greater meaning to us to be related in that service of the thought of Paul Tillich and to the understanding of God as the Ground of Being in whom all life is rooted.

 

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28 August 2014: Virginia Politics and the Trial of Governor Robert McDonnell

On Monday, August 14, 2014, beginning at 9:30 a.m., my wife Christine and I were seated in the Federal District Courtroom in Richmond, Virginia, preparing to listen to the testimony in the trial of Virginia’s former Republican Governor, Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen. They were both charged with fraud, corruption and not reporting significant …

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Q & A:

An eight-year-old girl in my congregation has a father who has cancer and will likely die soon. She told a family member that she knew her father would not die because she was praying “really hard” to God. How would you respond to this child?

 

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21 August 2014: On Teaching at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley

They came mostly from the West Coast, although one was a Methodist minister from Chesterfield, Virginia. They represented the vast array of the traditions in American Christianity. Two were Roman Catholic, some were Episcopalians, several were Presbyterians and American Baptists, but the majority was from the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. …

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Q & A:

I read your answer your answer to a question from Ken Austin from Maroubra, Australia, and I was deeply moved. I understand and agree with all you said in your answer to Mr. Austin, but please go a little further (and forgive me if you’ve answered this before), but what did John mean to imply when he put the words in Jesus’ mouth, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man cometh to the Father but by me.” Exactly what is meant by that declaration?

Thanks for taking the time to answer the question.

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14 August 2014: Chautauqua Institution – 2014

It has many elements of a fantasy land. Once one enters the guarded gates, the world seems to fall away quickly. A person living in this community does not read the New York Times, which confronts us on every page with the complexity of modern human life, its sufferings, its joys, its violence and its …

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Q & A:

More than 70 years ago, the great scholar Rudolf Bultmann reportedly summed up his "demythologizing" approach in the pithy observation that "Jesus rose into the Kerygma." Being "the greatest story ever told" doesn't make it a true story. Please comment/explain. Thanks.

 

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7 August 2014: A Meditation on Patriotism in a Changing World

Patriotism is a powerful force that manifests itself in a variety of ways. One is extreme nationalism. We see that in the behavior of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is so eager to re-assert Russian hegemony over parts of what was once the Soviet Union that he is willing to destabilize peace by undermining …

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Q & A:

I have just read your essay on the need for the Church to move beyond scripture and creed and I am once again inclined to try to articulate something complicated. I've noticed in "church" a raft of authoritarian trouble that springs from the seed of a simple word, "worship."

It dawned on me that you would know quite well the horrors that can grow in an authoritarian church environment so I will not go into the gory details of my experience. The one word "worship" when purposely left abstractly on its own can be a basis for nightmares in the making. The more it is used as a means to direct attention to "authority" for clarification, the scarier it becomes. In this environment, some form of subjugation is almost always the engineered subtext and false authority through "exclusive or expert knowledge" about "how to worship properly" is the goal.

My question is about how you view the word “worship” and if it is a celebration of a relic (as are other ritual remembrances you write about) or if it has a meaning to you that is not apparent to me at this time.

I will never fit into “church” for many reasons, but perhaps lexicon is one of the biggest barriers. I could never swap my view of absolute human equality for words (followed by actions) that connote subjugation and hierarchy. Rejecting the “insiders” lexicon seems to be a (much resented) barrier to acceptance by “church people” in my experience, but the word “worship” has too often been used as the worst use of that language in my view.

Thanks for standing up to imperialistic boneheads and providing enlightening words to those of us for whom “two or three” is the way to go.

 

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31 July 2014: Carrying My Understanding of Christianity to France

In two lectures in Paris, France, this summer and through various other media, I sought to place into the religious conversation of that nation a new way of looking at Jesus of Nazareth. The majority of both audiences that I addressed consisted of people who still have some relationship with institutional Christianity. The first was …

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Q & A:

I've come to view Jesus much the way I view Elvis. I love the guy, but the fan clubs really freak me out. I think a lot of the times the mistake we make is confusing God and religion and thinking they're the same thing. What we have now is all the fundamentalist Christians who read the Bible and they skip right from the golden calf to Revelation - and then the "Left Behind" books and they kind of leave out the fact that Jesus was pretty much the most extremely liberal guy ever in history and literature or wherever your belief system locates him. You look at the character of Jesus and he scares the hell out of the conservatives even today. If Jesus came back today, you wouldn't be able to hear him talk over the sound of Christians calling him a socialist. Jesus was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer, never anti-gay, anti-abortion and never anti-premarital sex among other parameters.

 

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24 July 2014: Introducing Jesus for the Non-Religious to France

(The following is the speech delivered in Paris at the launching of the French Translation of Jesus for the Non-Religious.) How can those of us living in the 21st century understand the Jesus of history? We think very differently from the way the people who wrote the New Testament in the first century thought. Can …

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Q & A:

It was fun to read the questions from the man from Saudi Arabia. Here is a question it raises for me. Why do you think there are four gospels which overlap and conflict? If people (men) at the 4th century Council of Nicea were writing the creeds and doctrines based on documents from the 1st century, why didn’t they clean up the whole mess? Why leave so many questions unanswered?

 

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17 July 2014: On Launching a Book in Paris

There is nothing quite like Paris in the springtime. The flowers of the season are in full bloom. The sidewalk cafes are filled with people drinking wine, sipping café au lait and eating croissants. The “Left Bank” is populated with painters standing before their easels and politicians in full debate. The population in this city, …

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Q & A:

I read your Magi story with considerable interest, partly because of my family name. I do wonder how the Magi got their names but my main question is, how does your explanation of the Magi story help me? So "Matthew" made up a nice story. You have provided the context and motivation for the story, but the story is still just a story. Even if I know why he did it, it still undermines the credibility of his gospel. Maybe "Matthew" made up a lot of stories. How would I know? Some of the gospel has to be sort of true or else what good is it, i.e. wherein is the Good News?

 

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