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1 January 2014: The Passing of Greatness

On December 9, 2013, 65,000 people braved strong rains to gather in the Olympic Soccer Field in South Africa to pay tribute to a man named Nelson Mandela. They were joined by over one hundred heads of state from around the world, the largest number ever to attend a funeral service for a king, a …

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Q & A:

I was brought up Pentecostal. Of course, my church believes in "speaking in tongues." Of course, I hear that an interpreter must be present. Please tell me your thoughts on your "interpretation" of what the "holy spirit" means to you. My thoughts of the holy spirit means the spirit of humanity and anything that takes away that "holy" spirit of life, no matter what that life is to me is considered not "god-infused."

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25 December 2013: Part X Matthew: The Story of the Magi and Their Gifts

The wise men from Matthew’s birth story have been deeply attached to our Christmas celebration, stretching all the way back to the time that Matthew introduced them in the middle years of the ninth decade of the Common Era. They are instantly recognized mounted on their camels and appearing in our Christmas cards, our decorated store …

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Q & A:

I admitted the loss of my fundamentalist beliefs about a year ago. I was 26. I had no idea at the time that I was a fundamentalist. I thought fundamentalists picketed gay funerals, believed in a young, flat earth and “spoke in tongues.” I told myself that my beliefs (that Jesus somehow bodily became undead, that his body was not the product of natural biology, or that he rocketed into space after he was finished here) were somehow less silly. I hope they were less harmful to others.

Through my journey of doubt, I came upon some of your video lectures online. I also read several of your books and very much enjoyed them.

I am writing to you with two questions. First, although I was enraptured by your willingness to question what I thought were the basic tenets of Christianity, I was frustrated by your insistence on continuing to use the word “God.” I understand that your definition of God is very different from many people’s, but you have also expressed a certain eagerness to rid Christianity of meaningless clichés. Why is God not also a cliché?

Second, whatever disagreements we may have over the nature of God (and I suspect that even if they may be very great, you care very little), our plan of action is the same. Living fully, loving wastefully and being all that we can be seem to me to be a very, very good way to exist in the world today. I am at a loss, however, as to how to interact with others still caught in the trap that I have only just escaped from into exile. My parents and most of my friends still believe those things I cannot. Arguing with them seems an unloving, selfish and destructive thing, yet perhaps because I am young, I strain at the traces to do just that. It is deeply saddening to watch them waste their own lives in fear and confusion and to be separated from them by this divide. Is there no way to engage conservative fundamentalists in a non-destructive, life-giving manner?

 

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19 December 2013: Part IX Matthew. Matthew Introduces Joseph – The Earthly Father of Jesus

Matthew’s opening genealogy of Jesus is now complete with the intriguing idea that the line which produced Jesus of Nazareth, traveled not only through the royal family of the house of David, but also through four “tainted’ women: Tamar, who engaged in incest; Rahab, who was called a prostitute; Ruth, who achieved her goals through …

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Q & A:

I should like to know how you understand the biblical text about whether is said that Jesus died either for all or for many. In a paper to the German bishops of the Catholic Church a year or so ago the then pope Benedictus XVI authoritatively stated that this text was to be understood to read “for many” and not “for all."

 

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12 December 2013: Three Spanish Citizens who are Changing the Culture of Spain

Spain is a nation of 47 million people located on the southwestern part of the continent of Europe. It almost touches North Africa at Gibraltar and thus has a much closer contact with the African continent than any other European nation, including in its population a significant number of Muslim persons. It is one of …

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Q & A:

I have been searching for meaning for many years. I was brought up a Catholic and my immediate family still is, but I found it lacking. I have tried evangelical churches as it was very easy to just say, “The Bible is literal, God will take care of me if I say I believe.” That did not match up with my education and interest in the world. Soon conflicting information didn’t make sense anymore and since then I have come to the realization that God is not something to be understood, but something to be lived and felt. I believe Jesus and Buddha and others have given us insight to the true God, which I believe is part of all humanity.

With that background, I find it easy to read scripture without having a nagging that they are not true or, at the least, are discolored by having been written for people at their time. Maybe it is just the Catholic background that is obscuring my reading (“don’t question anything, it is just faith”), but if we are questioning what was written, why not question it all? Why say “the rising into heaven was metaphorical” but not question some other parts of the scripture? I used to subscribe to a daily gospel e-newsletter, but now find it all tainted. Yes, Jesus taught us how to live, how to get closer to God, the creator, but any human commentary on it seems hypocritical and most likely untrue. How do you read the Bible and decide that this part is probably true and this part is made up?

 

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5 December 2013: America’s Health Care Debate and What it Reveals

Every nation I visited on my recent European lecture tour has a National Health System, paid for by tax dollars and run for all the people by the government itself. Contrary to the propaganda of the American political right, these health services are well run and enormously popular in both conservative and liberal circles. The …

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Q & A:

Your columns are always thought provoking and filled with such wisdom. Thanks for sharing your incredible knowledge and insight with us. I was thrilled when you came to Chattanooga several years ago and I actually got to hear you in person at Grace Church. A recent column reminded me of one you wrote last summer right before my granddaughter was to be baptized. In last summer’s column you wrote about performing a baptism and being struck with the language used in the baptismal service.

I have been a member of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Chattanooga for over 40 years, but I have to admit I was a little surprised when my son, who lives with his wife and daughter in California, said he wanted to have his daughter baptized here in the church where he grew up. Although he is a very spiritual person, he hasn’t attended church for years. I myself rarely attend services at our church because when hearing the liturgy and reciting the creeds, I feel as if I am being forced to wear shoes that I have outgrown and that feel several sizes too small. I am eternally grateful, however, that the church allows our dream group to meet there and encourages our “sacred studies” group to hold weekend workshops there as well. I have thanked our priest on more than one occasion for being open to letting me and the others explore our spirituality in unconventional ways.

Back to my granddaughter’s baptism. We couldn’t have the service in the church because there are only certain Sundays used for joint baptisms and their visit didn’t fall on one of those Sundays. We decided to have the service at a family cabin on a lake in the woods and a friend of mine, who is an Episcopal priest, but has no parish, agreed to perform the baptism. When she sent the service to my son to read, he said he didn’t like it because there was way too much talk about sin. It was right about this time that your column came out so I sent it to him. He agreed with everything you said! My priest friend then sent him the Australian service which she thought might be more to his liking. The mention of sin in this version was a turn off as well. He said all they wanted to do was to introduce their daughter to God’s love. The priest was bound by her vows to use some form of Episcopal liturgy so my son went online and found a pastor in Chattanooga from the Unity Church who was thrilled over performing the service. It was his first baptism and he wrote the service himself. It was absolutely glorious!

You have opened up a monumentally important topic in that column and closed with the question, “What can we do about it?” I await your response with an open mind and eager anticipation.

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28 November 2013: A Thirty-Day Lecture Tour of Europe

It was probably the most exciting and fulfilling book tour of my entire career. Over a period of thirty days, I journeyed through Europe delivering sixteen public lectures in Spain, Italy, England and Scotland. We also touched Switzerland and Wales. In Wales we spent the night and met with Peter Francis, the warden of the …

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Q & A:

It was a pleasure to hear and meet you at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland last November. We always enjoy your talks and books. It is exciting and such a relief to hear from a biblical scholar that the thoughts we have mulled over for many years – about God and the life of Jesus and what it all means for the world – are not totally crazy – or subversive! A small but growing study group, meeting in our home, enjoys discussing your books among others. So – thank you for sharing your knowledge! We know it has not been an easy road for you.

The question: Is there a “Progressive Christianity” study Bible available that would help us search Scripture and give historical background?

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21 November 2013: Part VIII Matthew: What is the Meaning of the Virgin Birth?

It is difficult for most Christians to imagine that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth was a late developing tradition in the Christian faith, yet it appears to have been totally unknown until it is introduced in the middle years of the ninth decade in the writings of Matthew. Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is …

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Q & A:

I have just begun to read your latest book: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. Before beginning Chapter Two (I took your advice and read carefully the preceding pages) I thought it might be fun, and perhaps of interest to you, to get some ongoing feedback. Obviously, I have not read enough text to object, on the contrary, I am eager to hear what you have to say.

The Fourth Gospel has left more questions than answers for me. My own personal fascination and continued awe of the scriptures as revelations of God for the past 50 years now stands for me as the greatest proof of the reality of the Love of God. God both keeps me thirsty and continually satisfies my thirst. Still! Is that not miraculous in and of itself? I have wondered why “Christians” ignore the Jewish roots of their faith, their God. At one time I studied Kabbalah and personally experienced some of the wonders of that teaching. Christians seem to fear mysticism. Or anything not approved of by whatever denomination they were born into or whatever church they finally settle into that does not require thinking. I literally would eat the letters of the Bible if that were possible. The longer I live the more grateful I am for their Truth. Not the translated and misconstrued doctrinal teachings rampant in church circles but the Truth that has never yielded to humanity’s wishes for a convenient weapon or a doable law. I have studied and read studies of the Bible since I first picked up a Bible at age 20, not to find God, but to read what all the God-fuss was about. I read every single unintelligible word (so not to miss anything, as I never intended to read it again) and somewhere in the book of Deuteronomy, I fell in love with Truth. I am still in love, but I continue to be uncomfortable with John and have all these years failed to find a reason for what is presented as the Gospel of John. Thank you Dr. Pastor Father Bishop John Shelby Spong for loving God and for sharing your passion and your found treasure with the rest of us who are busy doing other things.

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14 November 2013: Part VII Matthew: The Shady Ladies of Matthew’s Genealogy

The audience for which Matthew wrote was conversant with the Jewish Scriptures, so when he mentions Tamar in the genealogy, they would know her story. The Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) was read in its entirety in the traditional synagogues on the Sabbaths of a single year. The 38th chapter of Genesis, where …

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Q & A:

With so much modern information embedded in your views, I find it odd that you would still believe in prophecy. Do you? Or do you call Jesus of Nazareth “Christ” out of habit and not because he did or will fulfill the messianic prophesies of Jewish lore? Do you actually believe that anyone can know the distant future in great detail? Or, do you believe that the stories of Jesus of Nazareth were made up from an inaccurate Greek translation of those prophecies long after the events transpired and by ghost writers and not the sources cited?

 

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7 November 2013: Part VI Matthew: The Genealogy (1:1-17)

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” — that is how the gospel of Matthew begins. The word “genealogy” means “origins,” beginnings. It could thus also be translated the book of the “genesis” of Jesus, the messiah. For “genesis” is what is being described in this …

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Q & A:

I'm sure you have answered this question many times but I can't find the answer on the website. What do you mean by the phrase you use so often "for the non-religious?" Do you mean those who don't go to church or do you mean those who don't believe in God? Or something else?

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31 October 2013: Part V Matthew: Isolating This Gospel from All the Others

Having now introduced you to a different way of reading the gospel of Matthew, and puncturing for you, I hope forever, the assumption that this book along with all the other gospels was ever intended to be either history or biography, I want in this column to double back and focus on the gospel of …

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Q & A:

Thank you for your insightful scholarship. My question has to do with free will. If we believe we have free will this helps explain the rampant, human-induced evil in the world. On the other hand, the Lord's Prayer, wherein we ask that "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" must have been uttered millions of times to no apparent avail. Those who believe in a benevolent God who answers prayers must be stymied and dismayed that these millions of prayers go unanswered in the face of evil or - if they are answered - that God’s will included mayhem. My take is that there is not a God that answers these prayers and that we are on our own - or God’s will is to endorse our free will to carry on as usual. Your comments on free will, the will of God and, in this context, evil itself would be greatly appreciated.

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