Essay Archives View as a list
16 January 2008: Reflections on our Final Days in South Africa
On our last few days in South Africa, we tasted the land in several ways. With Professor Izak Spangenberg as our guide, we went on a four day, three night safari in Kruger Park near the Mozambique border. With Professor Hansie Wolmarans as our guide we ventured into the depths of the historic gold mines, …
The news has been received that a California Episcopal Diocese
(San Joaquin) has reached the second stage in voting to leave the
national Episcopal Communion over the issue of homosexuality.
The media is describing the anti-gay position as biblical, the
pro-gay as being against Bible teaching. After reading
Living in Sin and The Sins of Scripture, I
cannot believe that it is that simple. Reporters are not doing
their job of careful investigation.
- Have these biblical stories and texts that are quoted to
support the anti-gay position ever been read, analyzed,
thoroughly debated, and defended in bishops' conferences? These
are supposedly intelligent people who respect scholarship. How
can they support exclusion on such flimsy evidence?
- Am I wrong to think this struggle among Episcopalians might
be a healthy thing, and that resistance from the highest levels
might be a way of teaching and illuminating facts and reality,
exposing the prejudice for the evil it is?
- Where is all this going? What could or should be done to
bring about a rational and acceptable result?
Your thoughts and your comments would be very much appreciated.
9 January 2008: Iowa’s Vote – National and International Scandals
In the Iowa caucuses last Thursday a mighty tide of frustration was released in both of America’s political parties. Establishment candidates, well financed, were overturned by newcomers. Political pundits were shocked. They should not have been. If these pundits had only looked at three recent events across our world: one in Pakistan, one in Kenya …
2 January 2008: South Africa’s “New Reformation Network”
It is a relatively new organization. They call it “The New Reformation Network.” Its primary leaders are three Afrikaans professors. Two of them, Dr. Izak Spangenberg, Professor of Old Testament Studies and Dr. Pieter Craffert, Professor of New Testament Studies, are colleagues at the University of South Africa in Pretoria; the third is Dr. Hansie …
I just finished reading a provocative book,
St. Paul Versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions, by
Michael Goulder. In it he argues, very persuasively in my
opinion, that there were actually two ways of seeing Jesus from
the very beginning of the early Church: Peter's way and Paul's
way. Theirs was a bitter battle, which can be inferred clearly
from Paul's writings about "those who would lead you astray."
Goulder's point was that while Peter won some battles, Paul won
One school of thought formed around Peter and
the Jerusalem-based followers like James, Jesus' brother. They
held Jesus to be special in many ways, but underneath it all a
human being like the rest of us, who was entered into by God's
spirit at his baptism, which spirit then departed his body on the
cross. The Petrine position was that the kingdom had been
ushered in via Jesus' life, death, and resurrection: the "kingdom
now" view. He also believed that people needed to practice
Jewish laws concerning food, the Sabbath, and circumcision to be
followers of Jesus.
The other position was Paul's, that Christ was
a divine being all along, whose death and resurrection ushered in
only the possibility of God's kingdom coming: the "kingdom later"
view. In addition, followers did not have to follow Jewish law
to be members, since Jesus was the sacrifice that satisfied all
those requirements. (Also, persuading adult Greeks and Romans not
to eat meat and to place themselves under the knife for
circumcision put a dent in the evangelism effort.)
Here is my quandary: given that there seems to
have been at least two diametrically opposed ways of viewing
Jesus and his divinity from the very beginning, and given that
our theology apparently goes back not to Jesus but to Paul (since
he "won" the battle), why are we Christians so arrogant? Doesn't
this argue for a little humility, and even relaxing the "our way
or the highway" mentality that grips the Church? It seems to me
that in the face of yet another example of the humanness of the
words we have received and the process by which they have come to
us, conundrums like the "inerrancy of scripture" need to be
gently laid to rest and we need to be searching for what it means
to be a follower of Jesus in a world that finally must be lived
by faith and awareness of how the spirit is moving in this
26 December 2007: My Return to South Africa
For years I have yearned to return to South Africa. I have not been there since 1976 when apartheid was still fully enforced. Nelson Mandela was in jail on Robin Island, his wife was under house arrest, Desmond Tutu was the Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg and the Soweto riots, in which between …
I have read several of your books and as a result have changed my
thinking I believe to a more rational approach to Christianity
and the Old Testament.
With regard to the Old Testament, I don't recall having read your
opinion regarding Moses and the birth of the Ten Commandments.
Did God speak to Moses via a burning bush and dictate the Ten
Commandments? I think not. It seems to me Moses and perhaps a
group of Jewish elders wrote the Ten Commandments after a great
deal of thought and discussion. The idea of course was for the
purpose of developing guidelines for the people to follow for the
betterment of all concerned. I believe it was decided Moses
would spend time in the mountains and then return with the Ten
Commandments stating they were given to him by God via a burning
bush. The chance of the people following these guidelines was
much greater than if Moses told the people he and the elders
wrote the Ten Commandments after much thought and discussion and
felt as civilized people they should be followed as law.
If they had followed that path, there would have been endless
discussion about what should and should not be included. Why Ten
Commandments? Should there be more? Perhaps less, etc. The Ten
Commandments as we know them probably would be nonexistent today.
The power of religion cannot be over estimated. One only has to
look today at what some radical Muslims have been taught from
childhood, i.e., to hate and kill Jews and "infidels" truly
believing it is God's will to do so.
19 December 2007: Christpower
Dear Friends, On December 24th, 1974 I delivered in my Church in Richmond, Virginia, a sermon, which sought to put the Christmas story into a modern context through the medium of poetry. It was based on an earlier poem I had written, entitled Christpower. In 1975 this Christmas piece was incorporated into and published along …
In keeping with the Christmas season for the Question and Answer
part of this column, I would like to publish with the permission
of its author, Joy Cowley, a Roman Catholic Christian from
Auckland, New Zealand, her translation of the words of Mary's
Song from the birth narrative of the Gospel of Luke. That song,
called "The Magnificat," can be found in Luke 1:46-55. Joy
understands the essential task of the modern disciple of Jesus to
make yesterday's words capable of being understood in the words
of the 21st century. I am grateful to her for her gift.
John Shelby Spong
My soul sings in gratitude.
I'm dancing in the mystery of God.
The light of the Holy One is within me
and I am blessed, so truly blessed.
This goes deeper than human thinking.
I am filled with awe
at Love whose only condition
is to be received.
The gift is not for the proud,
for they have no room for it.
The strong and self-sufficient ones
don't have this awareness.
But those who know their emptiness
can rejoice in Love's fullness.
It's the Love that we are made for,
the reason for our being.
It fills our inmost heart space
and brings to birth in us, the Holy One.
Joy Cowley, Auckland, New Zealand
Dear Friends, From time to time a report comes across my desk that is so important that I want to share it with my readers. That is the case with this report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom. It is not that their thought is new, it is that they have …
I call your attention to the biblical story of
Jesus saving the adulterous woman from death by stoning, when he
allowed that the stoning could proceed if only the "sinless" man
cast the first stone - knowing full well there was no such
sinless person present. And the clincher was that he proceeded
to write something in the sand for all to read. For most of my
life I firmly believed that the story said Jesus went before each
man present and wrote his personal sin in the sand. In later
life, when I was challenged to show that conclusion to the story
in the Bible, I couldn't find it. Can you tell me if such a
version exists or where I might have been misled?
5 December 2007: A Voice Within the Catholic Hierarchy Finally Speaks Out
“The Pope has too much power. The Pope is finally answerable to the Church.” “The Catholic Church has a problem with credibility.” “The Church’s teaching on sex needs to be reviewed.” “Seminaries are not healthy places.” “A few phrases in the Nicene Creed need to be revisited” “There are homosexual priests in the Catholic Church …
It was a very different kind of liturgy. The opening hymn was by New Zealand hymn writer Shirley Murray, exhorting the community of Christ to cry out for justice and peace – to disarm the powers of war and to turn bombs into bread and the tears of anguish into joy. Yet, these strong words …
Thank you for the inspiring and informative
article about the present struggles in the Episcopal Church and
Anglican Communion. [See An
Audacious Institution.] I had not known about the
super-majority required to pass the policy, nor had I known about
the small size and aging nature of the splinter groups. I hope
you will submit a version of this same piece for publication as
an op-ed piece in several prominent newspapers. These facts need
to be more widely known by those who are not already convinced of
the wisdom and humanity of your church's position.
On another subject, I recently read your book A
New Christianity for a New World immediately after reading
Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I was struck by how
much the two of you agree! I'm wondering if you have read his
book and what you think of his arguments there. (By the way, he
speaks highly of you at one point in the book).
I'm a member of Christ Lutheran Church in Pacific Beach,
California, and have heard you speak there and elsewhere in San
Diego on several occasions. My wife and I were among the
facilitators of our church's welcoming statement. I have been
frustrated for some time at the language that continues to be
used in the services that reinforces and prolongs the theistic
concept of God. A welcome topic for a future piece would be
suggestions for substitutions for outmoded language in the
Thank you for continuing to speak and write your
21 November 2007: A Conversation on Death in New Zealand
“There were two ways that people seemed to relate to the death of my wife. Those who perceive death as the opposite of life tended to look at her death negatively, as a tragedy; while those who tended to look at death as the opposite of birth saw it as the completion of a process, …
I am an avid reader of your books and was delighted that you
have written yet another one. Thank you for making scholarly
research related to the Bible accessible to the general public.
I have given copies of your books to dozens of friends and
relatives over the years in an effort to generate dialogue among
Christians and non-Christians alike. I think Jesus for the
Non-Religious is particularly useful for humanists/agnostics
who want to understand the historical Jesus. Thank you for this
As a member of the "Church Alumni Association," I have been
frustrated by many aspects of the church, for reasons that you
describe so well in Why Christianity Must Change or Die.
However, I was delighted to discover, relatively recently, a
spiritual path that works for me: Attending Quaker meetings in
the unprogrammed/silent tradition. It seems to me that the
Quaker concept (that of "God in everyone") relates to Paul
Tillich's idea of God as "the Ground of All Being," which you
often discuss. Do you have any thoughts on this? I have so much
respect for your work, and I would be delighted to hear your
reflections on Quakerism, Quaker thinkers/activists, and your
experience in a Quaker meeting, if you've ever attended one.
14 November 2007: Lecturing in Central Otago, New Zealand
Most of my readers will not have heard of Central Otago. Otago is the name of a Southern Province in New Zealand stretching roughly from Dunedin on the southeast coast to Queenstown in the west. South from Dunedin the next land mass confronted would be Antarctica. Central Otago is marked by two magnificent glacial lakes: …
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