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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 …

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Q & A:

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

the war.

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


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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 …

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Q & A:

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.


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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 …

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Q & A:

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

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12 December 2007: Submission to the Church of England’s Listening Exercise on Human Sexuality

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 …

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Q & A:

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?

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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 …

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Q & A:

Where was the Christian God before he appeared to Moses and

declared that the Israelis were his chosen people? Why didn't

the great civilizations of the world, prior to this appearance,

know about this God?

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28 November 2007: An Anglican Priest and an Anglican Church in New Zealand: Sources of a New Hope

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 …

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Q & A:

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


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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, …

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Q & A:

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.

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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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Q & A:

I have shared your thoughts with many people, and the most

frequent response I hear is: "If I could find a church

whose pastor spoke like Bishop Spong, I wouldn't miss a Sunday."

Are there any churches in South Jersey that share your vision of

what a church could be?

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7 November 2007: The Five Fundamentals: A Conclusion

If the “Five Fundamentals” articulated by traditional Christians in the early years of the 20th century represent the essence of Christianity then the time has come to acknowledge that we have come to the end of this noble faith tradition. Those “Fundamentals” assume a supernatural, theistic deity, who manipulates the laws of the universe to …

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Q & A:

I love your writing and your views that embrace
compassionate deeds rather than creedal concepts. It seems to me
that your message would have a much broader appeal if you opened
your invitation to follow your belief paradigm to all comers, not
just Christians; and broadened your teaching authority to other
sages and ethical and moral teachers beyond Jesus. I think your
call and message could be far more inclusive than being
restricted to Christians alone. Have you ever addressed a
non-Christian audience and broadened your message to accept their
way of worshipping God?

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31 October 2007: The Fifth Fundamental The Second Coming

The last of the Five Fundamentals claimed by American Protestant Traditionalists as the irreducible essence of Christianity has to do with the second coming of Jesus. To modern ears it is the most bizarre of the five and is based, I believe, on a misunderstanding of the Christ experience that was later literalized. However, that …

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Q & A:

I have been a subscriber to your weekly newsletter for some

time. I sincerely appreciate your opening up an entirely

different interpretation of biblical events, making it possible

for a person to question the literal view without feeling like

an evil person. I have certainly gained important insights into

the Bible and learned much about what doesn't make sense in the

literal interpretations. Of your several books, which do you

feel would be the most helpful and informative to read if I am

primarily looking for your view on what the Bible and

Christianity mean when they are stripped of the literal


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