Soon after I finished The Gnostic Gospels by Dr. Elaine Pagels (1979) — a richly detailed and historical page-turner — I stumbled across a colorful book called A New Christianity for a New World by Bishop John Shelby Spong (2002). I was familiar with Spong’s reputation for controversy, but I grabbed it up and started in on it right away, somehow thinking it would be lighter in tone and more inspirational in nature. Little did I know that this new book was a dramatic and emotionally significant call to action, asking Christians around the world to put down the outdated, theistic (Father) concept of God and embrace a new vision of the church.
Not what you’d consider light reading.
In fact, I spent hours re-reading certain sections in an attempt to truly unpack the implications and revelations contained inside the words.
This is a book I wish I had discovered much earlier, as it has illuminated for me the necessary steps I must take as an individual in honoring the death of the theistic God — thanking “Him” for his service, and putting him to rest once and for all. It also shows me that there is still much work to do in lovingly and respectfully engaging in open dialogue with Christians who are seemingly uninformed about the history of their own Orthodox Church and also in rehabilitating those Christians in exile — who have become disillusioned with their faith as they, as individuals, have changed and grown so much, only to see their creeds and institutions (once viewed as a reliable bedrock) become insufficient, small-minded and small-hearted.
What was exciting for me, and divinely-timed, was that the book also offers a framework of not only Spong’s call for reformation and a new “Ecclesia” (Greek for “assembly” or “those called out”), but references the writings on “Creation Spirituality” by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox and the picture of the historical Jesus drawn by the work of John Dominic Crossan. This framework examines the life of Jesus, the teachings of The Christ and the gospel of the resurrected Christ Jesus in a truly integral way.
Spong’s call for reformation is heartfelt and well-researched, and is clearly written by someone who has lived and loved his own faith for many decades. It is a cry for change and reform from an insider of the Orthodox Church — someone the world would agree is an expert on the subject. I find it interesting that this book follows a previous work entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999). As if the publisher said, “Jack, we just need something a little more positive. A little more upbeat.” Indeed, we need the “antidote to toxic Christianity.”
For those that identify as practicing Christians and those that have been frustrated with the bloody and barbaric rhetoric hurled from the pulpit, reading this book may very well cause you to walk out of your home church once and for all. For church leaders, reading this book should be required. It could very well start significant changes within the organization — baby steps to be brought up at the next board meeting — and at the very least, it has the potential to create conversation.
Most likely, though, it will be met with scorn and indifference by the institution we now know as the Christian church. And therein lies both the problem and the thesis of this book.
It breaks down like this, the teachings of the historical Jesus (shared eating, charity, compassion, indiscriminate love for humanity, a direct communion with God as the source of Being), have been taken out of context or ignored outright by the orthodox Christian church we know today. The orthodox church opts instead to teach conditional ideas like salvation (most times only through the Christ figure, or the church itself), baptism (primarily to cleanse one from Original Sin), reinforces the concept of a wrathful Father God (the punitive parent demanding a blood sacrifice), as well as presents a distorted or inaccurate version of natural history as historical fact.