Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture

Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture

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by John Shelby Spong

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By popular demand—study guides to two of Bishop John Shelby Spong's bestselling and controversial works, including questions, reflections, and summaries for group and individual use.


By popular demand—study guides to two of Bishop John Shelby Spong's bestselling and controversial works, including questions, reflections, and summaries for group and individual use.

Editorial Reviews

“[Spong is] striving to revive the imaginative possibilities of ancient Scripture for the women and men of today.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One

A Preamble:
Sex Drove Me to the Bible

Sex drove me to the Bible!
This statement is literally true, but not in the sense that most would interpret it. In 1988 my book entitled Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality was published by Harper and Row. In that book I was led to question traditional religious attitudes and traditional religious definitions on a wide variety of sexual issues, from homosexuality to premarital living arrangements. There was an immediate outcry from conservative religious circles in defense of something they called biblical morality.

Proof Texting and Prejudice

This appeal to the Bible to justify and to sustain an attitude that was clearly passing away had a very familiar ring to me. I grew up in America's segregated South with its rich evangelical biblical heritage. Time after time I heard the Bible quoted to justify segregation. I was told that Ham, Noah's son, had looked on Noah in his nakedness, and for this sin he had been cursed to servitude and slavery along with all his progeny (Gen. 9:25-27). It did not occur to those quoting this Scripture to raise questions about what kind of God was assumed in this verse, or whether or not they could worship such a God. Since they could not identify themselves with those who were the victims of this cruelty, the God to whom they ascribed this victimizing power did not appear to them to be seriously compromised.

It also did not seem to matter that this corporate condemnation of millions of people to servitude because of their ancestor's indiscretionmight also contradict other parts of the sacred text. The prophet Ezekiel, for example, writes: "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge'? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die" (Ezek. 18:2-4). The only concern of the one who quoted the texts in my early life was to maintain that person's prejudice, to enable that person to avoid having to change destructive attitudes.

I lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the late 1960s, when independent Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell was just beginning his rise to national prominence. Intense racism was certainly in the air at that time, and Jerry Falwell played to these feelings as his popularity grew. To start a "Christian school" in that period of history was a popular response to the Supreme Court order to dismantle the segregated school system endemic to the South since the Civil War. Teachers in Falwell's school had to take an oath of conformity to biblical inerrancy, and by that same view of Scripture, Jerry Falwell could justify his emotional commitment to segregation, although, in fairness to Mr. Falwell, it needs to be said that he has moved away from these negative attitudes as the years have gone by.

It was in this period of history that the segregationist governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox, became a candidate for president of the United States and was supported by many southern fundamentalists. Maddox was a Georgia restaurateur who battled for his "constitutional right" to serve only a segregated public. He gave out ax handles at his restaurant as a hint of the way he thought those who wanted to desegregate public businesses might be discouraged from doing so.

With ease, many texts out of the Hebrew Scriptures could be quoted to justify the need for God's chosen people to keep themselves separate and apart from those judged to be unchosen, heathen, or evil. That was, and is, a major theme in the books of both Ezra and Nehemiah, for example (Ezra 10:12, 15; Neh. 13:1-3). Of course those texts could be countered by other texts to produce ambivalence or relativity in biblical truth, but fundamentalists could not tolerate this. Those whose religious security is rooted in a literal Bible do not want that security disturbed. They are not happy when facts challenge their biblical understanding or when nuances in the text are introduced or when they are forced to deal with either contradictions or changing insights. The Bible, as they understand it, shares in the permanence and certainty of God, convinces them that they are right, and justifies the enormous fear and even negativity that lie so close to the surface in fundamentalistic religion. For biblical literalists, there is always an enemy to be defeated in mortal combat.

Sometimes that enemy is Satan-the devil literalized and made very real and serving the primary purpose of removing responsibility from the one who has fallen into sin. Onetimepopular American evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, when caught in a NewOrleans motel with a prostitute, explained his behavior by just such an appeal to Satan. His evangelistic enterprises were so successful, he stated, that the devil was being hurled back into darkness by this white knight of a preacher. So the devil launched a counterattack and lured evangelist Swaggart into a trap and dealt a mortal blow to his soul-winning ministry. If the devil can ensnare a heroic figure like Swaggart, so the argument went, think what he (the devil is always male, witches are always female) can do to the lesser persons who are mere church members.

In evangelical circles, child discipline tends to be quite physical, both because children are thought to be "born in sin" and therefore evil and because the Book of Proverbs teaches parents that "he who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him" (Prov. 13:24). One disobedient lad, facing corporal punishment in "the woodshed," is said to have argued for a suspended sentence by saying, "It wasn't my fault, father. The devil made me do it." To which the father replied, "Well son, I guess it is my duty to beat the devil out of you!" Blaming the devil is a popular but not always successful maneuver. It did not work for Mr. Swaggart.

Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Copyright © by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000, has been a visiting lecturer at Harvard and at more than 500 other universities all over the world. His books, which have sold well over a million copies, include Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy; The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic; Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World; Eternal Life: A New Vision; Jesus for the Non-Religious, The Sins of Scripture, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?; Why Christianity Must Change or Die; and his autobiography, Here I Stand. He writes a weekly column on the web that reaches thousands of people all over the world. To join his online audience, go to He lives with his wife, Christine, in New Jersey.

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Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read it twice within a week. What comforting words for those of us trying to hang onto our Jesus experiences despite all the problems with the ancient texts. Spong stares down the bigotry and anti-intellectualism of Christian fundamentalism and offers, in its place well-thought-out, plausible alternatives in bible interpretation. The result is anything BUT a soulless faith. Indeed, his call to passionate living and wasteful loving have me feeling positively inspired.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book changed my life. I am a lifelong devout Christian, and I have been increasingly worried about how 'Christian' fundamentalist extremists have been distorting the message of Jesus and the Bible. After reading this book, I am liberated from having to try to justify a literal interpretation of so many of our beloved biblical stories. Bishop Spong has pointed out why such literal interpretations are impossible, by showing the historical context and motivations of those who put those stories on paper. And he has beautifully shown us how it doesn't matter whether we can interpret the stories literally or not! What matters is what we learn from those stories, the lessons God wants us to learn, and the most important lesson of all is to love one another - - even those with whom we don't agree and of whom we don't approve. My prayer is that those caught in the fundamentalist trap of using the Bible to judge and hurt others will take Bishop Spong's words to heart and embrace the loving message of the Bible, to realize that every person on this planet is a child of God and should be treated with love.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bishop Spong examines issues that infuriate non-thinking christians. If the Bible is to be the source of a belief, it must be open to review. Rescuing the Bible allows the reader to examine the scripture and look at it with more understanding. This is definitely not a book for blind followers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A great book. The only people that will be offended by this are 'bumper sticker' christians and fundamentalist. But as both will do, they will quote fromt he Old Testment and throw verbal stones at something they do not agree with. They will forget that Jesus closed the Old Testment and left us with only two commanments: love the Lord your God and love your neighbors as yourself. Funny thing is, those two commandments take the fun out of attacking people, marginalizing people, limiting people, controlling people. This book is an eye opener to what is wrong with contemporary Christianity and organized religion int he U.S. today.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An earnest and compelling look at how fundamentalism is destroying Christianity slowly but surely. This book will not persuade a fundamentalist to "come over to the other side" but it will reassure those who are ready to give up on Christianity that there's more than meets the eye on the pages in the Bible.
Wrangler74 More than 1 year ago
I have read this book like many other books on belief in God Almighty. I have the Aramaic bible which was the language of Jesus time on earth. I have been to both Catholic one Protestant churches and Fundamentalist and liberal churches. Fundamentalist, I find ,support their belief by pointing out how everyone is wrong but them. I know some Fundamentalist friends of mine that talk the talk, but don't walk the walk. They will take verses out of context to prove their mistaken certainty. They are judgmental and unforgiving. JUDGE NOT does not apply to them. I don't agree with everything Spong writes, but I can learn from it and it does not shake my faith in my Savior Christ Jesus. I have the 1384 Wycliffe Bible, the 1560 Geneva Bible,the 1611 King James which still retains all eighty-eight books. So anyone who is afraid of loosing their faith from reading this book don't read it for goodness sake!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book that will increase your understanding of scripture 'in context'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Bishop writes an excellent book which supports belief based upon reason rather than belief based upon myth.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book as I was taking an Old Testament class at college. The class was opening my eyes things I had never seen in the Old Testament, and I started to question certain things in the Christian church. My dad gave me this book to help me out. It was great. It addresses all the things that I end up arguing with my youth minister about. I think that Bishop Spong is very correct in much of his analysis of what fundamentalism is doing to our religion. If we want our religion to survive, we must look beyond the literal interpretation of our sacred book. This book really opens eyes and broadens horizons. I highly recommend it to all who really want to study the Bible and learn about their faith.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In today's political climate, where the line between religion and public life is so skewed, it was heartening to read this book. Bishop Spong thoughtfully and clearly points out the danger of modern day fundamentalists who seek to oppress women, discriminate against gays and lesbians and others who do not believe as they do. I would like to see this book as required reading for everyone who calls him or herself a 'Christian', but lacks the tolerance to truly be one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A thought provoking book. Except for a few errors in biblical references, the work is compelling. Spong points out that Paul never wrote about his experiences on the way to Damascus. Luke did it for him in the book of Acts. Very interesting. That fact had never been pointed out in any church I ever attended. It makes one wonder what those first century New Testament writers were thinking, not to mention the modern readers of the bible. Everyone, no matter their religious affiliation, will find Spong's book rewarding. The book temporarily disturbed my faith, but certainly enhanced my rational thinking and curiosity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book brought to light some of my initial questions on my journey into Christianity. Although, I did not agree with Mr. Spong all of the time. He does do an essential thing in this book: Challenge his faith. This to me is a very courageous and natural act. This book made my faith stronger because faith will hold up against all of the challenges proposed. It would be much easier to ignore or unfoundedly disagree with this book but to do so would be to avoid the truth. Mr. Spong makes strong points questioning the literal aspects of the Bible. He makes a very good argument for the 'spirit' of the Bible versus the 'word' of the Bible. Mr. Spong's book is essential to any academic/scholarly Christian. This book needs to be read to better understand contemporary Christianity. This book is sensational in displaying all aspects of the Christian walk. It clearly points out that being a Christian is not solely about believing but also seeking the ultimate truth. Are you ready to take the challenge set forth by our Savoir?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Got me thinking, helped me to understand the Bible much better. Anyone who has questions about the Bible should read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While I disagree with the literal interpretation of the Bible by evangelists, the author's poorly concealed hedonism is just as false. Even though his role as a bishop rises his stature within his church, that title is given to him by other men. God values lay person as highly as a bishop, priest, rabbi, nun or any other title that one mortal is given by other mortals and one person's interpretation of scripture is just as valid as another's. The Bible is written in all languages so people can read it for themselves not throgh the eyes of another.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read countless reviews and summaries of this book. The only question I have is, where does God fit into all of this? I hear all about how Bishop Spong is very detailed and logical in his findings about Biblical Translation. But not once have I heard anything like, 'You must let the Holy Spirit guide you in understanding the Bible'. The other 3 reviews that rate this book poor sound like regular church going people who review this book as people who they themselves have a clear understanding of scripture. The rest of the people on this site who rate this book either have no type of Biblical understanding or are those, who like Bishop Spong, want to understand the Bible through their own human understanding and logic. To reiterrate from the other 3 reviews who see this book for what it truly is, let me say that you cannot understand the Bible without the guidence of the Holy Spirit. Your own understanding will take you but so far. You can memorize and study the scriptures for your whole life but if you don't allow God to guide you when reading it, you'll barely understand the basics of the Bible and you'll surely misinterpret and take out of context the rest of it. Only those who've accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and accept that their understanding can only take them but so far, can fully understand the context of the Holy Scriptures. Its all about faith. Faith in believe that nothing is impossible for God. God is not a God of confusion but a God of order. If the Bible is truly the literal dictation of God, then God will show us how to understand and comprehend the instructions that he has left us in his Bible.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book obviously promotes people to lean on their own human understanding of the Bible and to disregard the guidance of the Holy Spirit in understanding Biblical text. The guidance of the Holy Spirit allows our own understanding to become more focused but there are things about the Bible we can't grasp or understand without the Holy Spirit's revelation. When I first got this book, I thought it was going to show us how to better understand the Bible by examining the history of its composition and the changing writing style of each time period a book was written in. Instead I get that Paul might have been a homosexual, Jesus never claimed to be God, and a thesis on evolution. How can Bishop Spong claim to have faith in Christ and claim to show people how to have faith when he promotes Christianity and the Bible as little more than history distorted by myth and legend? If the Bible isn't a literal dictation of God's word and most of it is just faith portraits depicted by the authors of the Bible, than God and Jesus Christ have no more foundation than belief in Zeus and Amen-Ra. I would not recommend this book to any Christian nor to anyone who wants to understand the Bible more clearly. This book is cloaked in reasoning and understanding but what its really saying, to sum it up in a single sentence, is; 'The Bible is not the word of God but the word of man eager to spread his faith but sloppy in doing so.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Let me open by quoting Hebrews 11:1-3; 'Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By Faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.' I suggest you all read Hebrews chapter 11 so you can see for yourself the type of faith a true believer in Jesus Christ is suppossed to have. This book by Bishop Spong does not inspire us to obtain true faith, but in contrast to the Bible, promotes that our faith be made up of reasoning, understanding, and logic. How can this be, in ANY religion, true faith in one's spiritual beliefs? How does this form of faith stand in agreement with how the Bible tells us our faith to be? How would we be able to trust in Christ if, according to Bishop Spong, Jesus and His teachings are not really how the Bible and Biblical Fundamentalism claims it to be? How can the Bible be counted on as 'The Word of God' when Bishop Spong says that's its not the Word of God but the words of story tellers handing these myths down since the first century? How would anyone be able to trust the Bible after reading Spong's book? That's the thing about faith. If you don't have it, you can't understand it; and if you do have it-- then there's no need to understand it. When a true believer in Christ reads the Bible, he/she reads it knowing that they'll recieve answers and seek to know more and have a full understanding of those answers. But if you are to question the credibility and validility of the answers in front of you, that is not true faith. Faith is believeing without seeing, and even without understanding at first. If you can't believe without seeing, or without having concrete logical proof, then that's not faith. And without believeing in the Word, God will not guide you in trying to understand it. Only those who have true faith and allow themselves, and their human understanding of logic and reasoning, to be guided by the Holy Spirit-- can truly understand and recieve revelation on the Holy Scriptures. Bishop Spong's book is an abomination to everything the Bible and Biblical Faith stands for!!!