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Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile

Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile

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by John Shelby Spong

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An important and respected voice for liberal American Christianity for the past twenty years, Bishop John Shelby Spong integrates his often controversial stands on the Bible, Jesus, theism, and morality into an intelligible creed that speaks to today's thinking Christian. In this compelling and heartfelt book, he sounds a rousing call for a Christianity based on


An important and respected voice for liberal American Christianity for the past twenty years, Bishop John Shelby Spong integrates his often controversial stands on the Bible, Jesus, theism, and morality into an intelligible creed that speaks to today's thinking Christian. In this compelling and heartfelt book, he sounds a rousing call for a Christianity based on critical thought rather than blind faith, on love rather than judgment, and that focuses on life more than religion.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Spong, Episcopal Bishop of Newark, N.J., has made a career of debunking fundamentalist Christian views on the virgin birth, the resurrection and the infallibility of the Bible. Here Spong takes on the structure of Christianity itself in order to formulate a Christianity for the postmodern age. Spong contends that Christianity still clings to a premodern view of God and the world that has long since been challenged and discarded by science and philosophy. Yet, the realities of a God-presence, a human figure who embodies that presence (Jesus of Nazareth), and a community of believers who are trying to enact this presence (the church) are central to Spong's Christian belief. Thus, he contends, because the modern world has shattered the premodern views of God and the world and robbed contemporary Christianity of a language adequate to its beliefs, Spong claims that Christian believers now live in exile, still desirous of singing the Lord's song but living in a world and a Christianity that no longer wants to sing that song. Spong argues that Christians must find a new language with which to express their claims if they want to retain a vital faith in the midst of this exile. On the one hand, Spong's plea is an eloquent one: "Religion is a human attempt to process the God experience, which breaks forth from our own depths and wells up constantly within us." On the other hand, Spong's theology is so fuzzy"Jesus was a God presence"; "This reality [God presence] can be found in all that is but it reaches self-consciousness and capability of being recognized only in human life"that it results in a book less remarkable for its ideas than for its pronouncements on the end of fundamentalist Christianity. (May) (PW best book of 1998)

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On Saying the Christian Creed
with Honesty

"We believe in God... "

Beginning with these words, the corporate faith of the Christian Church finds expression in the phrases of what it calls the Apostles' Creed. That "we" who "believe in God" is made up of many individuals. I am one of them.

I define myself above all other things as a believer. I am indeed a passionate believer. God is the ultimate reality in my life. I live in a constant and almost mystical awareness of the divine presence. I sometimes think of myself as one who breathes the very air of God or, to borrow an image from the East, as one who swims in the infinite depths of the sea of God. Like the psalmist of old, I have the sense of God's inescapableness.' I am what I would call a God-intoxicated human being.Yet, when I seek to put my understanding of this God into human words, my certainty all but disappears. Human words always contract and diminish my God awareness. They never expand it.

The God I know is not concrete or specific. This God is rather shrouded in mystery, wonder, and awe. The deeper I journey into this divine presence, the less any literalized phrases, including the phrases of the Christian creed, seem relevant. The God I know can only be pointed to; this God can never be enclosed by propositional statements.

The words of the Apostles' Creed, and its later expansion known as the Nicene Creed, were fashioned inside a worldview that no longer exists. Indeed, it is quite alien to the world in which I live. The way reality was perceived when the Christian creeds were formulated has been obliterated by the expansion of knowledge. That fact is soobvious that it hardly needs to be spoken. If the God I worship must be identified with these ancient creedal words in any literal sense, God would become for me not just unbelievable, but in fact no longer worthy of being the subject of my devotion. I am not alone in this conclusion. Indeed, I am one of a countless host of modern men and women for whom traditional religious understandings have lost most of their ancient power. We are that silent majority of believers who find it increasingly difficult to remain members of the Church and still be thinking people. The Church does not encourage us in this task. That institution seems increasingly brittle and therefore not eager to relate to its creeds as a set of symbols that must be broken open so that the concept of God can be embraced by new possibilities.

Institutional Christianity seems fearful of inquiry, fearful of freedom, fearful of knowledge-indeed, fearful of anything except its own repetitious propaganda, which has its origins in a world that none of us any longer inhabits. The Church historicallyhas been willing to criticize, marginalize, or even expel its most creative thinkers. The list would stretch from Origen through Erasmus to Hans Küng. This institution seems far more eager to expend its energy defending its limited truth than to see its holy words for what they are-mere pointers toward the reality that limited words always distort and can never finally capture. This simple conclusion becomes inescapable as soon as the creeds themselves begin to spell out their affirmations and our questions shout to be heard.

The opening phrase of the Apostles' Creed speaks first of God as the "Father Almighty." Both of these words offend me deeply. Here the mystery that I treasure in God begins to be filled with limiting cultural definitions. The word Father is such a human word-so male, so dated.' It elicits the traditional God images of the old man who lives lust beyond the sky. It shouts of the masculinity of the deity, a concept that has been used for thousands of years to justify the oppression of women by religious institutions. That history and that practice repel me today. The Christian Church at times has gone so far as to debate whether women actually had souls and whether girl babies ought to be baptized. That Church universally relegated women to clearly defined secondary roles until the latter years of the twentieth century, when that sexist prejudice began to dissipate. Even the recent ecclesiastical breakthrough in some faith communitles, which has allowed women to be pastors, priests, and bishops, is embraced by only a small minority of the Christians of the world. The Church dedicated to the worship of a God who was called "Father" has consistently justified its rampant discrimination against women as the will of this patriarchal deity or, at the very least, as something idolatrously called the "unchanging sacred tradition of the Church." I do not care to worship a God defined by masculinity. I am no longer tolerant of gatherings where all the participants are men, sitting in a solemn assembly, clothed in their ecclesiastical dress, and acting as if they can determine what a woman may do morally with her own body. I have no interest in being part of an institution that is so deeply biased against women and intends to stay that way.

The word Almighty is equally troubling. Almighty has been translated theologically by the Church into such concepts as omnipotence (all-powerful) and omniscience (all-knowing). These two understandings constitute a provocative and disturbing claim. By attributing omnipotence to God, one also attributes to the deity the power to remedy any wrong or to prevent any disaster. Yet wrongs and disasters continue to be a part of life. Religious thinkers have danced around these realities since the dawn of time. The traditional arguments about free will and the virtues developed through suffering are today so weak and so unconvincing. To attribute to God omnipotent power in our world is thus logically to assert that the God who possesses this power must have chosen not to use it. The only real alternatives to this conclusion are found in asserting that God is limited...

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 www.JohnShelbySpong.com. He lives with his wife, Christine, in New Jersey.

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Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've always liked Bishop Spong, mostly because his faith journey has been similar to mine. Not only that but we are trying to breathe new life into Christian doctrines that, in today's world, are becoming increasing unbelievable. After the discoveries of modern physics and biology, as well as the horrors of the last century, the God of orthodox Christian theism--while continuing to be compelling for many--is still a hard sell for others. And it's this later group that Spong is writing for. He calls them 'believers in exile.' They have left the church or are silently sitting in the pews biting their tounges because they can't say the creed with conviction: the modern world has made it unintelligible. Yet these same people are still wanting to stand within the Christian tradition, if only it could make sense and be relevant to their lives. The old God, along with its doctrines, have no power over their lives, probably because of the infinite distance between the first century understanding of the world and a twenty-first understanding of it. Like many theologians who no longer stand in the 'orthodox' camp, Spong undertakes the task of re-defining Christian doctrines in the light of contemporary knowledge. God, Jesus, resurrection, the Christian life--all are given a new meaning. Yes, it may not look like the Christianity of old, but Spong is wrestling with the texts and traditions that have been handed down to him and, along with contemporary scientific knowledge, is trying to make Christianity believable for contemporary men and women who hunger for transcendence but who don't find it in the traditional paradigm.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book helped my transition into a Post-christian world flow a bit more smoothly. These are questions we face, but aren't allowed to answer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Spong has made an excellent and accessible attempt at bringing Christianity forward into the post-modern world. While he does not develop his theology fully and completely, he obviously draws much of his thinking from Tillich and says as much. Unlike Tillich's work though, Spong is easy to read, and presents in a practical way the problems and possible solutions to the dilemma of the 'modern' Christian. While it is radical, and many will say he is no longer Christian, I think he holds up a light shining into the future. Christianity may not develop exactly as he envisions, but his vision offers hope that it can endure.
GregNC More than 1 year ago
This is a Must read for everyone who wants to know the real GOD. Bishop Spong really puts the concept of GOD in a new and claer light. Out with the old, in with the new. I feel so much better about GOD and Christianity after reading this book. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In his book "Why Christianity Must Change or Die," Bishop Spong attempts to reformulate Christianity so that it's relevant for the twenty-first century. Spong rethinks the notions of God, Jesus, the atonement and the church. The end result? A challenge to many traditional Christians and a breath of fresh air to those who, although in spiritual exile, are looking for a path back to the Christian life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a young adult, I began to question the institution of Christianity. I felt a need to believe but was disillusioned by the corruption and reactionary philosophy of most christian denominations. I was expected to beleive without question. If nothing else, Spong is an advocate of studying, questioning and struggling with faith. In some areas Spong's writing is bland and in other areas I am not sure of how he is interpreting scripture; I can, however forgive these flaws and applaud Spong for starting a long awaited religious dialog. Many other reviewers on this site claim that Spong is trying to create some kind of Pluralistic, New Age religion. I would say that Spong is pleading the leaders of Christianity and defending those men and women who truly have been exiled from the community of faith. The title is not a warning a desperate plea to save the spirit of Christ's message.
Guest More than 1 year ago
though i have never and still don't consider myself 'in exile,' bishop spong 'harps my thoughts aright.' i found his questions and answers meet me where my experience has been leading me, though sometimes -- as when he speaks of God as 'impersonal' where i would opt for 'non-personal,' meaning 'beyond personal' -- i find his choice of phrasing to be less helpful. for those committed but searching this is a book to ponder, providing a good guide into one's own thoughts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bishop Spong wrestles the Church away from the ignorance, bigotry and misogyny of the past. It is important, especially now, with words like Jihad being thrown around on a daily basis.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I applaud Spong's ability to write in a way that lets the reader understand completely what he is saying. However, I find it hard to believe that a Christian intent on finding the truth can attack the very foundations of the church and call it simply a 'change'. Although individual Christians are quite capable of doing wrong, and need to constantly test our ideas against Scripture, God has no need for change. I believe Spong is trying to create a form of Christianity that is based on the comfort of the believer, not on the truth of history, science, the Bible or God. This book is an interesting read, but I would read with caution, and determine for yourself the true desire behind his words.
Guest More than 1 year ago
He is so on the point with this book. He speaks to those of us in exile with a belief system that brings us back to the feelings we used to have.
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YvonnePerry More than 1 year ago
This book will challenge your Sunday School mentality and teach you to think for yourself. When it comes to believing religious leaders, text and traditions, you may want to consider why you believe what you believe!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book suggests that Christianity conform to another religion: One in unity with all existing religions. This is not a new concept. Even Voltaire proposed similar ideas on changing Christianity to fit into a politically correct worldview or else facing the consequence of death. The premise if far-reaching and unsuccessful (historically). This book will cause doubt in the validity of Christianity but is a promising tool in the hands of critics of Christianity, especially since the subtitle suggests the author's Bishopric.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Bible is the truth and warns of people like him
Guest More than 1 year ago
Spong isn't trying to adapt Christianity, he's trying to create his own New Age, Politically Correct hodge podge of other faiths. To pretend to be a Christian yet to deny the resurrection and numerous other historical, Biblical events which demonstrate Jesus' divinity, is simply contradictory to the entirety of Scripture. Although he tries to use Scripture to support his claims, he takes most of it out of context and simply disregards the rest.