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Biblical Literalism a Gentile Heresy by John Shelby Spong

Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy
 A Journey into a New Christianity 
 the Doorway of Matthew's Gospel

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

John Shelby Spong retired as Episcopal Bishop of Newark NJ in 2000. He is a strong voice for Progressive Christians.

In Biblical Literalism, Spong offers an easy to read commentary on Matthew's Gospel that reveals the Jewish roots of the stories, which are presented in the context of the Jewish calendar.

Spong opines that Christians who read the bible in a literal or near literal fashion and ignore Jewish culture cannot understand the gospel, which was written by a Jewish man for a Jewish audience decades after Jesus' ministry.

Spong reminds (or informs) readers that the story of Jesus in the New Testament begin with the early letters of Paul. Years later, we get Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Paul's story of Jesus is limited and what he leaves out is significant. Mark's story comes much later and leaves out much added later by the other authors. But Matthew stands out to Spong as it appears to follow an order matching the reading of scripture in the synagogue.  People like Moses and Elijah figure prominently in Jewish life, in Matthew's gospel, and in Spong's understanding of Jesus. For example, Jesus' Red Sea experience occurs during his baptism and his shining moment, like that of Moses's meeting with God, occurs at the transfiguration.

If you read Biblical Literalism, I suggest creating a list of the Jewish holy days to track Spong's analysis of the gospel.

At times, Spong seems harsh in his reminder of the problem with fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, including this gospel. Perhaps that is understandable in light of the attacks he has experienced from those who continue to read these texts in a literal way.

It is no secret that Christians are leaving the church. And that many youth consider believers "unChristian." This book may be a way for ex-Christians to find their way back to a meaningful understanding of faith. Spong's Biblical Literalism may also appeal to those whose intelligence rebels against the simplistic biblical quips reinforcing someone's view of what the Bible says.

I would hesitate to recommend Biblical Literalism to fundamentalist and conservative evangelical friends because I hypothesize it would evoke anger and defensive maneuvers, but then again, the gospel has always been divisive.

Worth Quoting

“Unless biblical literalism is challenged overtly in the Christian church itself, it will, in my opinion, kill the Christian faith. It is not just a benign nuisance that afflicts Christianity at its edges; it is a mentality that renders the Christian faith unbelievable to an increasing number of the citizens of our world.
-John Shelby Spong

“The Christian story did not drop from heaven fully written. It grew and developed year by year over a period of forty-two to seventy years. That is not what most Christians have been taught to think, but it is factual. Christianity has always been an evolving story. It was never, even in the New Testament, a finished story.”
-John Shelby Spong

“When any human group decides that they can define God, the outcome is always predictable. The “true faith,” once defined, must then be defended against all critics, and it must also then be forced upon all people—“for their own good, lest their souls be in jeopardy.”
-John Shelby Spong

“I have seen how in our history, people of color have been enslaved by “Bible-quoting” Christians. When slavery was finally threatened with being relegated to the dustbins of history in America, it was that section of this country known as “the Bible Belt” that rose to defend the enslavement of black people in the bloodiest war of American history. When slavery finally died as a legal option on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam and Appomattox, the Christians of the Bible Belt, once again quoting their scriptures for justification, instituted laws of segregation with the full support of the federal government. When those segregation laws finally began to fall in the 1950s and 1960s, I watched the Bible being quoted to justify the use of lead pipes, police dogs, fire hoses and even the bombing of black churches in which little girls in their Easter finery were killed—all in an attempt to preserve “white supremacy.”
-John Shelby Spong

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Spong speaks on Biblical Literalism in 2016 (long video)


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