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Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
July 2017
Fred's Rating: 
John Shelby Spong
Total Pages: 

John Shelby Spong is a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church. From 1979 to 2000 he was Bishop of Newark. He is a liberal Christian theologian, religion commentator and author. This book takes readers into the contemporary academic debate about the Bible. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

Although I bought the hardcover edition, I give here the Amazon website for the Kindle edition:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image’ Circle appears on my website. This has never happened to me before. I can see the cover but Amazon doesn’t have what they show.]

The home page has a brief review (use ‘Read more’). A better summary is on the Front Flap of my hardcover edition; this summary is also given on the home page under the mistaken title “From the Back Cover.” After reading these summaries I recommend using Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option and scroll down to the 4-pp Contents. It shows 12 parts containing 59 chapters, most of which have titles and subtitles. I very much liked his detailed contents’ format, which made up for the lack of an Index. The earlier chapters are a bit longer than the average chapter length of 6.9 pages. I highly recommend scrolling down to read his 8-pp Preface. Parts I and II prepare the reader for his discussion in the remaining ten Parts.

The Kindle preview has all 8-pp of the Preface. It has nearly all of the 15-pp Ch. 1: Examining the Bible’s Mystique. It ends just before the last two paragraphs of Ch.1, so I give them here: “It is a journey that will probe the sources out of which the Bible’s words originated and the liturgical uses to which the Bible’s words were put and by which their meaning was compromised, shaped and expanded. It will be a journey that leads us to make clear distinctions between the human experience of the divine and the human words used to describe and explain that experience. It will be a journey in which we will learn that human words are limited. They can only point to truth; they can never capture it, a fact that is demonstrably true of scripture, creed and doctrine. This journey will force us to embrace insecurity as a virtue and to dismiss security as a vice. Finally, it will be a journey into the depths of human life, serving my conviction that the only road into divinity is through humanity and the only doorway into eternity is through time.

“So we raise the curtain, watch the drama unfold, and step boldly into the context of what is clearly the most influential book the world has ever known.”

His focus on the context of each biblical book (both OT and NT) is crucial to discussing each book. Often there is uncertainty as to a book’s date, but usually there is much less uncertainty about the time order, or sequence, of the books. Part II provides an excellent discussion of the time order of the various authors of the documents' content for, using the first letter of these authors (as used by the biblical scholars): Y, E, D, and P. Spong has chapters on each of these authors, but has kept it simple by, for example, not spelling out the parts of the Torah where the scholars point out where a ‘Redactor’ (indicated by the letter R) has combined stories of Y and E. A good example is the two stories about the parting of the ‘Reed’ (not Red) Sea so smoothly that many people who read the redactor’s work have never known the E story was different from the Y story. Torah scholars often refer to this combining of two stories is indicated as editing done by a R, which is indicated by using the acronym YER for the resulting editing. But Spong does indicate that the P redactors changed the time order. The best case being their wonderful first chapter of Genesis as added in a later edition than the God, Adam, Eve, and Serpent story shifted from first to second chapter. In his brief summaries of the Bible’s books, Spong has written them in as concise a manner as he could while still retaining a book’s context, reason, and major point. I readily admit I’ve never read so much in so few wisely chosen words as he has achieved in his many summaries.

With 59 brief chapters, I only refer here to the letter by Paul that most impressed me, for by my reading and rereading of Paul’s letters, I had asked myself where Paul’s wisdom impressed me the most. My answer was 1 Cor 13:10-13. So I was very happy to see that Spong’s assessment agreed with mine! After praising Paul’s poetic ‘ode to love’, Spong then says about Paul: “He recognizes that all human knowledge is partial. No one sees God face to face, we all see ‘through a glass darkly’ (1 Cor. 13:12). He urges the Corinthians to put away childish things and to grow up. Finally he concludes ‘that faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:13). It is Paul at his insightful best.” I was not surprised that this final quote from 1 Cor. 13 came at the end of this chapter (the 5-pp Ch. 34: The Corinthian Letters). That John Shelby Spong needed only five pages to summarize the two Corinthian Letters shows you how concise his summaries often were.

In reading this wonderful condensation of the OT and NT, I often found myself rereading a chapter more than once, for fairly often I just stopped at the end of a short chapter and decided to go back to reread an earlier chapter. More often I was drawn to the next chapter. I found this book very, very hard to put down. I got so much reinforcement of my insights from reading it that it should be no surprise that I rate it at five stars, but add my emphasis ‘but think six stars.’