Editor's Choice

Why Christianity Must Change Or Die: A Bishop Speaks To Believers In Exile


Why Christianity Must Change or Die
"I believe in that gift of the Spirit who was called "The giver of life." Once we located God only externally, and called this God the Father Almighty. Next, we located this God in Jesus, and we called him the Son Incarnate. Now we locate God in every person, and we call this God the Holy Spirit. I believe that this Spirit inevitably creates a community of faith that will come, in time, to open this world to God as the very Ground of its life and Being."


Why Christianity Must Change Or Die: A Bishop Speaks To Believers In Exile
by John Shelby Spong

"So it needs to be clearly said that the God presence of this Jesus will lead us ultimately beyond every religious definition. Indeed, it will lead beyond Jesus himself. That becomes essential to human development whenever our idolatrous convictions identify the messenger of God with God. So the Ground of Being will finally be worshipped apart from any system of religious thought. It is a startling but real insight into the future of worship.

I believe in that gift of the Spirit who was called "The giver of life." Once we located God only externally, and called this God the Father Almighty. Next, we located this God in Jesus, and we called him the Son Incarnate. Now we locate God in every person, and we call this God the Holy Spirit. I believe that this Spirit inevitably creates a community of faith that will come, in time, to open this world to God as the very Ground of its life and Being...

Religion is, therefore, not what we have always thought it to be. Religion is not a system of belief. It is not a catalogue of revealed truth. It is not an activity designed to control behavior, to reward virtue, and to punish vice. Religion is, rather, a human attempt to process the God experience, which breaks forth from our own depths and wells up constantly within us. We must lay down, therefore, the primitive claims we have made for our religious traditions. None of them is drawn from outworldly revelations. None of them is inerrant or infallible. None of them represents the only way to God. None of them can be used legitimately to coerce or compel another to belief. All evangelical and missionary activities designed to convert the heathen are base born. They are expressions of our sense of superiority and our hostility toward those who are different. The only divine mission in life that the Church of the future could possibly have is to open people to the recognition that the ground of their very being is holy and that when they are in touch with that holy Ground of Being, they can share in God's creation by giving life, love, and being to others. That is the task of those who claim to be God bearers. The Christians of the world are not here to build institutions, to convert other people, or even to claim that we can speak for God. Those aspects of our religious heritage must be sacrificed as the premodern misunderstandings of our primitive history. We are now exile people."

John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change Or Die
HarperCollins; 1st edition (April 21 1999)


Book Review
by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

The spiritual tone for this book is set when John Shelby Spong, the bestselling author and Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, thanks his fundamentalist critics for identifying him as"A resource for the religious seekers of our world who yearn to believe in God but who are also repelled by the premodern literalizations that so frequently masquerade as Christianity."He speaks to those who thirst for a church that is not fearful of inquiry, freedom, and knowledge.

In place of theism's emphasis on an external, personal, supernatural, and invasive God, Bishop Spong suggests recognizing the reality of God through images such as the Ground of All Being and the Source of Love. Instead of Jesus the rescuer, he prefers Christ the spirit person. Instead of praying to a faraway God, Spong posits the radical idea that praying and living fully, richly, and deeply are the same thing. Instead of traditional worship, the author envisions activity marked by"The self-conscious awareness that all of us are or can be God bearers and life givers."And instead of the thirteenth century understandings of heaven and hell, he unspools his own beliefs about eternity. While Bishop Spong says he is addressing"believers in exile," he actually asks all the right questions of the Christian establishment.

Editorial Reviews
Amazon.com Review

John Shelby Spong is the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and has enjoyed a career filled with controversy, much of it thanks to his many bestselling books, such as Born of a Woman, Living in Sin?, and Liberating the Gospels. He has tapped into an audience of people who are at once spiritually starved and curious, yet unwilling or unable to embrace Christianity.

Spong refers to himself as a believer in exile. He believes the world into which Christianity was born was limited and provincial, particularly when viewed from the perspective of the progress in knowledge and technology made over the past two millennia. This makes any ideas or beliefs formulated in 1st-century Judea totally inadequate to our progressive minds and lives today. So Spong is in exile until Christianity is re-formed to discard all of the outdated and, according to Spong, false tenets of Christianity.

He begins his book by exposing the Apostles Creed line by line, then methodically moves on through the heart of Christian belief, carefully exploring each aspect, demonstrating in each case the inadequacies of Christianity as detailed in the Bible and in the traditions of the Church. The epilogue includes Spong's own creed, recast to reflect the beliefs he considers relevant to Christianity at the end of the 20th century.

Oddly enough, Spong's views do not seem particularly new. In fact, his views seem very much in keeping with the religious humanist variety of Unitarianism. What is remarkable is not the beliefs themselves, but that an Episcopal bishop would be the one to embrace and espouse them. Spong has become a trumpeter in the battle of beliefs, not just in the Episcopal communion, but in the realm of Christian faith in general in this country. His books are bestsellers and are in turn, presumably, read by those who, whether they agree or disagree, all acknowledge that in some way, Spong is involved in setting the agenda. This book, as the admitted "summation of his life's work" tells every reader what the complete agenda will be, for the next few years at least. —Patricia Klein

Review

"Bishop Spong is a passionate, illuminating original. His knowledgeable concern for the future of Christianity offers strength, hope, and theological solutions."

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, The Gift of Story, and The Faithful Gardener

"Should be required reading for everyone concerned with facing head-on the intellectual and spiritual challenges of late-twentieth-century religious life."

Karen L. King, Harvard Divinity School

"Spong demolishes the stifling dogma of traditional Christianity in search of the inner core of truth. This book is a courageous, passionate attempt to build a credible theology for a skeptical, scientific age."

Paul Davies, author of The Mind of God

Product Description
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.

About the Author
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey for twenty-four years before his retirement in 2000. He is one of the leading spokespersons for liberal Christianity and has been featured on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, FOX News Live, and Extra. This book is based on the William Belden Noble lectures Spong delivered at Harvard.

Customer Reviews

Fascinating and disturbing manifesto, May 22, 2000
By Sophia (the Pacific Northwest)

In this, his latest theological work, Bishop John Spong systematically delves into contradictions and conflicts between biblical literalism and modern society. He spotlights the uneasy mix between traditional Christian faith and a modern world-view: contrasting the seven-day creation story with fossils dating back billions of years: the understanding of Earth as but one planet in one galaxy of millions are just two examples of the major shifts in the world view that have taken place since the birth and death of Christ.

For those espousing Biblical literalism and fundamentalism, this book will read like utter heresy. For the true atheist, perhaps, it will seem like goody-goody wishful thinking. Yet, throughout it all, Spong clings to the notion that God is Love, God is Life, God as the ultimate Source of All, and urges people, Christians or not, to examine their beliefs and enter into discussion and dialogue about what Christianity and religion mean in the world today, and for the next millennium. Even when I disagree with Bishop Spong's conclusions, he makes me reevaluate my own faith, and thus both stimulates and refreshes it. I am grateful for this book, even as it disturbs me.


Faith without Reason = Superstition!, April 10, 2000
By Poniplaizy (Mount Joy, PA USA)

This book is awesome! I had only gotten a few pages into it and already I felt like Spong must have somehow tapped directly into my brain! He speaks to the many, many people out there who feel disenfranchised by a Christianity that keeps serving up ancient fairy stories that are impossible for anyone with a critical (no, make that functioning) intellect to accept. He asks a lot of the questions we are asking; dares to speak the truth about the anger, defensiveness, and politicism that have characterized the Church; and liberates Jesus from the doctrinal straightjacket the Church has encased him in.

No, he doesn't really provide *answers*—but I think that's the point. So often people who question are told, basically, to shut up and believe because shutting up and believing is what faith is all about. Spong replies that questioning and reformulating is healthy. I agree with him wholeheartedly that unless Christianity wakes up and starts reexamining itself, it is going to die. Thinking people will dismiss it as a useless relic because it will be so inadequate for their everyday lives. It's happening that way now.

I highly recommend that anybody with any spiritual life whatsoever read this book! It is extremely thought-provoking (which is probably why the fundies can't stand it), and no matter what belief system you arrive at, you need to arrive there informed.


There Is Still Hope, April 25, 2003
By Peter Kenney (Birmingham, Alabama, USA)

John Shelby Spong has pointed out in WHY CHRISTIANITY MUST CHANGE OR DIE that the early church creeds were not completed until the last few decades of the Third Century and this was accomplished only after an intense theological debate among church leaders. Because of all that we have learned through science during the following seventeen centuries, many of the words of these antiquated creeds have become meaningless to us.

Countless Christians are now left without a supernatural parent figure in the sky able to intervene in their behalf. Some of these opt for the secular city while others try to carry on the struggle to maintain an increasingly weakened faith. It is the latter group in particular that Spong identifies as believers in exile whom he wishes to reach with a new message of hope.

Can Christianity survive without a theistic God and a theistic Jesus? Spong tries to answer this question by first examining some of the Christian images of Jesus. The favorite candidate for elimination by the author is that of Jesus as Redeemer. Since we are constantly evolving out of our more primitive past it does not make sense to assume that humans need to be rescued from a fall into sin from a previous state of perfection.

Spong does see Jesus, however, as a Spirit person and a God presence. There is a divine presence within all of us. Spong regards this presence as Spirit and believes that it was in Jesus in a most profound way. The author views God as a universal presence which undergirds all of life.

Spong looks upon himself as a believer who is now living in exile. When he dies he expects to enter into another existence. Meanwhile he wants to invite other believers in exile to explore with him new possibilities of Christian worship and faith.


Great references, January 22, 2003
By Adam Chen (Mercer Island, WA USA)

Nice book for its host of theological references. He has a huge library of books in his bibliography and lots of bible verses next to what he says to back up his arguments. This makes it a wonderful book for stickies!

Some of his interrogative sentences can be confusing at times, but you just need to reread them one or two more times before you get it.

I don't think his books can rescue people from fundamentalism. My mom is a fundamentalist and I know that when I argued with her in the past and got her to a vulnerable point she started using subconscious psychological defenses, such as semantic literalism, bogus questions, absolute truths, and questioning the reality of the five senses. The Freudian analysis he talks about I've witnessed through my mom and others as being quite real.

If you are aware of the damage caused by theistic belief systems, then you know how much this matters. The challenge is to temper our anger with compassion, somehow. If we really do believe in something that transcends pain and pleasure, then love, after all, is all that we have. Plus we need psychologists to help us find ways to free people from these traps, because they really are traps. It's heartbreaking that so many Christian fundamentalists don't know who they are in life and that causes them to be so destructive towards others.

Read this book, but be careful. The facts stated here will be more hazardous to some fundamentalists than drinking hemlock.


Finally, an alternative to reluctant athiesm..., November 2, 2002
By M. Nichols (San Francisco, CA United States)

It is impossible to calculate what the legacy of Bishop John Shelby Spong will be, but I suspect he will be remembered as one of the great Christian reformers of history. In all his books, including "Why Christianity Must Change or Die," he writes to an audience of "Believers in exile"—those who have fallen away from their faith due to disappointment, disenfranchisement, and increasing disbelief in the doctines of the church.

How can intelligent religious people—those with a knowledge of evolution, science, and an awareness of life's complexities, continue to profess a faith that has been disproven on many levels? How can people get meaning out of a religious tradition so hopelessly out of date that it doesn't speak to its audience? The fact is, Spong writes, many people (himself included) profess a faith that they no longer believe, and still others fall away from their faith into a kind of reluctant athiesm, unable any longer to believe the dogma they were raised with.

What Spong offers in this book is a bridge between outdated theism and the spiritual vacuum of athiesm. Spong details the alternative of "nontheism"—a religious belief that incorporates what we have come to know about science and the world with a strong belief in God and Christ. He does this through his trademark style of debunking biblical literalism and church bigotry. What emerges is a philosophy far more suited to the times than the outdated dogma that damages so many Christians today.

This book is brilliant, really. Spong seeks a spirituality that deanthropormophizes God—that appreciates the amazing complexity of the universe and human history without being threatened by the fact that much of the Bible has been disproven, that the church is too hierarchical and corrupt, and that there are no easy answers. His viewpoint is inclusive and intelligent, and he writes wonderfully.


The Good News Indeed!, August 29, 2002
By A Customer

Some time ago, I wrote the following. Having re-read the book, I would like to repeat it. I truly hope my path crosses the Bishop's some day, and I can tell him in person how much he has done for me: I loved this book. I was brought up in the Episcopal Church, but have not attended church for years. When I have found myself in church over the years, I have felt, just as Bishop Spong describes, hypocritical and rather numb, saying words that do not, in truth, hold meaning for me, yet yearning to find a home for my own spirituality. Reading the Bishop's book, I find someone expressing, and supporting with scholarship, what I feel. I am inspired by the idea of God as the Ground of Being of which we all partake; of Jesus, not as unattainable perfection, but as the model for passionate expression of that Being, which is available to all of us. Clearing all the paths for its expression is the task, but it's there, and it's ours. This is the true message of the Gospels. This is truly the Good News.


Rating: 5/5 - The true "silent majority" will delight in the honesty.

Even a reader who disagreed with Bishop Spong would acknowledge that Spong's documentation and conclusions as presented in this book are well conceived. As usual for this author, in this book he gives straightforward and honest commentary on subjects that often receive tongue-in-cheek treatment. Spong is a person of great vision and promotes an understanding of Christianity that enlightened people can use as a template for modern and post-modern eras. As revolutionary in his concepts as Luther or Calvin, Spong calls us into an understanding of Christian love as a subset of all human love, discarding the fictional legends of Christianity, while recognizing the genesis of these legends. Refreshingly different from Luther or Calvin, however, Spong makes this call in an effort to unite, rather than to encourage a schism. His efforts are universal rather than tribal. Every one of Spong's books has been astonishingly consistent with my own personal beliefs and, I strongly suspect, those of many others. If this book is his best, it is only because it is his latest. Invariably, Spong's points are clearly documented. Most importantly, they are correct. The world is blessed that Bishop Spong is willing to share his visions with us, and to explicate them so convincingly.

Rating: 5/5 - Great references

Nice book for its host of theological references. He has a huge library of books in his bibliography and lots of bible verses next to what he says to back up his arguments. This makes it a wonderful book for stickies!

Some of his interrogative sentences can be confusing at times, but you just need to reread them one or two more times before you get it.

I don't think his books can rescue people from fundamentalism. My mom is a fundamentalist and I know that when I argued with her in the past and got her to a vulnerable point she started using subconscious psychological defenses, such as semantic literalism, bogus questions, absolute truths, and questioning the reality of the five senses. The Freudian analysis he talks about I've witnessed through my mom and others as being quite real.

If you are aware of the damage caused by theistic belief systems, then you know how much this matters. The challenge is to temper our anger with compassion, somehow. If we really do believe in something that transcends pain and pleasure, then love, after all, is all that we have. Plus we need psychologists to help us find ways to free people from these traps, because they really are traps. It's heartbreaking that so many Christian fundamentalists don't know who they are in life and that causes them to be so destructive towards others.

Read this book, but be careful. The facts stated here will be more hazardous to some fundamentalists than drinking hemlock.

Rating: 5/5 - It's time to give up "childish things."

This is a very moving and wise book. It is strong spiritual meat for those who are ready to give up "childish things," as St. Paul said. Bishop Spong refreshingly realizes that Christianity has a credibility problem. The Church has to start over again. It must stop thinking in terms of an old man in the sky, a supernatural Santa Claus who will swoop down to save us from natural disasters, illness, death, and the consequences of our own stupidity. It has to stop trying to impose moral prohibitions that have nothing to do with the truths of human biology and psychology, or with true justice and compassion. Freedom, knowledge, and wisdom must be our new commandments; our knowledge of God will based upon the truths revealed in our humanity, in which God truly exists. His style is powerful, clear, and sometimes lyrical. This is a great book by someone who speaks compassionately in a language we non-Christians can understand. I hoped to find in it some common ground from which believers and non-believers could begin a dialogue, and I was not disappointed.

Rating: 5/5 - Spong Builds His Messages.

I made the mistake of reading this book before reading "Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism." Now this book makes much more sense. Bp. Spong does his homework, builds his themes carefully and provides references as one reads along. I suggest that his books be read in order of their publication date for the full impact.

Some may argue that Bp. Spong is no longer Christian. I would argue that he demonstrates in his every thought and action that he is a true Christ-follower and it is integrated into his very being. He is a thinker who encourages others to do the same.



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