My Deconstruction Heroes: John Shelby Spong

To My Readers Who Are Fellow Exvangelicals:

On Sunday, September 12, 2021, one of our forefathers passed – Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong. He was a ripe old age, as the Old Testament would say, having turned 90 in June. When I call him a forefather, I mean that he was a pioneer of our movement – a man of remarkable courage, scholarship, and brutal honesty about the condition of the Church who, even as he criticized its actions due to the literalization of its sacred text throughout history, advocated and demonstrated a beautiful path forward for the Christian faith tradition.

I’m writing to you today specifically, my fellow exvangelical travelers, because you owe it to yourself to learn about this man. I don’t intend with the following pages to write either his obituary or his history – people who knew him better have already done a far more thorough job than I could (I recommend you start with his own autobiography – HERE I STAND). But before I start this tribute, a few points must be addressed regarding his life, his legacy, and just how much our movement owes to him.

Bishop Spong has ALWAYS been a champion for those on whom the Church has reaped its worst punishment. As a young priest, he advocated for desegregation from behind his pulpit a few churches down from Jerry Falwell’s in Lynchburg, VA – back when Falwell still publicly supported Jim Crow and long before Billy Graham had worked up the courage to appear on stage with Martin Luther King. Later, Bishop Spong used his position as Arch Diocese of New Jersey to ordain women and homosexuals as ministers while constantly calling upon the Church to repent for its long history of racism, homophobia, sexual abuse, and misogyny. It was this kind of activism that made him a hero of progressive causes and public enemy #1 of the Evangelical Right – many of whom first heard him when he was invited to give Matthew Shepard’s eulogy.

Throughout his life, Bishop Spong never hesitated to use his platform to chronicle the long, troubling history of the Church he served and sought to reform – including Hell theology, which he openly admitted was created by the Church to control its flock. He stood up for those leaving the Church in droves while boldly using his pulpit as a place to call out its hypocrisy and abuse. All the while, he urged his parishioners to consider the meaning of the word “God” as it was demonstrated in the life of Jesus Christ and transmitted through the Gospel stories – while pointing out that this had a radically different meaning than its hijacking by the Evangelical Right would lead us to believe.

These positions cost him, needless to say. Bishop Spong received multiple death threats throughout his life (never from an atheist, he always pointed out), had to wear bullet-proof vests when he preached, and was even punched in the face at his first wife’s funeral. Still – he never backed down, until the day he died – precisely because he considered himself a disciple of Christ. Because of his convictions, his words also resonated with those who had been hurt by the Church but who still searched for meaning in its images and liturgy. Walking away from Evangelical faith does not have to mean walking away from traditions that have become infused in our identity. Bishop Spong, raised a fundamentalist himself, understood this – so instead of tearing down the Church’s walls, he sought to transform them into a place where people could be encouraged to, in his most oft-repeated conviction, “live fully, love wastefully, and be all that you can be.”

I’m writing this appeal to all of you in my exvangelical community because I think that it is time that we honor this man as one who has helped pave the way toward our still growing, ever expanding movement. The best way I can make this case is to simply tell you about where in my deconstruction journey I first encountered Bishop Spong. Because when I talk about my deconstruction, he was my first true guide out of a toxic faith and toward a better hope for humanity.

My deconstruction process began in the summer of 2005. I’d been preaching for nearly a decade by then, though I’d managed to step out of the Evangelical Church’s insulated bubble to go to school to be an English major in a “secular” campus. Perhaps some of my exvangelical readers who also earned that degree will comprehend what a tricky thing it is to be a halfway decent English major in a liberal arts school while also being an Evangelical Christian. When you are taught since you were a child that your worldview is the only one that will every be true for everyone else, trying to discuss multiple perspectives on one text or another is – well … hard. Suddenly, you’re the asshole in the class who keeps bringing all the points in every piece of literature that you’re all reading back toward the infallible, redemptive blood of Jesus Christ. And because to study stories is to study their places in history, you also learn very quickly that Christendom is pretty problematic and wildly uneven throughout the centuries, so you’ve got your work cut out for you. It’s frankly exhausting, trying to explain over and over again how the Conquistadors weren’t “real” Christians.

On the other hand, I was also learning how literature was linked inseparably to archaeology. Stories that I’d always loved became so much richer when I understood the process by which they were all conceived. Since leaving the fold, I’ve come to recognize Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN as my sacred text, because it is the one to which I so often return ever since I was a child of seven. I’ve always been entranced by that story. Being an English major was a chance to learn about its origins – the world that shaped it, the components that inspired it, the life of the one who wrote it. In doing that, I fell in love with the historical origins of my favorite story (get me on a tangent about Konrad Dippel sometime) while also being inspired to keep considering all the ways I chose to interpret this work for myself. Because literature that you love is a living, breathing document that has as many interpretations as we have seasons in our lives.

I was learning how to be a lit geek, and I’ve always loved being one of those. I hope you have a sacred text like that, my fellow Exvangelicals – one that you love and over which you pour, to understand its meaning as you continue to find new ways that it speaks to you. Sacred texts nourish us, and sometimes healing takes us into places where such nourishment sustains us. No one understood this better than Bishop Spong – more on that soon.

The more I learned how to interpret and explore wonderful pieces of writing, the more I longed to read the Bible in such a way. To truly, deeply look into its meaning, using similar methods that literary scholars use to deconstruct great literature – in order to reconstruct it with an all new appreciation and understanding of its beauty. I figured that such a journey would only confirm everything that I’d always been told about the Bible as historical truth, because it was simply obvious from everything I’d learned in the Church that the Good Book is so clearly authentic history that it would stand up to all scrutiny.

Needless to say, assuming the Bible’s literalism and diving into basic Biblical scholarship available at my university library proved to be a rather alarming combination. Because Biblical literalism crumbles very quickly at the simplest historical examination. When your faith has hinged upon every word of that book being literal, it only takes a few cracks in that foundation for your worldview to start deteriorating. The more I read this scholarship, the more I tried to return to apologetic works by Evangelical saints like C.S Lewis, Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel – except their writings were simply ludicrous compared to actual biblical examinations that put the Bible under the same microscope as great literary texts I studied in college. I had to either accept that Satan had intervened throughout archaeology to lead people astray, or that the Evangelicals lived in an insulated bubble in which they were simply not very informed.

I hung onto the first scenario, trying to convince myself that God was trying to test me, far beyond the expiration date – because transitioning out of Christianity is traumatizing. Truths on which you have invested not only your whole identify but your complete eternity suddenly no longer being a valid source for meaning is a pretty goddamned frightening event. You go into a tailspin from which many of us don’t survive – not least of all the abject horror of no longer knowing what you’re supposed to trust or how you are supposed to trust in it. The more I spun, the more I tried to grasp onto something – anything – that made sense and gave any of this a meaning that didn’t feel like it was all just part of the lie that had made me loath my own identity for the entirety of my life.

Instead of embracing what was clearly the truth, I spent a whole, anguishing year summoning all of my indoctrinated willpower to fight against it. But the harder I prayed, the stronger the increasingly overpowering comprehension grew that none of the way I’d been taught to think made any sense. It was one of the most dangerous times in my whole life, because my exhaustion from this perpetual panic led me into a deep depression that came at great personal cost.

Somehow, as I grasped for any straw that I could find, I came upon a book by an Episcopalian Bishop named John Shelby Spong. It was called THE SINS OF THE SCRIPTURE, and it opened by eyes toward a path that suddenly didn’t feel like a spiral, but rather a place where I could safely land and walk into reality gently. I remember reading the first few chapters in a horrified state, convinced that this man was a heretic – but then I remembered how it was to be an Evangelical English major. I’d asked God to open my mind to new ways to read the Bible, so if the way this hellbound Bishop Spong interpreted the scripture was heresy, then I’d see through his lies. Despite my indoctrination screaming for me to stop before there was no returning, I kept reading this book.

Then I kept reading anything by Spong I could find. Finally, I was learning an interpretation of the Bible that actually made sense while still finding meaning and beauty in its words. The more I read, the more I realized that there was no going back. With this scholarly but beautiful reconsideration of a text I’d always been taught to take literally, Bishop Spong gently guided me out of a very dark tunnel. He used a process we now call “deconstruction” – in which he challenged the literal narrative of the Bible that we’d all been taught and instead retold the Bible’s true conception. Rather than being a single volume written by God, Bishop Spong introduced me to a historical process lasting over thousands of years and one hundred times that many editors. Using basic understandings of history, archaeology and anthropology, Bishop Spong walked me through the steps by which the Bible was truly written – revealing the origins of these myths in a way that enriched them while shattering the absurdity of Biblical literalism.

As a student of literature, I gradually realized exactly what he was doing. You see, the Bible was John Shelby Spong’s sacred text. But not in the way that we were taught as Evangelicals to define sacred texts. It was sacred to him in the way that FRANKENSTEIN was sacred to me. It was a book that he’d studied his whole life and had come to love – not as literal, but as literature. Spong was a huge lit geek – a scholar and an archaeologist, who understood the Bible and its origins so profoundly that he was able to transmit meaning to it that my upbringing had never allowed it to have. I consumed every word he wrote – and as I did, I was able to find the courage to finally keep asking questions that became foundational to my escape from toxic theology.

It was an example he gave in a sermon I watched online that truly provided the insight that I needed to make the transition out of Evangelical Christianity. He talked about all of the ways that humanity had described their experience with the sun. How empires had worshiped it as a god for shining its light over us, and how this reverence evolved into Apollo steering it with his chariot into a three-tiered universe in which it revolved around us – into our post-Galileo understanding of how our planet actually revolves around it. These were all human attempts to describe our experience under the sun’s life source. Though the description changes as our awareness evolves, the way we experience the sun remains the same.

Couldn’t this also be true of the way we have experienced God through this man named Jesus of Nazareth, Bishop Spong argued? The earliest church had a simple declaration: God was in Christ. To experience Jesus was to experience God. Because early churches had a theistic understanding of God, they created theology around this Christ experience in order to explain it. As our views of the world evolve on the other side of Darwin, we may have different explanations for that experience – yet the experience itself remains the same. As Bishop Spong notes, “I do not think of God theistically, that is, as a being, supernatural in power, who dwells beyond the limits of my world. I rather experience God as the source of life willing me to live fully, the source of love calling me to love wastefully and … as the Ground of being, calling me to be all that I can be.”

What then, does he say of the Jesus that we find in the Gospels? “I think the best way to view the Gospels is to view them as a magnificent portrait being painted by Jewish artists to try to capture the essence of a God experience that they believe they had with Jesus of Nazareth.” It was a stunning reminder of the way that the Bible has been hijacked and white-washed by western culture over the centuries; Bishop Spong believed that only by restoring the Bible into its Hebrew roots and contexts – understanding that Christianity began as a part of Judaism – does its true meaning as Hebrew liturgy reveal itself and thus provides clues on how we can define the Jesus experience today: Not as fallen creatures unworthy of God’s love, but as unfinished participants in an ever expanding universe, who get to choose how we continue that evolution. In Jesus, Bishop Spong found a model to help us evolve into more compassionate human beings, and he spent his life sharing that message to all the world.

In short, Bishop Spong used his platform as a clergyman to challenge the way that the Bible should be read, and he offered paths forward for healing from Church Abuse before we even had a term for it – and long before we had a community.

Now, stop reading and give yourself half an hour to watch this video.  I want you to see how he does it, because I can explain it all day without ever scratching the surface. This man was more than a brilliant scholar – he was an orator… a preacher. Seriously, watch this sermon – then get back to the rest of this article.

Now, my fellow Exvangelicals – wasn’t that remarkable, what John Shelby Spong just did to split open that staple of Biblical literalism, restore it to its proper place as mythology, reveal the purpose for this story’s conception, and thus find a meaning in it deeper than anything any of us were ever taught? I cannot speak for you; I can only tell you that returning to this man’s works over the years – even as I drift further and further away from the Christian metaphors of my childhood – has been very healing and centering for me. Helping me find authentic beauty in a book that was used to hurt me and so many people is nothing short of empowering.

Which brings me back to my intended audience: My Exvangelical family.

I didn’t discover the deconstruction community until this year; for the last fifteen years, I just made connections with ex-Christians as I encountered them. But the more I researched our community and came to understand that I was one of you, I also came to a realization that at once horrified and exhilarated me: That I’m a little older than many of you. This truth horrifies me, because it means that there’s another whole new generation of church abuse that has happened since I realized that I couldn’t keep doing this to myself. More babies are being fed this poison – it is still seeping through so much of this world’s veins. But more than horrified, I am exhilarated – because it seems like enough of us have now broken free that the conversation is finally shifting, so that important publications and media outlets are picking up on the fact that not only do we exist, but that we are an army.

That means that the world is starting to feel what we have long understood – we who have been watching the nationalistic, theocratic nightmare that this country has become, as we lick our wounds and suddenly start to look around and see how many of us are actually down here in the trenches. Each of us with our own story, and lifting each other up so that we may – when we are ready – be brave and safe enough to find our own voice and add it to all the stories that reveal the long, devastating rot that is the white Evangelical Church.

Seems that there’s a common moral to the story that we’ve all been collectively telling: Christianity must change, or it will die – and its death throes have begun. But if this is going to finally happen, it means that we make that final connection between the Evangelical Right and so many things that are going wrong in our politics, our partisanship, our history of white supremacy, our genocidal misogyny and homophobia – and, as an inescapable result, our collective mental health. It seems that people who have not experienced church abuse are finally listening. That it took just one generation after mine fills me with hope – because I think I may just live long enough to see this house of sand finally crash against the rocks.

By my calculation, it was Bishop Spong who most precisely predicated Christianity’s end – most specifically in his 2000 book WHY CHRISTIANITY MUST CHANGE OR DIE. In that work – one of his most important – Bishop Spong noted, “Hysterical fundamentalism is not the way into the future. It is the last gasp of the past.” He had a name for the community – ours – that would emerge from that final gasp, in an age long before hashtags: The Church Alumni Association. Though it may sound like a jest, Bishop Spong saw our rise as a solemn fact. He was able to articulate why we were leaving churches in droves, and how enough of us would rise up as a single voice so that we would eventually become so loud that we could at long last drown out the Church.

If Bishop Spong was of sound mind in his last few years, I suspect that he recognized the Exvangelical Movement as his predictions coming true. I think he’d have found it funny to be recognized as a prophet – but yeah, he called it. I mean, here it is spelled out in his book BIBLICAL LITERALISM: A GENTILE HERESY: “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.” Bishop Spong longed to looked deeper: “The task of religion is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see.” If Christianty fails to meet us in that task, he argued, it is time to throw it out.

I think that to witness the momentum in our trending hashtags would have broken his heart, because it means that an ancient text in which this man still saw great value probably would not survive the push into our modern world. He had to watch a book that he loved – one that he studied deeply and profoundly – get twisted beyond resuscitation into this hideous Monster weaponized to keep us all divided. To read Bishop Spong’s words and to hear him speak, you detect his lamentation that the beautiful message he found in his sacred text had gotten so scrambled.

Instead, he adamantly rejected the literal reading of the Bible by constantly recasting its narrative as the developing folklore of an ancient society slowly but surely evolving into an awareness of the Source of Life itself – from advocating first for genocide to any nation that stood in its way, to suddenly welcoming foreigners into its kingdom, to the recognition of outsiders as God’s children. We hear Jesus preach that the Kingdom of God is for everyone, and we transition to John writing that the light of God shines in all men. And finally Paul – who wrote that there is no slave or master, Jew or Gentile, male or female – that Christ’s love unites us all. Within the Bible, Bishop Spong revealed, we find metaphors that enable us to walk into the undefinable divine mystery. Not stories that define God, but merely point us toward the instinctive transcendence we all share that made it necessary for our ancestors to create the word “God” in the first place.

Spong loved the Bible precisely because he understood it – its historical contexts and images, the way that all of these remarkable stories wrapped around each other and emerged as a stunning collection of myths documenting an evolving people group trying to understand what it meant to be both human and divine in a world that often did not make any sense. He found stories within it that helped him heal from his own religious abuse, and he wrote books for those of us who needed to find the same healing – from the very source that was used to hurt us by people who simply didn’t actually understand it. Spong did this not because he wanted to lead us back to Christianity. He did this to create a model for what Christianity might become, so that no one would ever have to experience abuse like we did ever again. What’s remarkable is that he did it from the perspective of someone deeply in love with the Bible and with a devotion to Christ that took my breathe away.

Honestly, when I discovered our exvangelical community, I was a little shocked by how so few of you had ever heard of him, for as powerful of a voice that he’s been in Progressive Christianity. (But then – who’s ever heard of a silly idea of calling Christianity progressive?) But this brings me back to first plea: It’s time that exvangelicals honor John Shelby Spong as one of our pivotal founders and most important resources. How we do so needs to be an ongoing conversation in our community – but let me offer a few ideas.

First of all, John Shelby Spong’s books should be included in every bibliography offered to help those on a deconstruction journey, because they exist as invaluable manuals on how to break free from our indoctrination. There is no wrong answer for where to start – all of his works are remarkable and important, but I suspect that he’d want us to begin with his Twelve Theses for a modern Christian reformation, in which he seeks to evolve the Christ experience beyond the Apostle’s Creeds and into a context that still has meaning in our modern age. They are available to read on his official website, Progressive Christianity, here

Second – we must acknowledge that Christianity and the Bible still hold tremendous value for many in our community. As I’ve long maintained, the term “exvangelical” is not intended to tear down the Church’s walls. Many of us still find meaning in the liturgy centered around the Christ story. For those of us who still wish to choose the Christian metaphor to walk into the divine mystery – point them ceaselessly back to the works of Bishop Spong. In doing this, we honor the Christianity that he envisioned – the experience worth saving, buried under all of the moribund explanations. We acknowledge that Bishop Spong’s sacred text has more to teach us than the theology that has corrupted it; let us follow his example and read these ancient texts honestly and with scrutiny in order to ultimately find within its pages the inclusive message of hope that Evangelical Christianity has been hiding from us.

Third, we incorporate Bishop Spong into our social media. We are a community founded, grown, and maintained by hashtags, and one more that honors this man while pointing our community to his message will only enrich us. I have no idea what Bishop Spong would have thought of being absorbed into a hashtag; I can only tell you that he is worthy of it. I propose we use this one, founded by fellow exvangelical Kevin Max (of DC Talk) and spread around a bit by him and Derek Webb (of Caedmon’s Call) on Twitter: #spongaintwrong. It’s time to make a million memes of his quotes and turn this hashtag into one that circulates wherever exvangelicals congregate. Every time it does, we shine the light that Bishop Spong offered to people who will need it.

Lastly, we simply take Bishop Spong’s most prominent message to heart: That in Jesus, we find someone whose full humanity revealed God in a way that changed those all those around him, so that they could not help but express the simplest of truths: “God was in Christ.” And just as God was in Christ, God too dwells in all of us. In the end, it doesn’t matter under whose banner we walk – so long as we are all walking toward being the best possible versions of ourselves. In the Bishop’s own words: “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”

For Bishop Spong, this God was the source of love and life – and however we choose to engage in this Source, let us honor this great man’s message to the world by always striving to live fully, to love wastefully, and by being all that we can be. For in doing so, we honor each other. Thank you, dear Bishop, for not only preaching this example – but by living it. Rest in power, as our exvangelical community picks up and carries your torch down a path that you immeasurably helped illuminate.

One thought on “My Deconstruction Heroes: John Shelby Spong

  1. Pingback: My Deconstruction Heroes: Tony Campolo – Surviving the Spirit

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