Edgy man of God
Religious doctrine and ceremony don't mean much to retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, a leading spokesman for cutting-edge progressive Christianity.
"My mission is not to make people religious. My mission is to (teach people to) love more fully, live more fully, be what they are created to be," said Spong, author of 15 books and numerous articles, who is holding a workshop next Saturday at Unity Church of Hawaii on his latest book.
But Spong has his detractors.
Bill Stonebraker, pastor of Calvary Chapel of Honolulu, said Spong believes "Jesus, love and no rules" are sufficient for Christians, "but it's impossible with the sin nature of Man -- which Spong doesn't believe in. But humans have no power to pull it off. ... It amounts to nothingness, hopelessness. You're left to fend for yourself.
To register for next Saturday's John Shelby Spong workshop, call 735-4436 or visit www.unityhawaii.org. The workshop will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Unity Church of Hawaii, 3608 Diamond Head Circle. Cost is $25 per person.
"He is no different than the Beatles -- (who sang) 'All You Need Is Love,'" Stonebraker said.
"I follow a man named Jesus, who also didn't get along with the leaders of the day -- he was a revolutionary," said Spong, the retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J.
Spong, 76, has gained notoriety for taking on hot social issues. The Bible was used to justify segregation, subjugate women and condemn homosexuality, said Spong, raised in the Bible Belt in Charlotte, N.C.
As a young adult, Spong rejected his early traditional views, and since then has been vilified mainly by fundamentalists for trying to destroy the Christian faith. He was only 3 years old when the "first pebble" was thrown into his consciousness, causing a ripple of alarm when he was scolded for addressing a black man as "Sir."
"I knew something was wrong," he added.
Seekers of faith have flocked to hear him urge people to live the way he thinks Jesus intended -- with an all-inclusive love and respect for men and women, gays/straights, Jews/gentiles, black/white, etc., Spong said.
"Jesus said religious rules are not important; he taught that life is important," he said. It is a "radical idea" that has gotten lost in this world in which certain religious factions teach that "everyone else is wrong. They divide the world into the saved and the unsaved, the circumcised and the uncircumcised," he said.
"The essence of Christianity is to give us the courage to live with life's insecurities and pain" and to "experience a force other than yourself ... God as a source of love."
In his latest book, "Jesus for the Non- Religious," Spong quotes and cross-references Scripture and verse, and cites historical research in stripping away what he calls the "myths" surrounding Jesus. He disputes the Bible stories Christians grew up with -- that Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem on Christmas Day, he performed miracles, he came to save the world from its sins and that he rose from the dead.
"The traditional way we tell the Christ story makes an ogre out of God, a victim out of Jesus, and an angry guilt-filled people who must be eternally grateful and thus helplessly dependent," he writes in his book.
Stonebraker said Spong is "a very educated man but very ignorant of the intent of what is in the Bible and what Jesus is."
"Basically, he goes on his feelings" and disregards the archaeological, biblical and prophetic evidence to prove his arguments against traditional teachings," Stonebraker said.
Spong "has a predisposition not to believe and comes up with these conclusions," he added.
Spong asked, When prayer "works" in certain situations, does it mean that some people are more worthy than others to have their prayers answered?
Since he was a well-known pastor, dozens of prayer groups sought healing for his first wife's cancer. When she recovered for a while, the groups claimed credit that their prayers worked, but Spong posed the question, "Does that mean that someone less famous would not be healed because she didn't receive as many prayers?"
Spong's wife eventually died of the disease in 1988.
"Loving energy is a powerful force ... but it's not going to keep people from dying," he said, adding, "(though) I can never say prayers aren't doing any good."