I’d never heard of Bishop Spong, but when a dear friend told me a bit about his teachings and that he was coming to town, I felt strangely compelled to go, possibly partly because I harbour unclean thoughts about my friend, as you do. For the similarly uninitiated, John Shelby Spong is a retired Anglican Bishop from New Jersey and liberal theologian.
Reports that the Sydney Anglican Bishops were quietly frothing about Spong’s appearance at the Commondreams Conference spiked my non-conjugal interest in the affair, and so it was that I was whisked off to the Albert Hall on Tuesday night, the moon midway through Zeus’ ring of fire… or something like that, and me having neglected to take a cigarette lighter with me.
Ordinarily this isn’t a problem as there are normally a few smokers around to give you a light, and approaching the entrance I was comforted to see quite a few people standing outside like smokers do these days, only to realise on closer inspection that they were all staring at the sky… and not a glowing fag end in sight!!
There’s a demographic signpost if I’ve ever seen one. 600 hundred people and not a single smoker. Except me. That and all the grey hair, cardigans, sensible shoes and gentle, amiable demeanours. I resigned myself to not smoking for the duration. Bloody clean living WASPS.
My friend had bought my ticket and I overheard the ticket lady saying ‘three students’. ‘You know,’ I whispered. ‘I’m not strictly a concession.’ Five minutes later the guilt kicked in and she went and paid the other five bucks. Hehe. Wasps!?
In the lobby, Spong appeared before me looking like an early twentieth century country vet and happily signing copies of his (RRP $30) book, ‘Jesus for the Non Religious’. Being non-religious myself and with a healthy respect for Jesus (the man, not the biblical figure) already, I figured I was not entirely out of place so I settled down with my mates amongst the young (ie. thirty something) toughs up the back.
As the talk began, the back doors, which had previously allowed a cool breeze to enter, closed, and the heat of 600 or so good Christians filled the room. I cursed my thick socks as waves of doziness competed with Spong’s gentle iconoclasm. I succumbed quite quickly to one of those awful upright sleepus interruptuses replete with head-dropping awakenings. I thought I caught myself snoring at one stage. This was later confirmed.
Not that it was all that boring, although the format – one guy talking at you for an hour without any visual aids – did remind me of something really boring, like church for instance. Spong’s schtick is to demolish the Bible as a literal account of the life and meaning of Jesus. He does so humourously but vehemently, with many mentions of Moses and Elijah and a whole lot of characters and events biblical I’ve never heard of and can’t remember now, and then suggests a modern, a more compassionate and less judgmental and ‘a more believable Jesus’ (the title of another of his books).
All well and good (as far as I’m concerned), but if Spong hopes to sway Christianity towards a more progressive stance, he faces considerable foes, a quiet and lonesome voice in a jungle of ferocious evangelical, fundamentalist ultra-conservatism that is nourished by ‘eye for an eye’ Old Testament views and the spirituality of prosperity more than a modern interpretion of Jesus.
Spong and his ilk, people who spread a message of love and compassion, can be found in every culture, in every religion and every country of the world. They do their work with varying amounts of pomp and ceremony, but seldom much of either, and are largely invisible in the mass media. Unless the Anglican Bishops start complaining about you, an ironic form of manna from Heaven.
It’s not for me to say whether Spong could do more good outside the church than within. Personally I wouldn’t bother trying to change an institution that Spong himself admits is more likely to belatedly follow social change than lead it. But I wasn’t brought up to revere Jesus or anybody, except maybe Gough Whitlam. And there is a vast community of people out there who embrace liberal theologies and who, if they could unite, could represent a powerful force for good in the world. One would think…
I suspect that Bishop Spong would like to change the world by first changing the Anglican Church, which would then change the world. Or his world. He counters people’s fears that his radicalism, ie. accepting gays, promoting equality, will split the church by saying, in effect, bring it on. He does not want to be part of a church that would have him as a member. No, that was Marx. Groucho.
There is a point where Spong’s position becomes absurd. There is also a point where what unites people is overwhelmed by the stupid things that divide them. I felt it when Spong was asked whether he believed that Jesus was resurrected three days after he died. It’s not that I can’t absorb his flimflammery about what resurrection actually means. It’s that I find it hard to respect anyone who answers a question like that with anything other than ‘I don’t know’.