In nearly 2000 years of Christianity, charismatic preachers, independent thinkers, rogue theologians and a legion of Elmer Gantrys have put their mark--somewhat dubious at best--on the Gospel proclaimed by Christ.
Last week, as reported in last week's Urban Tulsa Weekly, liberal or "progressive" Christians have been growing in numbers and in power in the United States in recent years, and are rethinking many of Christianity's most long-held and cherished beliefs.
While many are celebrating the ascendancy of a more inclusive and accommodating brand of Christianity free of the hypocrisy and judgment they believe characterize many of the Church's leaders and traditional teachings, conservative Christians are distressed and alarmed by what they see as the emergence of a gospel devoid of what they consider to be the very essence of their religion.
The effects of this ongoing cultural struggle can be seen in any given day's local and national headlines as one denomination or another is torn asunder over issues like gay marriage or the ordination of gay clergy.
Behind these debates on various social issues is a larger conflict over a more fundamental question about the nature of Christianity itself, and what role its sacred writings and supernatural claims should have in believers' lives and conduct and the way they interact in the world.
One of the world's foremost opinion leaders in this regard is retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, who has authored numerous volumes on these questions, earning him a key role in shaping the religious landscape under discussion (see last week's article).
The cleric was gracious enough to grant a recent interview in which he elucidated on many of his long-held positions.
"When the Bible was written, people did not understand what we understand today," he said.
He explained that in biblical times people believed in a three-tiered universe with God in heaven above, hell beneath and a flat earth in the middle, which is why the New Testament reports that Jesus "ascended into heaven."
"They didn't know what we know about the universe," he said.
Therefore, if fundamentalists are correct in their literalism, Spong explained, "As Carl Sagan once said to me--even if Jesus were traveling at the speed of light, he hasn't even escaped our galaxy yet."
What's more, he said, the ancients "didn't know anything about germs or viruses, and they didn't know anything about reproduction," referring to their willingness to believe in Christ's purported virgin birth, among other miraculous occurrences.
Spong has long taught that fundamentalists' strict, literal interpretation of Scripture has kept Christianity from being viable in the modern world, and so has called for a "New Reformation" by jettisoning its "obsolete" elements and making it more compatible with a modern understanding of the universe.
"This Reformation will recognize that pre-modern concepts in which Christianity has traditionally been carried will never again speak to the post-modern world we now inhabit," said Spong.
"Because it goes to the heart of how Christianity is to be understood, it will dwarf in intensity the Reformation of the 16th century... (It) will examine the very nature of the Christian faith itself," he continued.
Prior to the turn of the millennium, when Spong released his A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born, he likened himself to Martin Luther, whose nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg church in 1517 is regarded as the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Likewise, Spong posted his theses on the Internet and called on the "recognized Christian leaders of the world" to meet him in public debate over them.
Some of those theses were that "theism, as a way of defining God, is dead," which renders "bankrupt" the traditional conception of Jesus as the incarnation of God. He also asserted that the Bible's accounts of creation are "post-Darwinian nonsense," as are its reports of miracles. The resurrection of Jesus, he said, did not happen within human history, but was "a spiritual resurrection" in that Jesus was "raised up into the meaning of God."
Spong's book sold a quarter of a million copies, "Which is a lot for a religious book," he said.
Also, he received about 10,000 letters in response to his challenge, but not from the heavy-hitters of world Christendom with whom he was hoping to go toe-to-toe.
"The pope didn't respond," he said.
However, Spong appeared on ABC's Good Morning America to debate Albert Moller, president of Louisville, Ky.'s Southern Seminary, and also publicly debated "some second-tier TV evangelist" whose name Spong couldn't remember at the time of this interview.
He reiterated his challenge in a public letter to evangelical demagogue Jerry Falwell, but Falwell declined on the excuse that he "didn't want to lift Mr. Spong out of his anonymity," Spong recalled.
(In Falwell's defense, though, the evangelist was busy warning parents across the nation about the corrupting influence of Teletubbies around the time Spong threw down the gauntlet.)
So, how would Tulsa's religious leaders respond to the hardly-anonymous Mr. Spong?
"I give merit to nearly everything this man says," said Bishop Carlton Pearson of Tulsa's New Dimensions Worship Center, who counts himself among the emerging "New Thought Progressive Christians," who number about 40-50 million in the U.S., he said.
(Pearson's story was touched upon in last week's installment.)
His upcoming book, God is Not a Christian, sports an endorsement from Spong.
"He's forcing us into spirituality, not literalism," Pearson added.
One of Spong's fellow Episcopals, Rev. Stephen McKee of Tulsa's Trinity Episcopal Church, also said he agrees with him on several points, including his understanding of the resurrection.
(McKee's denomination's recent trials were also addressed in last week's article.)
When asked if he believes Christ was resurrected in the literal, bodily sense, McKee responded, "To answer that question is not important to me--'resurrection,' to me, is, because we believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, a life of following the resurrected Jesus is a life of caring about the things he cared about. Another is that, when God gives life, he gives it forever."
As for the traditional notion of a literal, bodily resurrection, McKee said, "I just can't believe it. There may have been a physical resurrection, and I would be very happy if there were, but it's not that important to me."
He said he doesn't believe his particular understanding of the resurrection to be typical of his congregation, though.
McKee does hold his belief in common with Pearson, however.
"I've never questioned the resurrection, but it wouldn't change my faith in God if they discovered Jesus' bones in a tomb," said Pearson.
Billy Joe Daugherty, founding pastor of Tulsa's Victory Christian Center, said he chooses not to respond directly to challenges such as Spong's.
"The greatest answer to liberalism is the truth," he said.
"These arguments are as old as history and there have always been people who didn't take the Bible seriously--I don't go in their playing field. It's not worth the time," he added.
"We're just so focused on the real work of preaching the gospel that we don't even pay attention to those people. For us, we see miracles everywhere," continued Daugherty, who recounted having recently ministered in the Dominican Republic where he "had the experience of blind people seeing and deaf people hearing for the first time."
Pastor Bruce Ewing of Tulsa's Fellowship Bible Church, on the other hand, takes a more head-on approach.
(Ewing also made an appearance in last week's report.)
"It denies the essence of what Christianity is," said Ewing, who argued that any teaching that denies a literal, bodily resurrection within human history is a threat to everything that has historically been called "Christianity."
Pastor Tom Harrison of Asbury United Methodist Church, who describes himself as "liberal on some things, conservative on others," sides with Ewing on this point.
"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men," Harrison and Ewing both said, citing the writings of the apostle Paul.
"The resurrection was not a 'spiritualized' event; what the liberals have done is taken a philosophical argument instead of an historical argument because they can't imagine the possibility of a supernatural God intervening in history; but when they found the empty tomb, there were no bones in it," said Ewing.
Tulsa's Kirk of the Hills co-pastor Tom Gray recently addressed the subject in his blog.
(Kirk of the Hills' place in the ongoing "New Reformation" was also addressed last week.)
"I sorrow for those who proclaim Christ but doubt or disbelieve the resurrection," he wrote.
"Theirs is a 'faith' of philosophy served by a hermeneutic of skepticism, philosophical syllogisms, and clever turns on words. They often separate Jesus from Christ, taking one to be historical, the other metaphorical," he continued.
"Why bother?" is Harrison's overall response to teachings like Spong's, he said, likening them to "throwing out the baby with the bathwater."
"I don't understand why he doesn't just leave Christianity and start his own religion," said Harrison.
He even went so far as to call teachers like Spong "dishonest" for maintaining the forms, rituals and terminology of Christianity while denying its essential teachings.
"I guess there's nothing new about Christianity to write about, but stuff like this sells more books," said Harrison.
With objections like these in mind, Spong was asked: Without a literal resurrection, a personal God and the Bible as an external standard for belief and conduct, in what sense do your beliefs qualify as "Christian"? Why not just do away with Christianity altogether?
"That's a question that reveals a profound ignorance," answered Spong.
"I don't know of a single biblical scholar who takes the Bible literally or who believes in a literal, bodily resuscitation of Jesus," he said.
"Christians believe the Bible is the 'inspired word of God,' but it's the expired word of man, about God," concurred Pearson.
Christians have traditionally "turned the Bible into an idol," he said, and that "God is bigger than the 66 books of the Bible."
"That approach doesn't work anymore--it never worked, so it's time to do something different," Pearson also said.
So, why should Christians use the Bible as a guide for life, considering the staggering advances in knowledge the human race has made since it was written? Don't Spong and Pearson raise many credible points, in light of all we know today about the universe that wasn't known then?
"I don't really see the relevance of all that. You've got improvements in science and technology, but people aren't any different now than they were back then," answered Harrison.
"People have the same pride and lust and sloth and greed that they did back then, and the same questions they were asking about the meaning of life and what happens after death haven't been answered by science and technology," he continued.
Ewing's answer was that the Bible's authority has not changed because it is not the product of human authorship alone, but of an all-knowing, supernatural God.
Like many conservative Christians, Ewing points to the existence of predictive prophecies in the Old Testament, fulfilled centuries later through Christ's life, death and resurrection, as a central validation of his faith.
He called the prophecies and their later fulfillment a "historically verifiable demonstration of the supernatural."
"I think they've got it 180 degrees wrong," said Spong in response to such arguments.
Rather than any supernatural explanation for the congruence between Jesus and the messianic prophecies, Spong said he believes the early Christians contrived many of the facts about Jesus' life to make him seem consistent with the prophets' anticipations of the Messiah.
"I don't think the story of the crucifixion is history at all," said Spong, who explained that the earliest record of Jesus' life is found in the Gospel attributed to Mark, which he said was not written until after the year 70 A.D.--plenty of time for the legend to grow and for early Christians to hammer out the "official" messianic version of the Jesus story.
The dating of the various documents of the New Testament is another issue about which conservative and progressive Christians disagree, though, so Spong was asked how he arrived at his late estimation for the dating of Mark.
He and other scholars base their dating of the Gospel on the writer having included in his account the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, which occurred in A.D. 70, he said.
However, the writer of Mark (as well as the writers of Luke and Matthew, who, academics widely hold, borrowed material from Mark as well as from another, hypothetical Gospel known as "Q") only records the event in the form of a prophecy spoken by Jesus prior to the year 30.
Since questions of supernaturalism and whether God actually intervenes to speak through prophets is another philosophical starting point about which the two sides of the debate disagree, Spong was asked: Doesn't the reasoning behind that dating depend on first being correct in the preconceived notion that Jesus wasn't a prophet, and couldn't have supernaturally foreseen the event in the future, as the Gospel writers wrote that he did?
"Of course," answered Spong.
It's also widely believed that the same writer who composed Luke also wrote Acts of the Apostles as a sequel to the Gospel account. Is that accurate?
"I think that's pretty well established," he said.
Conservative Christians, though, point to the last event recorded in Acts as their basis for an earlier dating for it and for the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) preceding it.
Acts concludes with the apostle Paul's imprisonment in Rome while he awaited the outcome of his legal situation, which was between 60 and 63 AD.
According to tradition, the apostle was executed by decree of Emperor Nero between 64 and 67.
The outcome of Paul's imprisonment, as well as the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple were events of profound importance for the early church, but no account of these events is found in the book of Acts, nor in any other book of the New Testament.
"Because they hadn't happened yet," said Harrison when asked about these events' exclusion from the book of Acts.
Had those events happened before the writing of Mark (which was written before Luke and Acts), their omission from Acts would be inexplicable, conservatives argue.
"I don't think that's a very strong argument," Spong responded.
"Only fundamentalists would argue for an early dating of Acts," he said.
While each side of the debate has its own reasons for believing as it does, McKee explained that, according to his church's tradition, Reason is one of three "legs" upholding the proverbial "stool" of a well-balanced understanding of what it means to be "Christian."
The other two "legs" are Tradition and the Scripture. If any of these takes a place of greater or lesser importance, imbalance and extremism ensue, he said.
McKee said literalist fundamentalists often emphasize Scripture to the exclusion of the other "legs," while ultra-conservative Catholics over-emphasize Tradition.
McKee also said there is the possibility that more liberally inclined Christians might exalt human Reason beyond its due, the dangers of which were recently addressed by Gray.
"The problem here... is that human reason and experience are utterly subjective. If God is not objectively revealed then God becomes an imaginary construct with a strange resemblance to the thinking of the one making up the construct," he said.
The question remains whether the God envisioned by the emerging "New Thought Progressive Christians" is merely the "imaginary construct" of which Gray warned, or if that God is indeed bringing about the "New Reformation" announced by Spong.
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