Saturday, September 29, 2007

Pay Dirt: Why Are You Still a "Christian"?

Renee from the Internet writes: I was a Christian once - for about 18 years, or most of my adult life. But then I read the Bible honestly and realized it was mostly evil. I am now Pagan/Hindu and will never be a Christian again. I know you agree that there is much evil in the Bible. You even reject basic Christian doctrines like being born in sin, the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus' blood for those who believe and heaven and hell. How then are you still a Christian? The depiction of Satan in the Bible is far better that the depiction of God. If the Bible reflects God in any way truly, then he is a monster and Satan is a hero for rebelling. Don't you agree? So, why are you still a Christian?

John Shelby Spong responds: Dear Renee, no, I do not agree. Of course, there are parts of the Bible that reflect tribal hatred and portray God as a vindictive ogre. I point them out constantly in this column and in my books. However, that fact does not render the core message of the Bible to be either wrong or irrelevant. The Bible defines God as love in the book of Hosea. The Bible defines God as justice in the book of Amos. The Bible asserts that proper liturgy is not God's desire but proper lives that "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God" are. That is the message of Micah. The Bible stretches the tribal deity of its own limited past into a universal presence in the book of Malachi. The Bible enjoins us to rise to ever new levels of humanity in Jesus' exhortations to love your enemies and to bless those who persecute you. So I study the Bible daily and treasure it as a resource.

In three quick sets of statements, I cherish the Bible because
- It affirms that my life is holy and that all of us were created in God's image.
- It proclaims that I am loved no matter what I do or who I am.
- It calls me to be all that I can be.

Please note the Trinitarian formula, for that is what I mean when I acknowledge God as Father (creator), Son (fully loving life), and Holy Spirit (life giver).

I do not worship the Bible. I do not regard it as the inerrant word of God. I know its content far too well for that to be a possibility. I accept the Bible for what it is, the chronicle of a faith story that grows as people journey through time, seeking to understand their God experience.

The things you call basic Christian doctrines like "being born in sin" or the "vicarious sacrifice of Jesus' blood for those who believe" and "heaven and hell" are not basic Christian doctrines to me at all. They are various theories developed by a behavior-controlling religious institution designated to frighten people or to make them pliable. There is no sense of hell in Paul, for example, and the vicarious sacrifice as the interpretation of the cross appears not to be something that Jesus taught but the message of the Jewish Day of Atonement being literalized and applied to Jesus by a later generation of Christians. Only then did Jesus become the new sacrificed Lamb of God. I have no desire to worship a God who requires the death of Jesus as the means of achieving salvation. Sadism is hardly a Godlike attribute, neither is the victim's masochistic pleasure in being crucified. That idea of salvation is simply not consistent with the message of the Fourth Gospel that the purpose of Jesus was to give life abundantly.

So I suggest that the Christianity you reject is not Christianity at all, but a terrible distortion that we all need to reject. Christianity, as I understand it, is far more than that. I hope you will find someday a church that does not distort Christianity, as your present experience seems to indicate.