Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World


For centuries, scholars have been debating, analyzing and exploring perhaps the most influential book ever written—the Bible—and overturning much of what we know about this sacred text. However, a large group of people who actually use this book, mainly lay Christians, aren’t aware of this larger, deeper conversation. It is for these people that Spong, drawing on a lifetime of experience, writes Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, a primer on the history and significance of the Bible. In this informal and accessible survey, Spong will move book by book through the Scriptures, introducing their themes and messages by examining the sweep of history in which these books were originally written. What has history taught us? How should we read these stories today? What does it mean for how we live our lives? And why do people tenaciously hold on to so many myths associated with the Bible? For the vast audience of people eager for a meaningful journey into the Bible, Spong leads the way.



“A masterful reading of these texts that have shaped the Western world. This book is filled with insights from a lifetime of deep engagement with Scripture. Highly recommended!” (Gregory C. Jenks, author of The Once and Future Bible )

“If your addiction is the shallow, narrow, literal interpretation of the Bible doled out by most churches, then you need an intervention. Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religous World is like a treatment center in a box.” (Rev. David Felten & Rev. Jeff Procter-Murphy, creators of the Living the Questions series )

“A master teacher and story teller, Spong brings the best of current scholarship to free the books of the Bible from Sunday School naïveté and literalistic interpretations. The result is an introduction to the Bible that will engage readers who no longer sit in church pews.” (Andrew D. Scrimgeour, Drew University, editor of Just Call Me Bob: The Wit and Wisdom of Robert W. Funk )

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Review & Commentary

One thought on “Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

  1. Review

    When the history of religious thought of the past half century is written, surely the name of Bishop John Shelby Spong will figure high on the list. He is completing the process of rationalizing (that is, bringing reason to bear on) what we used to genuflect to mindlessly as Holy Writ. For me personally the journey began with John Robinson’s 1963 book, Honest to God. Bishop Spong has been producing what seems an inexhaustible fountain of works that carry on that work, ably and thoughtfully. His driving mission, he says, is to “bring competent biblical scholarship to the people who sit in the pews of our churches.” And I think it is clear that part of that inspiration derives from our era’s comparable slide into fundamentalism and literalism. To combat those forces of desperation and ignorance, he brings the sort of critical, socio-historical lens first crafted by Enlightenment thinkers two centuries ago. Spong raises sensible questions like “what was the situation that compelled” any particular biblical book or letter, what message did its author wish to convey and, perhaps most crucially, what aspects of that message are still relevant to us today?

    I revere this insistence on placing the texts of the bible in their proper historical context, and his recognition for example that much of the OT is the product of a tribal vision and offers an answerably tribal conception of God as an angry warrior. (Still I must confess that one of my favorite numbers in one of my favorite Handel oratorios, Israel in Egypt is a duet for male voices called “The Lord is a Man of War.” One can be critical of the founding spirit of these unfortunate texts and yet love what later artists have made of them. Indeed, as a professor of English and a lover of literature and the creative imagination, I marvel almost as much at the theological inventiveness behind Mark’s story of the loaves and fishes, or of Jesus’ walking on the water, as I would if those miracles had occurred in fact in fact.

    Half of Spong’s weighty book is devoted to his retelling of and giving his take on (thereby “re-claiming” stories from the Old Testament, but what I most admired is his investigation of the New. I was especially taken with his very modern, very practical, very analytical and very adulatory estimate of Paul–the man who is the only accurately-identified author of any New Testament book or letter.

    Spong makes particularly good observations about the vast amount of subsequent Christian material not present in Paul, a handy reminder of the process of new literary creation and theological invention subsequently produced, two to five decades later, by the four gospel writers. About them Spong offers excellent insights. Among them are the following:

    **On Mark: His “crucifixion narrative is interpretive material, not eyewitness reporting.”

    **On Matthew: He “was not making a biography of Jesus; he was interpreting Jesus in the light of Jewish scriptures.” (Here Spong adds a characteristic, and characteristically crucial, insight: “Literalism is never the way to read any Jewish story. [It] is in fact a late-developing Gentile heresy.”)

    **On Luke: the tale of the Good Samaritan confirms “that Luke’s community of believers has moved beyond the Jewish point of view.” On Acts, that “it chronicles the story of Christianity’s walk into what it was created to be.”

    **On John, “the least literal but the most profoundly true of the four canonical gospel writers.”

    One special virtue of the book is that, deriving as it does from the Bishop’s admirable weekly newsletter, it divides into convenient and small units—most of them thought-provoking, all of them digestible. Spong also includes a lengthy bibliography. But here’s a minor complaint. The book covers so much of both Old and New Testament and books, and contains (like the Bible itself!) so many cross-references, a thorough index would have been, dare I say, a God-send?

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