Summer Lecturer Upends Biblical Interpretation, As He Is Known to Do
Bishop John Shelby Spong revisits the Gospels.
“Boat-Rocking Bishop Sits Down at Last” was the headline in The New York Times when John Shelby Spong retired after 24 years as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark in 2000. In fact the controversial theologian and Bible scholar never sat down or faded from view, and has continued to write and speak widely, including at Drew. This month, Spong, who lives in Morris Plains and makes regular use of Drew’s libraries, is back on campus as a lecturer.
From June 3-7 and June 10-14, Spong, 82, will teach two weeklong courses, open to all through the Theological School’s Center for Lifelong Learning. The first course is based on his book, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. The second course is tied to Spong’s newest book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, which HarperOne will release on June 11.
Spong does not view the Gospels as historic accounts of Jesus’ life, but rather an interpretative narrative of his life. “We now approach our scriptures with a literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion,” says Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, in a blurb for the new title. “This new and imaginative book will liberate many people from this unnecessary complication of the religious life.”
“Bishop Spong is willing to challenge traditional Christian norms, and he’s still very forward-looking and provocative,” says Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, dean of the Theological School, who invited him to teach this summer. “We are certain to be stimulated and challenged by his thinking.”
As leader of one of the most liberal Episcopal dioceses in the nation Spong gained international fame for his maverick views. He was an outspoken supporter of gay rights and drew protests by ordaining an openly gay man as a priest in 1989. He also questioned some of the fundamental tenets of Christian theology, including the virgin birth and the Resurrection. In his 1998 book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, he referred to himself as a “believer in exile.”
In 2010 Spong, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Virginia Theological Seminary, received an honorary doctorate from Drew. The first of his summer courses is “The Role of the Synagogue in Shaping the Synoptic Gospels.” The second is “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”—Mary Jo Patterson