The Terrible Texts: Be Fruitful and Multiply and Subdue the Earth - Part II

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 3 September 2003 0 Comments
Please login with your account to read this essay.


What are your feelings about singing hymns in Church where salvation requires the portrayal of Jesus as a sacrifice who shed his blood to cleanse us from our sins? Are these ideas meaningful to anyone?


Some of the hymns sung in Church are absolutely dreadful. Many of them are highly neurotic, childlike and quite oedipal in content. Some are even masochistic! I think of a hymn in my Episcopal Hymnbook that says:

"Before thy throne O God we kneel,
Give us a conscience quick to feel,
A ready mind to understand
The meaning of thy chastening hand.
Wean us and train us with thy rod.
Teach us to know our faults, O God."

That sounds like asking for discipline to me! Perhaps that hymn will be appreciated in those congregations where the worshippers emerge from Church saying "the preacher really laid it on us this morning." To view the death of Jesus as a sacrifice that God requires to satisfy the divine righteousness fits right into this same mentality.

Sacrificial atonement theology says at rock bottom, though with quite sophisticated language so that people will not hear its real message, "I have been a bad boy or girl. I deserve to be punished. But when God takes me to the place of punishment, presumably the heavenly woodshed, Jesus steps in and takes my punishment for me." That is what lies behind the Christian mantra "he died for my sins." I think that is sick theology but we have repeated it for so many hundreds of years that our minds have been dulled to its rather bizarre meaning.

Changing hymns or liturgies, however, requires a changed theology that gives us both a new way to conceptualize God and a new way to speak of Christ. Unfortunately, the Church as we know it today is probably not capable of working out that new theology for it seems to many of the Church's leaders to threaten its very existence. My sense is that unless we do this hard work there is no chance that there will be a Church in the future. If the Church does not change radically the Church will die. If the choice is to die if we change or to die if we do not change, which is the way lots of people see the issues then obviously the future is bleak.

My confidence is that a Church that does the hard theological work that is before us has a chance to live. The Church that does not do it has no chance at all. But there are many who think that all the Church needs to do is to shout the old message louder and louder. That is what separates the fundamentalist from the radical Christian. To me the sign of hope is that people like you occasionally listen to the words that we continue to use in worship and say, "that does not make sense!!" If enough people do that there is still hope for a new reformation. My fear is that so many of the people who might say that, are no longer inside the structures of the Church because they have already been repelled by the very questions that you raise. That is why I seek to address members of what I call the CHURCH ALUMNI ASSOCIATION through this column. You are the future of the Christian Church. Come back and be agitators for change. It is a great vocation and a much needed one.

Bishop John Shelby Spong





Leave a Reply