What Mel Gibson Does Not Understand About Biblical History

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 24 March 2004 0 Comments
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Instead of a Question and Answer this week Waterfront Media would like to make the readers of this column aware of the fact that the Jesus Seminar, meeting recently in New York City, conferred on John Shelby Spong the 'John A. T. Robinson' Award. This award was named for the great revolutionary Bishop in the United Kingdom, who in the 1960s through his book, HONEST TO GOD, forced a new theological debate on the entire Christian Church. It was inaugurated this year and will be given annually to those who, in the minds of the Jesus Seminar leaders, have demonstrated 'Integrity, Insight, Foresight and Courage' in pursuing truth in the realm of religion. The citation was read by Dr. Robert Funk, Founder and President of the Jesus Seminar. The entire text follows:

John Shelby Spong, you are a prophet not without honor on your own turf. You have been awarded four doctoral degrees, you have given the William Belden Noble Lectures at Harvard University, and the Westar Institute inducted you into the Order of David Frederick Strauss in 1999.

You are also a best selling author with more than seventeen groundbreaking books to your credit. You have an enormous following and an equally generous band of theological despisers. The amplitude of your enemies attests to the sweeping and profound impact you have had on the churches and the 'church alumni association' around the world.

And we know you are married to the most beautiful woman in the world. In that respect we cannot enhance your good fortune.

We are unable to add any luster to your crown, and we do not have the resources of the Nobel Prize committee. But we do have a bottomless reservoir of admiration for you personally and for your achievements. We want to give voice to that admiration by conferring on you the John A. T. Robinson award for Integrity, Insight, Foresight and Courage. These are four words that seem to us to characterize your mentor, John Robinson, and you.

You report that you read HONEST TO GOD three times before putting it down in 1965. You sum up the insights that intrigued you: "The theistic God is dead. Jesus, understood as the incarnation of this theistic God has become inoperative. Prayers addressed to this theistic are meaningless. Ethics, understood as following the will of this theistic God, revealed in such sacred sources as the Bible and the Ten Commandments, become nonsensical. If Christianity is going to engage the world of my generation it must rethink all of its images, reformulate all of its understandings and reinterpret all of its words. The only alternative to this monumental task is the death of Christianity itself (Fourth R 15. 5, 2002, 11)."

That might have been a large enough agenda for a young priest in the church in North Carolina. But you immediately saw the other implications that flowed from these radical theological insights. Or perhaps it was the moral issues that plagued you that prompted you to read HONEST TO GOD and see in and through them that the mythical matrix of the creed required rethinking and reformulating. In any case the Civil Rights Movement inspired you, as it did many of us, to take a stand against racism. You began a dialogue with Jews that led to a new ecumenism. You championed the cause of women in the church and elsewhere, and you began the long crusade to acknowledge and accept gays. You were courageous enough to ordain an openly gay and partnered person to the priesthood.

You have taken on Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Leslie Stahl with integrity, wit and aplomb. You did not vacillate, beg the question or equivocate.

Your trenchant insights on human sexuality and the negative role Christian dogma has played in stigmatizing sex have been exemplary. You attacked this problem with the same finesse and honesty that prompted John Robinson to defend the publication of D. H. Lawrence's book LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER.

We are all in your debt as our mentor. From you we have learned how important it is to be attentive to timely insights, how necessary to foresee where they will lead and how essential to maintain one's integrity at all costs. You did all this within an ecclesiastical system that resists change and the loss of power. The combination of these factors requires uncommon courage.

So we again honor ourselves by bestowing on you the symbol of the John A. T. Robinson Award. And we thank you for being HONEST TO GOD.

-- Robert W. Funk, 2004




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