The Bible, Corporal Punishment and Human Guilt - Part 3

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 30 June 2004 0 Comments
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I recently heard retired Bishop Paul Barnett of Sydney attacking you on radio here in Australia. He said, "All John Spong does is rehash Michael Goulder's midrash line which R. T. France and others demolished years ago." Would you comment on that?


I have known Paul Barnett for years. He is a well meaning man and not malevolent. But, oh, my goodness, is he both fundamentalist and evangelical in the Sydney Anglican tradition. He really thinks that there has been no biblical scholarship in the last 200 years. Some years ago he and the present Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, wrote a pamphlet criticizing my book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality. It was probably the most naive bit of New Testament ignorance I have ever read. It was designed to show that the only proper way to read the Resurrection narratives of the Bible was to treat them literally. Both of these gentlemen seemed unaware that there is a profound difference between the experience of God and the way the experience of God is explained, or that the resurrection narratives in the gospel accounts disagree on almost every detail of the Easter Story. My guess is that Paul Barnett thought he had demolished my book in the same way that he now asserts that R. T. France demolished Michael Goulder's. I find it of interest that I have never heard of R. T. France. Evangelicals tend to read only Evangelicals. No one else does.

Michael Goulder's work has raised new possibilities for understanding the Synoptic Gospels by suggesting that they were shaped by the liturgical life of the synagogues. I find his thesis both exciting and startlingly fresh. I have both leaned on it and expanded it in my book, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. There is a vast difference when you approach the Gospels as literal history as Paul Barnett tends to do and when you look at them as liturgical documents as I tend to do.

Paul Barnett seems to think there is such a thing as liberal scholarship or conservative scholarship. There isn't. There is only competent scholarship and incompetent scholarship. The findings of competent scholarship may be interpreted in a conservative or liberal direction, but there is no such thing as conservative or liberal scholarship. Paul thinks that any scholarship that disagrees with him is "liberal" and therefore unworthy. Very few people outside of Australian Evangelical circles have ever heard of Paul Barnett. He is retired now but the kind of Christianity he represented is still alive and well in Sydney. It is the only part of the Anglican Church that reminds me of the kind of irrational fundamentalistic Christianity in which I grew up. Billy Graham would be a flaming liberal in the Anglican Church of Sydney. Jerry Falwell might even look moderate. I am delighted that I still seem to bother my old adversary.

-- John Shelby Spong




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