The Death of Jerry Falwell

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 23 May 2007 0 Comments
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A brief note from a South African who has benefited from your e-mailed

articles. Thank you for spelling out a different theological approach so

clearly and sincerely. I will be obtaining your new book as soon as it

becomes available here.

I have become rather sad and angry about the way in which clergy and church

lay leaders have sold members down the river for so many years. People have

not been encouraged to question, doubt, and debate, but have been presented

with a party line and told to believe it or else! The average church member

has never been exposed to the theological teaching you and many theological

schools present. Certainly in South Africa, the majority of Christians are

fundamentalist/evangelical types, who are totally dismissive of anyone who

thinks differently. I find it more and more difficult to minister to my

congregations with integrity, and look forward to retiring in a few years



Thanks for your e-mail. It is good to hear voices like yours coming out of

Africa. You are not alone, for Africa has produced gigantic figures like

Desmond Tutu, Njongonkulu Ndungane, Khotsu Mkullu, and other great Christian

leaders. Sometimes Western evangelicals and fundamentalists, under the

pressure of ecclesiastical debate, try to project the picture of both

certainty and unanimity among African Christians, whom they claim to be

their allies in the struggle to preserve the literal Bible. That is simply

not an accurate picture as your letter reveals and as my knowledge of

African Christianity has convinced me. I remember well when a Kenyan bishop

named Henry Okullu phoned a woman in his diocese from my office to tell her

that his experience with women Anglican priests in America had convinced him

that he should ordain women when he returned to Kenya. All Henry needed was

experience. When he got that he began to act in a new way. That will be

the destiny of those African leaders who will lead that continent tomorrow.

I hope you will not retire until you see the fruit of your own labor

becoming available to all the people of Africa.

It is, however, true to say now that so much of African Christianity is

rather fundamentalist. I am embarrassed when I hear Nigerian Anglican Bishop

Peter Akinola utter things that are breathtakingly uninformed about both the

Bible and about homosexuality. There are two kinds of ignorance. One is

the ignorance of not knowing. That is easily remedied by gaining knowledge

that was not previously available. The other kind of ignorance that Bishop

Akinola demonstrates is that he does not know that he does not know. That

is the ignorance of fundamentalism because the assumptions they make about

the Bible, for example, convince them that they already have all the

knowledge they need.

This kind of African fundamentalism results primarily from the fact that the

Christian missionaries who came to Africa, at least from England, were

primarily fundamentalist and evangelical missionaries, who proceeded to

impose their narrow and uninformed views about both the Bible and

Christianity on the African converts. Neither these missionaries nor their

present-day disciples seem to be aware of the revolution in biblical

scholarship that has occurred over the last 200 years, to say nothing of the

revolution in knowledge itself and in the way we perceive the world which

has occurred over the last 500-600 years. Because of the thought of people

like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein, just to name

a few, we cannot make the claims we once made either for God or for the

Bible. The colonial powers that ruled Africa for so long did not introduce

this kind of education into their English African schools because the

primary teachers in these schools were these missionaries and they were

themselves unlearned in these areas. That isolation from knowledge will not

endure. In an era of Google, the Internet and much travel, Africa will not

long remain captive to this pre-modern mentality. When the transition

comes, as it inevitably will, I rejoice that you and people like you will be

there to help the new knowledge and the new consciousness to develop..

I will be in South Africa on a lecture tour in October of 2007. I hope we

will have a chance to meet on that occasion.

My best,

John Shelby Spong




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