The Reverend Fred Phelps, 1929 - 2014

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 10 April 2014 0 Comments
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I am a curmudgeon and have become an atheist after 73 years as an Anglican. Of course, the first ten years were a wash. In those days I believed in Jesus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas. From ten on, however, I began to doubt the veracity of the Bible and its legends. It started to drive me crazy. I wandered to other churches and none gave me any solace. None of the stories made sense. The ark and Adam and Eve just didn’t make sense. My father was a student of religion and took me to every church he could think of. He introduced me to opera with his transvestite brother who was a good Anglican. As an adult I taught Sunday school, telling lies to children. I lied to myself. I read a lot of books and my faith eroded away to nothing. I still go to church every Sunday for some unknown reason, maybe just habit. My vicar just doesn’t get it. My bishop pretty much doesn’t like me because I am a pain in the neck at council.



Dear Charles,

I have always liked 73 year old curmudgeons, but that self-definition is not your problem. Neither is the fact that you are an atheist. If believing in God required me to treat Adam and Eve and Noah’s flood as if they were literally described and historically correct events, I would be an atheist too!

Your problem is rather that in all your years as an Anglican, you were never educated by the church you attended. You were instead propagandized by biblical non-sense masquerading as Christian Education. No reputable biblical scholar in the last 200 plus years has treated many of the stories of the Bible as if they were literally true. In this brief column, I cannot rescue the Bible from the fundamentalist mentality in which it appears to have been captured for you. I tried to do that in this column over a period of three years by going into the background, issues and context of every book in the Bible. Those columns were later published by Harper-Collins under the title Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. It was recently re-released in a paperback edition. What I can do in this column, however, is to state some facts about the Bible that you should have been taught years ago.

1. The Bible in its entirety was written roughly between 1000 BCE and 135 CE. It reflects the level of knowledge and the level of consciousness that people possessed in that period of human history.

2. The four gospels were written roughly between the years 70 CE and 100 CE, or 40 to 70 years after the crucifixion. They were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke much less wrote. They are not written by eyewitnesses.

3. Paul, who wrote between the years 51-64 CE, never seems to have heard of Judas Iscariot, the Virgin birth or the idea that Jesus performed miracles. The creeds and doctrines of the Christian Church, which were developed in the 3rd and 4th centuries, would have been totally foreign to Paul.

4. Of the five major writers in the New Testament, only two, Matthew and Luke, include the story of Jesus having had a miraculous or virgin birth; the other three do not. The last gospel to be written, John (95 CE-100CE) not only has no supernatural birth story in it, but it also refers to Jesus on two occasions (chapters 1 and 6) as the “son of Joseph.”

5. Most of the miracle stories told about Jesus appear to have been either Moses or Elijah stories magnified and wrapped around the memory of Jesus or prophetic “signs of the Kingdom” that were placed into his life and memory in order to designate him as the expected messiah whose task it was to inaugurate the Kingdom.

6. There are almost no details of the Easter stories found in one gospel that are not contradicted in another gospel.

This list hardly scratches the surface of the biblical data that might be included. My point in relating these biblical bullet-points to you is to let you know that these are not just my private opinions, but the attested conclusions of most biblical scholars. I know these things because I have been taught them as a student and I have taught them as a member of the theological faculty of some of the finest theological seminaries in the world. I have shared these ideas in lectures and through my books all over the world throughout my entire career. I have served my church actively as a priest for 21 years and a bishop for 24 years and have continued to do so for 14 years now in retirement. All clergy, who have been educated in a competent theological seminary, would also know these things.

Of course, there is a lot of superstition and ignorance in the way Christianity is publicly proclaimed, but that is not Christianity’s fault. It is the fault of some poorly informed Christians. Without doubt, for the uninformed public God gets confused with Santa Claus and Jesus with the Easter Bunny, but that is because the leaders of the Christian Church have been too lazy to teach what they know and are unwilling to challenge the 4th grade Sunday School level of knowledge, which a large number of church-goers have not yet outgrown.

I want for you the chance to know what Christianity is all about and how to read and study the Bible. Your letter reveals only the profound ignorance that you have assumed to be Christianity and that, quite rightly, you cannot bring yourself to accept. Please do not stop being a curmudgeon, but be an educated curmudgeon. The church has a great need for some people to play exactly that role.

~John Shelby Spong




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