Jack on Prayer

Essay by Rev. Gretta Vosper on 23 August 2018 4 Comments

It was a delight to be at Chautauqua Institution in June to hear Bishop John Shelby Spong (Jack) explore the theses presented in his latest and last, last book Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today. Over the course of four days, he shared his perspectives on Christianity in a style that is exquisitely his own. Taking questions from dedicated “Women” and “Men” microphones, the integrity with which he approaches his work and those intent on wrestling with it was, as always, apparent. He would not let his audience off the hook. He would not allow them to be content with the easy, well-trod paths up the mountain. His cajoling impatience is his invitation to us to raise our own rallying cry, even if we don’t quite know what to rally around yet. He is content to shake the bejeezus out of our preconceptions and then get out of the way so that we might find our own path.

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If you were going to lead a retreat on the Bible (focusing on its origins and purpose), what questions would you find valuable to address?


Dear JB,

One of the best methods I’ve found for starting a conversation about the origins and “purpose” of the Bible (especially for those steeped in a more literal/inerrant understanding) is some comparative reading.

Step 1: Divide the group in half and assign group one the reading of the Creation story in Genesis 1. Assign group two the reading of Genesis 2’s story. Have them write down the order of events, the main characters, observations about the environment, important dialog, etc. Each group needs to focus on their story – not letting assumptions from their familiarity with both stories cloud their objective review of their particular text.

Step 2: Bring the groups back together and have a spokesperson share what they discovered. On a flipchart or whiteboard, write out the order of events, characters, observations, etc.

Step 3: Walk folks through the obvious: that these are very different stories with different authors and different agendas describing the “same” event in wildly divergent ways – and they’re NOT sequential. Nor are they able to be synthesized into one story. The first story goes from “wet to dry” (a hurricane at night through to a resolution). The second story goes from “dry to wet” (a terrible drought through to a resolution). This is a good place to talk about the different authors of the Pentateuch, their political agendas, and their theological outlook. For most folks in the pew this is new information. Just be honest with people and field their questions. I’ve found that when people discover this kind of thing on their own, guided by someone who assures them that it’s OK to question and re-organize one’s world-view, it makes a profound impression. And yes, it creates psychological mayhem for some – but a mayhem necessary to break out of the stage of what Marcus Borg called “pre-critical naïveté.”

Step 4: Once through the initial conversation, you can share with them more of the clues that critical thinking reveals when reading the text. I especially like showing how Genesis 1 is as much a propaganda piece as anything. Note how the story (written during or soon after the Babylonia captivity?) dismisses the Babylonians by throwing shade on their “sun god,” Marduk. Yahweh is clearly a more powerful deity because Yahweh creates light independent of the sun (one of Marduk’s primary domains). After that, the obviously superior Jewish divinity doesn’t even get around to creating the sun (Marduk’s representation) until day four. Ouch!

Genesis 1 also contributes to ending the old misogynist argument from Genesis 2 that Eve was somehow an afterthought created from Adam. In Genesis 1, men and women are created at the same time – and as equals. Also, ask your participants to note the humor in the stories. For instance: when Adam is lonely, he asks for a companion. But, duh, God gives him the Aardvark (yes, apparently God is just that dense). According to the rabbis, it’s supposed to be funny, but Christians just take it all too seriously.

Step 5: Then you can talk about how these are stories, not history – and their meaning is much deeper than just an account of what happened. They are origin stories from two very different times in Jewish history that have different sources and different purposes. And neither of them were ever intending to be accounts of “how” it happened (which seems to be the fixation of so many). Instead, they’re about the “why” of existence, relationship with the Divine, and purpose of life. This is a good place to remind people that 70% of what we have record of Jesus saying was fiction – stories told to make a broader point.

Anyway, this should not only be plenty of fodder for conversation about the Bible but also an opportunity to foster the spiritual discipline of critical thinking. Depending on how long you have, you could also analyze the two flood stories, the Jesus birth narratives, or the resurrection stories in the same way. That should get some conversation going.

For reference, the Genesis creation stories are also broken down pretty clearly in (shameless plug) Jeff Procter-Murphy and my book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.

~ Rev. David M. Felten




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