Recently, I started reading some of John Shelby Spong who is a liberal Episcopal priest and bishop. For conservatives, he is as liberal as they come. Besides being a supporter of radical feminism and racial equality, he also supports gay rights. A while ago, someone gave me one of his books to read. It is called: Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: a Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (HarperCollins, 1991). I have not taken the time to read it until only recently.
Spong says he was taught the bible as a child from a fundamentalist perspective but has rejected it but he speaks as if he does not have, in the least, any sense of who evangelicals are and what we represent–and perhaps he really doesn’t. When I read his book, I got the feeling that he loves to broad-stroke literalists as backwards, ignorant, oppressive and fundamentalist, and also, as haters of women, racial and visible minorities, and gays and lesbians.
It would be safe to say that even most female and racial minorities who are evangelicals would feel he is condescending toward evangelicals. Sometimes, what he says comes across feeling like a slap in the face. If he could only express his views in a softer, gentler tone, he wouldn’t come across as so repulsive.
Spong does not care to differentiate between evangelicals and fundamentalists. He seems to identify both as the same–as literalists. His refusal to use the term “evangelical” makes him come across as disrespectful of those who hold a conservative evangelical theology. If anyone in liberal scholarship is not yet aware of this: Christians of the conservative stream do not like to be labelled “fundamentalists.”
I can actually agree with some of what he says concerning scripture (but not his theology); however, it is difficult to take the medicine he dishes out that comes along with it. So why do I find him a little harsh? Much of the new evangelical biblical scholarship is already dealing with some the issues that he brings up in his book. It is not the liberal positions on scripture or theology that annoys me. I have read enough literature from a liberal perspective to know that I can’t be easily annoyed by it. I read with interest the scholarly articles and books written from a liberal perspective. What annoys me is actually the negative and condescending attitude he takes when he is trying to prove his point about fundamentalists, whom he labels as, literalist. Here is a small taste of Spong’s style of rhetoric concerning evangelicals:
[ Mainline churches ] (emph. mine) would be embarrassed if they had to defend the patterns of segregation among southern fundamentalists, but many of them are quite convinced that their prejudice toward women, for example, is a justified part of God’s plan in creation. It is for them [i.e., fundamentalists](emph. mine) God-given and biblically based. It is no surprise, then, that the twentieth-century battle for the right of women in the church and for the casting off of the male-imposed definition of women has produced heated and emotional ecclesiastical conflict (Spong, p.5).
I think most conservative mainline Christians would also be embarrassed by this statement. It is very easy to spot his distaste of conservative evangelicals. What he says and how he says it can sound hurtful toward evangelicals. If it was dished out back to liberals in the same way, not even liberals would appreciate it. I also expect the same respectfulness from conservatives toward liberals.
What can we do to remedy this type of ignorance that exists in the minds of liberal Christians? Is there anything we can do to build bridges with liberals without the feeling that we are forfeiting our conservative-evangelical theology?