Liberal bishop questions literal reading of Bible

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Rev. John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop from Newark, N.J., and the author of books such as “Jesus for the Non-Religious,” delivered his modern interpretation of Christianity to an audience of about 40 in List 120 last night.

In “The Christian Church and the Sexuality Debate,” Spong addressed homosexuality, abortion, sexism and racism from a reframed Christian viewpoint, as he offered an analysis that emphasized a non-literal interpretation of the Bible.

“There’s a difference between an experience of Jesus and an explanation of the experience of Jesus,” Spong said during the question-and-answer session after the lecture, which was hosted by Students for Choice. The lecture was sponsored by the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, the Office of Institutional Diversity, Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom and the Kaleidoscope Fund, a fund created by President Ruth Simmons in 2005 in order to promote intellectual diversity on campus.

Spong, who is “pro-a woman’s right to choose,” said that he is excited about the American public slowly overcoming its prejudices toward homosexuality. He said he hoped to see homophobia, racism and sexism “exorcised” from American life.

Spong analyzed the racism and sexism that he said are persistent in attitudes toward the presidential campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill. and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. He asked the crowd why, after an 11-state sweep, Obama still had not clinched the nomination. He also used the success of black politicians such as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick as examples of the decline of racism in the American public and as catalysts to change American consciousness toward race.

Spong also called Clinton the first woman in America the voting public could imagine as president, before citing sexist comments various members of the media have made about the Clinton campaign. One of these was journalist Carl Bernstein’s quip about the width of Clinton’s ankles, to which Spong replied by asking the audience how the public would have reacted if Bernstein had joked about former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s body parts instead. The audience, which was scattered around the auditorium, laughed in response.

Spong discussed Christianity’s role in shaping sexism, racism and homophobia as well. He said that many Christians have quoted the Bible to justify these prejudices. After repeating some of these quotes, he suggested that literal, fundamentalist interpretations of them were wrong.

“It’s strange what we have to literalize in order to keep our prejudices intact,” Spong said. He added that the Book of Leviticus, which lists male homosexuality as a sin punishable by death, also recommends execution for disobeying one’s parents.

“How many of you would still be alive?” Spong quipped, to the crowd’s amusement.

“When you treat the Bible literally, you can use it as a weapon against your victims,” he said toward the end of his lecture. “Nothing that defiles life for anyone can be called Christianity.”

On abortion, Spong said the practice should be “safe, legal and rare,” calling a woman’s choice a “serious decision.” He said he believes that those who simultaneously oppose abortion and widespread contraception also assume abstinence is the solution to unwanted pregnancies, which he said was “naive.”

After living for 20 years in crime-ridden Newark, Spong said he could think of many occasions where abortion would present a reasonable option. In the hypothetical case of a 12-year-old rape victim with an unwanted pregnancy, he asked, “Is the (fetus’s) life valued above the life of the girl?”

Members of the audience also asked Spong about American attitudes toward contraception, chasms in the Anglican Church and the role of religion in American life, among other topics.

When Gail Rosen ’09 asked Spong what he believed the role of religion in politics should be, he responded that Christianity ought to “bring life back together, as opposed to making religion a part of life … I’m more concerned about my religion permeating life.” He concluded the question-and-answer session by saying that people should “get underneath” Jesus’ experience, rather than interpret it literally.

While a number of audience members left shortly after they asked questions, the small number who stayed through the entire talk – and then afterwards to speak with Spong – were impressed by the bishop’s speech and said they generally agreed with his sentiments.

“I came in expecting a talk incorporating a religious sentiment more,” said Rosen, who added that God should be part of the discussion “if you’re going to talk about religion in a relationship.” Still, she said that she agreed with most of Spong’s points.

Amelia Plant ’10, vice president of the Students for Choice, said the lecture was “amazing” and that Spong’s words were important during a time when religion “is so politicized and polarizing.”

Plant attributed the lecture’s low turnout to the Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. lecture at 8 p.m. last night, which she said SFC only found out about last week. But Spong didn’t seem to mind, calling the audience “wonderful.”

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