The Think Piece Interview: John Shelby Spong

It’s not easy to prepare for an interview with John Shelby Spong. The man has written 24 books, hundreds of newspaper columns, and thousands of sermons. This is a theologian with an active pen. The good news is his prose is clear-headed, incisive,  direct and a pleasure to read. Short summary of his writing career: he believes that institutional Christianity needs to modernize, and he’s trying to nudge it along. We caught up with the former Episcopal Bishop of Newark in his home in New Jersey, where he continues to write and critique as fervently as ever, to talk about faith, justice, mental health, and his new book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

TP: What’s your writing routine like?

JSS: I get up pretty early and go down to my treadmill and get about four miles and five or six hundred calories off, and then I stay in my study until probably ten or eleven o’clock and don’t come out even for breakfast until about that time. And that has the nice advantage of cutting your meals down to two a day so I don’t get overweight. I use that time to study, and I focus my study. I did nothing except read books on John’s gospel for almost five years before I wrote the book on John’s gospel. I’m working now on Matthew’s gospel. Whether I’ll do a book on it or not, I don’t know.

TP: How do you decide what your next book will be?

JSS: I don’t make that decision until I’ve read enough to know that I’ve got something different to say and I know how to say it. So, in the meantime, I just enjoy the time to study. I’ve got a library at Drew University, which is about five miles away. The people there are just very wonderful to me. It’s a theological library—because there’s a Methodist theological seminary there—and it’s first-rate. They give me access to everything they’ve got. They treat me as a member of the faculty. As a matter of fact, I teach over there from time to time in their summer session. But to have a great university library near you with plenty of archives of all the journals that you want to research in the twentieth century is a remarkable asset, and I spend a day, maybe two days a week in that library. I just plain love it.

TP: Who are your readers?

JSS:  I’m not writing for fundamentalists. I’m writing for the people who have been repelled by that kind of thinking and yet who think there might be something they haven’t yet discovered.

TP: Who are some of your favorite religious authors?

JSS: Edward Schillebeeckx is probably as fine a New Testament scholar as I’ve ever read. He’s a Dutchman. And he was harassed so many times that it was just painful for him. He constantly had to go to Rome to explain his views. So if you want to be a Roman Catholic scholar and write, you’ve got to write in such a way that nobody understands what you’re saying, and then you’re thought to be profound.

TP: You’ve had such a legendary career. What are some of the moments that stick out for you?

JSS: One of my great experiences in life was to be interviewed on a late-night talk show by a guy named Tom Snyder. He was interviewing me on a book I had written on the New Testament of the Bible called Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, and we talked about the dating of the books of the New Testament, and I said, “Well, the consensus is that the gospels were written some forty to seventy years after the crucifixion.” And he stopped me and said, “Wait a minute, Bishop, that means they couldn’t have been written by eyewitnesses.” I said, “That’s right, Tom. They aren’t written by eyewitnesses. They are written by the second and third generation of Christians, and there wasn’t an eyewitness among them. They were all written in Greek, and none of the disciples spoke Greek.” And he said, “Well, that’s not what the nuns taught me.” I said, “What did they teach you, Tom?” He said, “They taught me that the disciples followed Jesus all around and wrote down everything he said, and that’s where we got the gospels.” I said, “Tom, did the nuns tell you that they used ballpoint pens and spiral notebooks?” And this look of amazement came over his face and he said, “I never thought of that.” There’s an awful lot of biblical ignorance, and the church perpetuates that ignorance.

TP: That must drive you a little crazy.

JSS: It does. I’ve been reading a book recently by a Jesuit. Now, I think of Jesuits as pretty bright people. But this book still argues that maybe Moses wrote the books of Moses in the Torah—I don’t know that an Old Testament scholar believes that. The Torah was written over a period of about five hundred years. It tells the story of Moses’ death and burial. It’s a very bright author that can write the story of his own death and burial. I don’t know why that’s not obvious to people. And John Zebedee did not write the fourth gospel, and David did not write the Psalms, and Solomon did not write the Proverbs. But this man was still parroting this. Nobody has thought that in the world of biblical scholarship for two hundred years. I don’t know where this man’s been. Hiding under a cloud somewhere.

TP: What do you think of Pope Francis? It seems like he’s willing to express some reform-minded views, like he did about not judging homosexuals?

JSS: Yes, but it’s a crumb that falls from the master’s table. Nobody in the scientific or medical world thinks that homosexuality is something that people choose. It’s something we are. Now, I didn’t choose to be heterosexual. I just woke up when I was about twelve years old and girls didn’t look obnoxious to me any longer, but I didn’t make a choice about the matter. I just responded to my own hormones. Benedict XVI kept saying that homosexuals are deviant. They’re not deviant. They’re deviant only if you say that anyone who is different from me is abnormal. You know, I didn’t choose to be white, I didn’t choose to be male, I didn’t choose to be heterosexual, I didn’t choose to be right-handed. Those are the givens of life. And I don’t know why the church can’t deal with that, why they can’t understand that. Well, I do know why: because people are always afraid of anybody who’s different. So anybody who’s a mythology … there’s always a fear. That’s why we don’t like people whose skin color is different, whose eye slant is different, or whose worship is different. It makes them feel insecure. So we strike out. The thing that bothers me most about the Christian church today is that we spend our time confirming people in their own sense of wretchedness. You can’t go to church without praying ten or fifteen times for God to have mercy on you. You can’t sing “Amazing Grace” without reminding yourself that the reason God’s grace is amazing is it saves a wretch like you. This self-denigration stuff—Jesus died for my sins—is nothing but a guilt message. That’s the thing we’ve got to get out from under. That’s not Christianity. That’s sort of fourth-century Christianity that got turned into doctrines and dogmas that we’ve never been able to escape.

TP: The guilt does seem to be a problem for many people.

JSS: I’ve never known about anyone being helped by being told how wretched, miserable, sinful, and evil they are. I’ve never known anybody to be helped by that. And everybody knows that, except the church. You know, every psychiatrist knows that. Every parent knows that. You don’t take your newborn baby, put that baby on your lap, and say, “Now listen, kid, you were born in sin, you’re not worth anything, and you’ve got to pray for mercy.” That’s not going to raise a healthy adult. And that’s what we do Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.

TP: Do you still attend services regularly?

JSS: I go to a church here in New Jersey that is just a very exciting place, and I just love to be there on Sunday morning—I just sit there in a pew with my wife, that’s all I do, but I’m very much a part of that congregation. We’ve got a fantastic rector, and we engage in big issues, and she has an incredible adult-education program and people come in good numbers, and she teaches that, and she brings in people from places like the United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minnesota, where you’ve got good teaching, and our people are being introduced to great material and they really respond. They’re able to believe without crossing their fingers. And I think that’s a real step forward.

TP: What do you tell people who are looking for a church that fits a more progressive worldview?

JSS:, which I write my column for, they put out a list of eight things that if you want to affiliate with them, you have to be open to these, one of which was open to real theological discourse and biblical scholarship and equality of women and all that sort of thing. And churches have signed up with this organization, so when somebody writes to me and says, “I live in Montana. Where can I go to church in Montana that won’t give me that old, sort of ‘We’ve got the answers and you can’t deviate from our point of view’?” And so I write my friends in the progressive Christian organization, and they have a list of churches in Montana they’ve signed up with. And so we say, these are the churches. Montana is a very big state. If you want to live near one of these places, you’ll still be right far from going to one of these churches. But that’s a great service and a great help. And I get letters every week from people who live in rural Texas or rural Mississippi and who feel totally alone. They feel like they must be the strangest person in the world. They don’t fit in to the religious milieu of their communities. It doesn’t make any sense to them. They read some of my columns and they know that there’s somebody in the world at least as crazy as they are, and so they write and say is there anybody else? You know, I won’t give away the names of the people on our mailing list, but I can tell them if we’ve got a significant number of people in their state, and we tell them they might want to get together with these people. But anyway, it’s an exciting time. I feel very comfortable with the things we’re doing.

TP: What is it like to spend a career studying one book?

JSS: It’s been interesting because I’ve read it from every point of view. I was raised pretty much a fundamentalist, but the one thing that fundamentalism gave to me was the love for that book and a commitment to read and study it. The difficulty is that I’ve read it all, I didn’t skip around, I read it all, and when you read it all, you can’t take it literally because you don’t want to blame God for a lot of stuff that occurs in that book. There are some pretty violent scenes. So then I began to read it as a critic, an in-house critic. So I got to a place where when I got to the university, I just couldn’t reconcile that book and some of its points of view with stuff I was learning in my academic career. And so then you have a choice: either you give up your academic career and close your mind and become a constant fundamentalist, or you give up your religion and become a citizen of the modern world and get a modern education, or just spend the rest of your life balancing the two things together, forcing them into a dialogue. And that’s what I somehow decided to do. Now, how I decided that, I really don’t know. Some of my critics think that I’m such an old-fashioned religious man that I can’t possibly step out as they had done in boldness and become an atheist, but that just doesn’t register with what I believe is true. And yet fundamentalism doesn’t either. One of my professors said to me once, “Any god that can be killed off will be killed, but if I can shake up your faith in your god, it means you already don’t have much of a god.” What kind of god is it that some human brain can shatter the illusions that have been built up around such a deity? God’s a mystery. I’ll never be able to tell you what God is. I think I can tell you how I experience God. I experience God as the power of life calling me to live, I experience God as the power of love calling me to love. That’s the God I see in Jesus of Nazareth, that’s the God I see in the fourth gospel. I found writing that book on the fourth gospel one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. It was just really fun to do that, break open some of these symbols. Now, the fourth gospel says that the moment that Jesus is glorified is the moment he’s put to death on the cross, not the resurrection. The moment he’s put to death on the cross is when he shows forth glory, and the reason that is, is that he became free enough to give his life away and to love those who were taking it from him. And that’s what God is all about. That’s the mystical point of view that was hidden from me for years.

TPP: How’s it going with Matthew? Are you find it as satisfying as John?

JSS: In a way, yes. The thing that intrigues me about Matthew is that I don’t believe anybody would read it if they aren’t Jewish and understand it. And so to say that publicly as a Christian is kind of interesting. But the shadow of Moses is behind the portrait of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, overwhelmingly. Even the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness—if you look at them closely and then go back to reading about Moses in the wilderness, you’ll find that Moses had three critical moments: one was about the shortage of food; one is about putting God to the test, which is actually when God brought water out of a rock; and one was when Moses disappeared and people turned their earrings and bracelets into a golden calf. And then you go to the temptations story in Matthew 4, and you see the first temptation had to do with the shortage of food, the second temptation had to do with putting God to the test, and the third temptation had to do with worshiping something other than God—and they begin to look very familiar. So you begin to think that the man who wrote Matthew’s gospel was so deeply Jewish that he used the images, the characters from his Jewish past, most particularly with the character of Moses, to be the template upon which he told the story of Jesus. Now, if you don’t know that Old Testament background, then I don’t know how you’re going to make sense out of this book. Matthew is the only gospel that uses the Sermon on the Mount, for example, because that’s the new Moses making a new interpretation of the law on a new mountain. So then you begin to put all these things together, and I don’t know how you can make sense out of that book if you don’t know the Jewish background. The trouble with Christianity was that by about 150, there were hardly any Jews left in the Christian church, and so from that time until the last part of the twentieth century, the only people reading the gospels and interpreting the gospels and writing commentaries on the gospels were gentiles who were simply ignorant of the Jewish background, and I just thought they were prejudiced. They didn’t believe anything good could come out of a Jewish study. So, what has happened is anti-Semitism has cost the Jews their lives and their property. It’s also cost the Christians the ability to read the old gospels, which are deeply, deeply Jewish, and to bring that out is a pretty exciting thing. I’m having a wonderful time with that. I’m just not near ready to do much with it.

TPP: How’s your research going?

JSS: I’ve probably read maybe by now fifteen, twenty books on Matthew. I’d say the authors I like best are an English fellow named Michael Goulder, who taught at the University of Birmingham in England, and he writes about the Jewish background in Matthew’s gospel, which is part of what I was just talking about, which is just really thrilling to me. Another one is Amy-Jill Levine, who is a Jewish woman who teaches New Testament at the Vanderbilt School of Religion. It’s a group of essays by mostly womanly scholars looking at Matthew’s gospel through feminists’ eyes—very exciting. It opens up all sorts of things that I’ve never thought about. So that’s just the first two. There are plenty more. I haven’t scratched the surface of the Matthew stuff that’s available to me yet. And I go to my library and know the librarian as a close friend—the dean of the library, he’s called. He’s also a member of the Jesus Seminar, which makes him a rather unusual librarian, and he’s constantly running into stuff that he shoots over to me, so he’s sort of my research assistant, and that’s a really great asset to have. And I really do appreciate it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.


Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing