Why Neither Ancient Creeds
Nor the Reformation Can
Produce a Living Faith Today
by John Shelby Spong
HarperOne, Toronto, ON.
$31.00 CAD. Feb. 2018. 319 pages.
Five hundred years after Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses ushered in the Reformation, bestselling author and controversial bishop and teacher John Shelby Spong delivers twelve forward-thinking theses to spark a new reformation to reinvigorate Christianity and ensure its future.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Christianity was in crisis—a state of conflict that gave birth to the Reformation in 1517. Enduring for more than 200 years, Luther’s movement was then followed by a “revolutionary time of human knowledge.” Yet these advances in our thinking had little impact on Christians’ adherence to doctrine—which has led the faith to a critical point once again.
Bible scholar and Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong contends that there is mounting pressure among Christians for a radically new kind of Christianity—a faith deeply connected to the human experience instead of outdated dogma. To keep Christianity vital, he urges modern Christians to update their faith in light of these advances in our knowledge, and to challenge the rigid and problematic Church teachings that emerged with the Reformation. There is a disconnect, he argues, between the language of traditional worship and the language of the twenty-first century. Bridging this divide requires us to rethink and reformulate our basic understanding of God.
With its revolutionary resistance to the authority of the Church in the sixteenth century, Spong sees in Luther’s movement a model for today’s discontented Christians. In fact, the questions they raise resonate with those contemplated by our ancestors. Does the idea of God still have meaning? Can we still follow historic creeds with integrity? Are not such claims as an infallible Pope or an inerrant Bible ridiculous in today’s world?
In Unbelievable, Spong outlines twelve “theses” to help today’s believers more deeply contemplate and reshape their faith. As an educator, clergyman, and writer who has devoted his life to his faith, Spong has enlightened Christians and challenged them to explore their beliefs in new and meaningful ways. In this, his final book, he continues that rigorous tradition, once again offering a revisionist approach that strengthens Christianity and secures its relevance for generations to come.
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey for twenty-four years before his retirement in 2000. He is one of the leading spokespersons for liberal Christianity and has been featured on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, FOX News Live, and Extra. This book is based on the William Belden Noble lectures Spong delivered at Harvard.
At 87 years of age, Spong has recently sustained health problems which have affected his capacity to write – https://tinyurl.com/yd2m25lm
Here is more extensive biography –
I have thus far written five “last books” but I think I can guarantee that this current volume will be my last.
This new book “Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today” is based on the experience of finding that the traditional words of religion have lost their believability; for me, it became a necessary piece of work to clear away things that had not been dealt with in previous books. It is a fitting culmination to a writing career that has extended for almost fifty years.
(Spong goes into some detail about the circumstances leading up to and following the stroke he experienced in Marquette MI in September of 2016.)
“I still have trouble writing,” he says. “Oh, I can do that all right, but as yet no one can read it. I hope to improve with time.”
(Spong reports on the many letters of support and good wishes he has received, for which he says thanks, but can’t acknowledge personally. Also, he will not continue writing his online column which he produced weekly for fourteen years.)
– from the Preface
Review by Dr. Wayne Holst
My Thoughts :
The first book authored by John Spong that I read was “Living in Sin – A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality” (1988). In it, he proposed that divorcing couples might consider a “divorce ritual” as part of a worship liturgy at church – since, in fact, they had probably married using a worship liturgy at church. I was prevented from following his advice, but I was taken by Spong’s ability to venture beyond the ordinary. That was thirty years ago.
Another book I read, early on, was “A New Christianity for a New World” (2001). In this volume, he first widely published “Twelve Points of Reform” and he has continued to develop those twelve points in subsequent “updates” to his thinking about the contemporary meaning of God, Jesus, the Bible, the Virgin Birth, New Testament Miracles, the meaning of the Cross and the Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, Christian Ethics, Prayer, Life After Death and Human Rights (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.)
The book under consideration may cause some to react that the author is simply re-plowing old ground. I believe, however, that his return to the same 12 themes repeatedly over 20 years, is a study in how his thinking has evolved.
I will not recommend you read this latest, and probably last of his many books (over a million copies sold in total) as his “summation” on the subject. I will venture that this one represents his latest and probably last formal visitation of the subject. I credit the author for his obvious persistence.
As one who continues to hold a deep appreciation for the sixteenth century Reformation, I was pleased to learn that Spong supports the idea that Luther provides a model for reform of the church, if not the theological content itself. That model can serve us into the future.
I would repeat what I have often criticised him for – he is good at “disposing” of the past, but his “prescription” for how we might move ahead more effectively as Christians lacks substance.
Now, however, it would appear that we will no longer have Spong to raise theological concerns as he has for so many years. It now becomes our task to take up the practical challenge of reform of thought and structure that he has faithfully advocated for so many years.
A new generation of challengers and questers awaits.
John, I have read many of your books and we at St. David’s, Calgary were privileged to have you speak to us there. Thanks, also, for the presence of your lovely partner Christine. Thanks for the great investment of yourselves. You are not forgotten.
Buy the book from Amazon.ca:
Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps to co-ordinate Adult Spiritual Development at St. David’s United Church in that city.