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Why Christianity Must Change Or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile [Paperback]

John Shelby Spong
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (155 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 8 1999
An important and respected voice for liberal American Christianity for the past twenty years, Bishop John Shelby Spong integrates his often controversial stands on the Bible, Jesus, theism, and morality into an intelligible creed that speaks to today's thinking Christian. In this compelling and heartfelt book, he sounds a rousing call for a Christianity based on critical thought rather than blind faith, on love rather than judgment, and that focuses on life more than religion.

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John Shelby Spong is the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and has enjoyed a career filled with controversy, much of it thanks to his many bestselling books, such as Born of a Woman, Living in Sin?, and Liberating the Gospels. He has tapped into an audience of people who are at once spiritually starved and curious, yet unwilling or unable to embrace Christianity.

Spong refers to himself as a believer in exile. He believes the world into which Christianity was born was limited and provincial, particularly when viewed from the perspective of the progress in knowledge and technology made over the past two millennia. This makes any ideas or beliefs formulated in 1st-century Judea totally inadequate to our progressive minds and lives today. So Spong is in exile until Christianity is re-formed to discard all of the outdated and, according to Spong, false tenets of Christianity.

He begins his book by exposing the Apostles Creed line by line, then methodically moves on through the heart of Christian belief, carefully exploring each aspect, demonstrating in each case the inadequacies of Christianity as detailed in the Bible and in the traditions of the Church. The epilogue includes Spong's own creed, recast to reflect the beliefs he considers relevant to Christianity at the end of the 20th century.

Oddly enough, Spong's views do not seem particularly new. In fact, his views seem very much in keeping with the religious humanist variety of Unitarianism. What is remarkable is not the beliefs themselves, but that an Episcopal bishop would be the one to embrace and espouse them. Spong has become a trumpeter in the battle of beliefs, not just in the Episcopal communion, but in the realm of Christian faith in general in this country. His books are bestsellers and are in turn, presumably, read by those who, whether they agree or disagree, all acknowledge that in some way, Spong is involved in setting the agenda. This book, as the admitted "summation of his life's work" tells every reader what the complete agenda will be, for the next few years at least. --Patricia Klein --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"Bishop Spong is a passionate, illuminating original. His

knowledgeable concern for the future of Christianity offers

strength, hope, and theological solutions."

-- -- Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., author of Women Who Run

with the Wolves, The Gift of Story, and The Faithful


"Should be required reading for everyone concerned with facing

head-on the intellectual and spiritual challenges of

late-twentieth-century religious life."

-- -- Karen L. King, Harvard Divinity School

"Bishop Spong is a passionate, illuminating original. His knowledgeable concern for the future of Christianity offers strength, hope, and theological solutions." -- Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, The Gift of Story, and The Faithful Gardener

"Should be required reading for everyone concerned with facing head-on the intellectual and spiritual challenges of late-twentieth-century religious life." -- Karen L. King, Harvard Divinity School

"Spong demolishes the stifling dogma of traditional Christianity in search of the inner core of truth. This book is a courageous, passionate attempt to build a credible theology for a skeptical, scientific age." -- Paul Davies, author of The Mind of God

"This is an important contribution to the Christian dilemma of our time. With reverence, courage, and compassion, Bishop Spong helps his readers to articulate their difficulties with the conception of God and, in so doing, to take the first step toward a creative resolution." -- Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unconvincing case for the abandonment of theism July 18 2002
Bishop Spong describes himself as a 'believer in exile'. Likening his experience to the ancient Israelites, who found their traditional perception of God challenged when their expectations fell apart in exile, Spong asks how one might maintain Christian faith in an age when the traditional framework in which it was once understood is no longer tenable. His main contention is that theism is simply obsolete. We no longer share the pre-scientific worldview of the Bible writers, and therefore cannot accept the theistic framework which stemmed from their experience of the divine, namely, the idea that God is an external, supreme, omnipotent, omniscient, personal being. Traditionalists will assume that the only alternative to theism is to resign oneself to a-theism, but not so, argues Spong. He contends that the reality of the divine presence found in Jesus which gave birth to the myths and legends of Christianity can be rescued from its trappings, and that we can still find meaning in Jesus. This meaning is an existential encounter with the 'ground of being' (a phrase coined by his mentor, Paul Tillich), a mysterious and ineffable force which challenges us to leap into authentic living, loving and being. According to Spong, this is what the early disciples encountered in Jesus, but they could find no other way to describe this reality than the myths which, two millennia later, traditional Christians are still clinging to.
Spong's contention is that Christianity must either reject theism, and see the Jesus experience through new eyes, or else face the fact that Christianity itself must die. It is simply no longer credible to believe in the Christian faith as it has been taught, he claims.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting title Jan. 29 2004
By A Customer
since Christianity has changed a multitude of times over the years. Bishop Spong is a deep thinker and I believe a man with a good heart. To me, that's saying a lot when you're speaking about Christians, just due to the fact that they seem to believe they have this exclusive religion and if you do not believe as they do you are not only condemned to hell, but must be feared, abused, even murdered (but prayed for!!!!). I wonder, do they pray for Osama?
My major problem with this book, as any book on such a topic, is God doesn't speak in "words" (despite the evangelical belief that the bible is the so-called "Word of God", even though the chapters are mostly titled after the MEN ... no WOMEN here ... who wrote them). God speaks in quiet moments in the soul that do not translate well to language; poets have sometimes captured it, although you must have the soul to "read between the lines"; musicians also, in their music, not often in their words. God speaks mostly in quiet, still, peaceful moments. We can feel something, then it wisps away.
Do I KNOW the TRUTH? No. I never will in this life. Neither will you. We seek, as seeking is the nature of life. But to FIND is only something we may feel in a moment, to be lost again the next. Yet scholars such as Bishop Spong with the courage to question are to be admired, not vilified (not even by God, in my opinion, and I "sense" (alas, the human lack of anything else) God agrees with me on this one).
Perhaps since I did not have the "luxury" of a right wing conservative upbringing I am not afraid to ask questions. I pity those who are. So my hat is off to Bishop Spong and all those not afraid to use the brain God gave them. Peace.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Christianity is changing. Jan. 12 2004
Even if you do not agree with Spong's conclusions that he has reached only after a trip into heresy and madness, a critical look at Christianity shows that it is changing, and it matters not whether you're an evangelical reactionary or a liberal who doesn't mind a gay man leading the liturgy.
Conservatives might read this book with shock and horror--or perhaps with a smug, self-certainty that this is why the Episcopal Church is destroying itself from within. But a trip to a place like Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas shows you that change affects everyone. Evangelical denominations are growing because the most popular evangelical churches resemble rock concerts mixed in with a bunch of uncritical Bible-pounding and self-congratulation. Or if even that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you can explore Mormonism or charismatic churches where the word "heresy" doesn't even begin to describe what's going on.
No, like it or not, Spong's right--Christianity must change or die. You can go to the rock concert, or you can think of a way to remain Christian in a way that affirms humanity and reworks the liturgy into something life-affirming and beautiful. Spong ultimately fails in this, because he goes too far--but his book remains useful because sooner or later all Christians much examine their faith critically, or they will become cynical and descend into self-rightenousness and Christian rock.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Exiled Believers in What? June 24 2003
By A Customer
I confess-- I have something in common with most of the Rt. Rev. Spong's fans. Like them, I've read very little of what he's written. (For example, "Can A Bishop Be Wrong" has two five-star reviews from Spong fans who are under the impression that Spong wrote this book-- apparently, they feel comfortable praising Spong's work sight-unseen).
Don't get me wrong. I've tried to read Spong. But, alas, the Rt. Rev. S. is a ghastly writer. After a while, the charms of Spong's writing-- his relentless self-congratulation, his presenting of hackneyed 19th-century pop-biblical-criticism as his own daring innovation, his use of the passive voice to hide sweeping and questionable assertions ("...there is surprise at how insignificant were the theological issues dividing the two sides [of the Reformation]"), his utter lack of a sense of humor, his unforgivably poor skill with words-- begin to pall. I haven't yet met someone who can read an entire chapter of Spong at one sitting.
That's where another book comes in handy- "Can a Bishop Be Wrong?". The authors don't exhaustively categorize the intellectual sins of the Rt. Rev. Spong-- such a task could never be worth the trees killed. But they provide a good survey of his looking-glass kingdom. "Can A Bishop Be Wrong" isn't a work of Christian apologetics, because it doesn't have to be. Spong's main contention-- the foundation of all his work-- is his claim that no intelligent person of the twentieth century can be an orthodox Christian. To respond, one doesn't have to prove Christianity-- one just has to provide a counterexample. This book categorizes his errors and logical lapses with admirable thoroughness. Not an exhaustive thoroughness, to be sure, but sufficient to the silly task at hand.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Spong Builds His Messages.
I made the mistake of reading this book before reading "Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism." Now this book makes much more sense. Bp. Read more
Published on July 3 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book
I think that it's wonderful that Bishop Spong is addressing the issue of homophobia and heterosexism in the church. Read more
Published on June 1 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars One Man Re-Inventing God
As an ex-Christian, but still a believer in God, I looked forward to reading Spong's work. I have digested much since leaving Christianity... Read more
Published on May 30 2004 by Wisconsin Dad
2.0 out of 5 stars Look Up Galatians 1:6-9
In a postmodern era, where truth is relative and reality undefinable, this book provides quick and easy pain relief, kind of like taking morphine for cancer. Read more
Published on May 4 2004 by Jacob Hantla
4.0 out of 5 stars Is Christianity Really Worth Saving?
I read this book a number of years ago when I identified myself as one of Spong's "Believers in Exile. Read more
Published on March 25 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars A rallying cry many should answer.
Now-retired Episcopal bishop Shelby Spong has never shied away from contentious statements regarding his faith. Read more
Published on Feb. 13 2004 by James Kosub
1.0 out of 5 stars This book is absolutely blasphemous.
The Bible says in the end times there will be false prophets... right here is one of them.
Published on Jan. 21 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Laugh Out Loud
Spong has written many provocative books in which he intelligently uses his writing skills to prove his thesis and refute orthodox conservative views. Read more
Published on Jan. 5 2004 by Raheim Baltazar
1.0 out of 5 stars God's word doesn't change
Gee, what a surprise. Spong has really gone off the deep end with this title. He is trying to change the word of God. Who does Spong think he is? God? What an idiot.
Published on Dec 30 2003
1.0 out of 5 stars Wow!! The reason liberal Protestantism has failed.
It is no wonder that the Episcopal Church is one of the fastest shrinking denominations in America. Along with the other mainline/progressive/liberal Protestant denominations... Read more
Published on Dec 21 2003 by Kevin Davis
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