On a recent episode of Real Time, Bill Maher made one of his more boneheaded comments about the nature of religion -- something about religion not being open to new ideas. I have already addressed the fallacious nature of Maher's approach to religion, but this comment caught me by surprise. How, I thought, could someone who knows Rev. John Shelby Spong, and who had him as a guest on Politically Incorrect numerous times, make such a sweeping generalization about all religion. Perhaps it's because I was raised Episcopalian and was taught by priests who were as scholarly, open-minded, and analytical as Rev. Spong, but I cannot reconcile those men and women with Maher's reductionism. In the same episode, Maher said:
If you believe in a talking snake, I'm sorry, I've got to say, that's silly.
Whenever I hear Maher talk about religion, I can only conclude that he is incapable of grasping metaphor and assumes, therefore, that all religious people are equally incapable. Rev. Spong, however, is capable of grasping both metaphor and new ideas. In this recent post on CNN he puts the Bible under scrutiny and exposes a number of misconceptions held by dogmatists on both sides of the religious/atheist divide. To put it simply, the Bible cannot fairly be read as a literal, historical document. Rather it represents an evolution in the Judeo-Christian conception of God and humanity.
Spong points out, among other things, that the narrative of Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection changed dramatically from the first gospel to the last, becoming increasing mythologized with each iteration, over a span of a hundred years. Likewise, God's very character transforms from a jealous, genocidal, tribal deity, to a universally loving consciousness.
The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim. The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.
Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?
. . .
It was a long road for human beings and human values to travel between the tribal deity found in the book of Exodus, who orders the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover, until we reach an understanding of God who commands us to love our enemies.
The entire post is worth reading and considering. Spong, who served as Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, NJ, has been a somewhat controversial figure. Personally, I think it speaks to the strength of the Episcopal Church that it endures through dissension and controversy. I'm old enough to remember the fierce debate over ordaining women and have also been fascinated in recent years to see the debate and division over ordaining gay men and women. Mostly, the results have made me proud of the church I grew up in. And it's exactly those shifts and changes that give the lie to Bill Maher's overly general criticisms about all religion. There is not a single sect of Christianity that is the same as it was a thousand or even a hundred years ago. Some have changed through honest self-examination. Some have been hypocritical or in denial, but they've all changed. (Other religions have as well but I can't speak from experience, so I don't.) Religion is as dynamic as any large, institutionalized body can be, and it changes in interrelationship with a greater society that is also resistant to change. But there are many figures who, like Spong, are capable of reasoned analysis as well as the irrational, crazy logic of the compassionate heart.