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Culture and Context: Bible Times and Our Times
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by John Shelby Spong
The Sins of Scripture:  Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (NY:  HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.  315p.)

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Bishop Spong provides a serious study here of the cultural context of the texts of the Bible, arising over a period of centuries, out of various social and political or religious situations.

He analyzes the troubling passages of the Old Testament to understand how God's Word can be found amid the puzzling events or descriptions from the understandings of previous ages, to determine how they can still make sense in our very different world.

He looks at the evils associated with religious ideas or institutions through our history.  Spong understands how a person's preconceptions can skew perceptions and prevent an uninitiated reader from seeing past the form and format to the core themes and content and their valid meaning for us.

Spong writes out of an anguished grief over the misreading of scripture as though it was a news report or travelogue written in the context of our current world.  He honors the integrity of the scriptures, carefully investigating the history and cultural setting of the scriptures.

Some readers will feel threatened by some of Spong's radical proposals, because they have never heard anyone speak freely this way in their repressive traditions.  They may see no further than Spong's tendency to periodically mount his particular hobby horses, which he developed in a lifetime of ministry under attack from cultural Christians who used the Bible as a weapon to defeat others.

However much we might sometimes like the Bishop to tone down his rhetoric, let's listen to the insights he draws from his high view of the scriptures here.

What It Really Says
Spong admirably recreates the faith-crisis situation out of which various biblical stories and events developed.  His commitment to Christ and the God of Revelation is strong, but will be misunderstood by many who see "faith" as blind adherence to someone's traditional list of abstracted propositions.

Spong challenges us to deal honestly with the Scriptures, to hear what they really say, and deal with it.  Let's see what they really say, when we read them with integrity, and not just to make them fit our inherited interpretation.  Spong challenges us to read and think about the hard parts, the parts we don't like to hear, the parts that make God look bad.

He challenges us to look at these parts of the Bible the way they look to a non-believer.  To see what that sounds like to someone who is not already positively inclined.  He asks us to look at the Old Testament, especially.  You will see his devotion to the scriptures, and you will see that devotion causes him concern about what others will think before they actually hear the Good News.

Spong is concerned that an initial response to one section or passage out of context will prevent their perceiving the Gospel throughout that reaches its pinnacle of expression in Jesus Christ.

Scriptural Integrity
Spong wants to defend the Bible and maintain its integrity as a set of documents that arose in a real-life situation of a people wrestling with the insights they were gaining, the awareness of the personal God Yahweh, gradually understood as a universal God, not just a tribal deity.  This identity with Yahweh, the Living God, set them apart from their neighboring tribes and nations, putting them in danger.

He suggests a way we might understand these sections as the expression of the level of insight and culture of the times.  Isn't this consistent with the idea of Incarnation?  God comes into human culture.  As Jesus said, we sometimes cannot bear the full truth.  We get only glimpses of it.

Spong helps us see how these glimpses come through the dominant view that makes so much of the Old Testament repulsive to us, blaming God for things everyone agrees are evil.  Spong feels God deserves a better shake, and the Scriptures deserve a better reading from us.  Let's hear him out.  The most constructive part is at the end.

For All the Peoples
Spong undertakes the difficult task of finding how the stories of history in one small group of related scribes came to be the Word of God to not just the remnant of that federation coming out of Exile, but to all the peoples of the world, as the Gospels proclaim.

He helps the thoughtful reader see that there is one consistent God of Love, active redemption and reconciliation, who acted in Christ, and can speak to us today, if we hear him speak through history, free from the imposed expectations of modern culture.

This work will present rewarding and enlightening information to make sense of stories and provide insights into understanding the biblical texts in their own context.  This will be challenging for many, but it is refreshing to see the writer deal honestly with the text and the problems it presents to us today.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] The Gospels in their Jewish Setting
[review] Living Out the Authentic Story
[review] Luke as the Dynamic Drama of Good News
[review] Textual Themes and Language Variations in the late Prophets
[review] Cultural Drama in Christian Beginnings

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First reading notes written 21 September 2010
Reviewed on Amazon 23 September 2010
This version developed for Thoughts and Resources 18 October 2010 Last edited 29 October 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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