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Regaining Credibility for Christianity
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by John Shelby Spong
Why Christianity Must Change or Die:  a Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.  257p, plus 23p front matter.)

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The Bishop addresses the problem of loss of credibility of the Christian faith, especially the established denominations, in this age of rational scientific materialism.  The subtitle states the purpose and constructive thesis of the book:  A New Reformation of the Church's Faith and Practice.

Antagonistic Cultural Milieu
Spong describes the cultural milieu and the dominating assumptions of the current world, which lead it to reject or cause problems in understanding the traditional faith, terminology and practices of the Church.  He points out the changes in perspective and belief that have occurred rapidly since the 1950s, though beginning in the end of the 19th century.

He proposes some possibilities of approach in terminology, formulation and liturgical practice that might express the core realities of the Christian faith and the testimonies of Scripture in an authentic and meaningful manner understandable to the mind-set of the new age.

Radical Steps
These suggestions will appear to some to be a revamping of the claims and essence of the faith, as well as the forms and vocabulary.  It is sometimes hard to discern exactly what the church would look like under Spong.  I found myself agreeing with his analysis of the problem to some degree, and on the same boat with him in his approach to revamping the ritual and archaic structural administration.

But he was a little vague about the specifics, on just where all this would end.  I could not find the line between capitulating and communicating, between cooperating and dialoguing with the community and culture and joining it.

Speaking from Faith
Throughout, however, I sensed the vibrant personal testimony of Spong's personal faith and relationship with God.  He expresses it differently at points than the simple populist terms we hear more often in the popular and simplistic evangelical culture.  But I was did not get the feeling that his intentions were misguided.  Some have considered Spong an active enemy of the church.  He does not come across that way at all.

He seems to make his suggestions out of a sincere faith, commitment to the historic faith and true concern for the community and culture he sees swirling around him, indifferent or negative on Christianity, with no time for the traditional forms of institutional Christianity.  His solution, however, is so radical, that it is unclear what exactly of substance is left.

Spong believes in Faith.  I am not always clear about the reality he sees as an object of that faith.  It seems he is still focused on a past that is fading.  The rationalist age is already passing into Postmodernism.  The ethos of the Postmodern era has much more in common with the relational, spiritual approach of the premodern world.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[Review] Graduation to Reality — The Church Emerging
[review] Postmodernism The Church's Challenge and Opportunity

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First reading notes written 12 July 2006
Expanded as a review article 26 December 2007
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 27 December 2007
Last edited here and posted on Amazon 1 March 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email: orville@jenkins.nu
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