A Review of John Shelby Spong’s “Unbelievable”
Once in a while, a book comes along that completely shatters your Christian world view. John Shelby Spong’s Unbelievable is one of those books. It may be hard to imagine that if you know me, as I consider myself somewhat liberal in my faith — liberal enough that members of the evangelical community feel the need to either comment directly on these reviews or reach out to me on Twitter to inform me that I’m looking at Hell in the afterlife for my “transgressions of faith.” (Note to evangelicals: Hell is just a construct, and I really don’t believe such a place exists. Along with Heaven, perhaps.)
Anyhow, Unbelievable basically takes all you think you knew about the church and the Bible, and aims to turn everything on its head. It’s a radical read, and there’s a reason for it. Spong is, at current time, 86 years old. He suffered a stroke last year not long after completing a draft of this book. So he has announced in the introduction to Unbelievable that this is most likely his very last book, his very last word on the subject of religion. So, like Galileo waiting until his latter years to announce that the sun was at the center of the known universe so that he would be spared judgment from the Church, Spong basically unloads with this book, offering 12 theses on how to move Christianity forward.
This book is not for either evangelicals or mainline Protestants, but, in Spong’s mind, that’s okay because he cites both strains of American Christianity as dying. This is clearly a book meant for progressives because nothing is left sacred. The Virgin Birth? Spong dismantles it. Atonement Theology? History. The 10 Commandments? Gone. By the end of the book, we’re left with a radical new vision for Christianity — one that sees God in everyone else.
Needless to say, as progressive as I feel that I am, I’ve found that there are certain things that I still cling to — the notion of God being a supernatural being, for instance — that Spong utterly dispenses with. I don’t know if I’m ready to live out the author’s ideas to the fullest just yet, because, if I did, I wonder what would be left of the Church as I know it. If there’s a failing of the book, it’s that Spong is not very prescriptive. He’ll tell you why the creation story is a myth, but he doesn’t offer too much suggestion in what to replace that myth with or how to read the myth because it is a myth. I think that’s my biggest struggle with Unbelievable. There are too many untidy “unknowns” in how to move forward in faith.
For example, Spong brings a wrecking ball to the idea that God is your fairy Godmother who will grant you whatever you wish for in your prayers. That’s something that I agree with. However, if that’s the case, then how do we effectively pray? What should we pray for? I found Spong’s answer to be a little vague and unsatisfactory. It would have been great to get an example of what prayer looks like outside of the context in which I’ve (in my case) been brought up with. We do get a bit of insight into how Spong lives his faith out in the context of his beliefs. However, it doesn’t seem like enough. If one is deconstructing how one prays, it would be nice to know how one is supposed to pray within the radicalization that this book offers.
If Spong wasn’t so old, I’d almost fear for his life because, man, are the evangelicals going to hate this book. It totally pulls apart about 2,000 years of church tradition. Spong will tell you why Jesus is not the Son of God, for instance, and spend a copious amount of pages to reach that conclusion. He says he’s not speaking to those firmly entrenched in their beliefs, but I can hear the howls of outrage over this book already. On the other hand, some of us might already believe that Jesus isn’t the personification of God in human form. Why do we need the massive explanation?
This might all sound like I’m really pulling this title apart. The truth is, I found Unbelievable to be more rewarding and appealing than some of the evangelical books that have crossed my desk. I’m mostly on the side of the author with this one — I believe most of what he’s saying. Still, to take away millennia of creeds and tradition is … wow. The question remains, “So what do we replace all that stuff with, if anything? How are we Christian in this post-Darwin, post-Newton age?”
I suppose that’s a fancy way of saying that Unbelievable poses more questions that it answers. Perhaps the answers to those new questions are not meant for Spong to answer. Perhaps it is our duty to carry the mantle of Spong’s beliefs into a new phase of being. We are the authors of this new Christian reformation, not Spong. And I suspect that Spong feels that to give any answers would be against the point of the book as the new way of approaching Christianity is going to be a work in progress that mirrors our scientific understanding of the world as we make more and more advances. Still, as it is, Unbelievable is a unique and possibly indispensable read.
For those who have a curious and expanding mind, you will find things to take away from Unbelievable. For me, the truly unbelievable thing about this book is that it has shattered a few things that I thought I believed about the Church into a million broken pieces. Things will be different from now on. And I wonder if I’ll be reviewing many more Christian books in the future. Why? Unbelievable buries them all, making them simply irrelevant.
John Shelby Spong’s Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today will be published by HarperOne on February 13, 2018.
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