Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy by John Shelby Spong

Bible Literalism: A Gentile Heresy gets many things wrong and smacks of elitism.

Author: John Shelby Spong

Title: Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy

Paperback: 416 pages

Publisher: Harper One

Publishing Date: 16 Feb. 2016

Genre: Bible Criticism & Interpretation


Reviewer: ‘Yomi ‘Segun Stephen

Review Rating: 1 (Atrocious)

A Book Reviewer's Struggles:
I struggled to write a book review for this book - almost gave up writing it all together. Let’s just say I had mixed feelings after getting to around page 50 of the book. On one hand, I recognise the problems to which the author is proposing solutions. On the other hand, I am suspicious of his intentions and wonder if he really thought things through – the implications of what he suggests and proposes on the Church. In the end, I concluded that the author knows the cost, but does not care.

Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy postulates difficult answers to difficult problems. The book states that the reason why Christianity is in a mess is because the Gentiles took control of it and squeezed whatever Jewishness it ever had out of it. The book goes on to say that without the Jewish flavour and discernment, a lot of things in the Bible are therefore taken literally, causing present-day Christians to misunderstand the Bible. The author writes:
“To read the gospels properly, I now believe, requires a knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling. It requires an understanding of what the Jews called “midrash”. Only those people who were completely aware of these things could ever have come to think that the gospels were meant to be read literally.”

The book asserts that Paul the Apostle gave gentiles a free rein in the early church and this contributed to the dominance of gentile perspective on most of the interpretation of the Old Testament... as well as the New Testament. As a result, the author believes Christianity is plunging straight ahead into irrelevance as seen by the recent culture wars in the western world, where humanists and liberals are on top of Christians.

The New Testament Fiction:
In addition, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy claims that many of the stories in the New Testament never happened as Jewish writers generally fictionalise to make a point – spiritual or moral. He says the book of Matthew falls into this category. The author claims events like the virgin birth and Sermon on the Mount were nothing but tales spun by Matthew to justify Jesus’ stance as the Messiah - a fact any Jewish person will be quick to spot, the author insists. He writes:
“It was this same Gentile ignorance, I will argue, that created in the minds of Christians over the centuries the necessity of defending the literalness of such events in the life of Jesus as the virgin birth, the miracles, the details of the passion narrative, the understanding of resurrection as physical resuscitation and the cosmic ascension as an act that actually took place in both time and space.”
L'église de la Madelaine - détail

While it is true that the church has serious problems and that literalist-based scripture interpretation sometimes have huge downsides in some quarters, I do not subscribe to the author’s solution. I also do not believe biblical literalism is equivalent to fundamentalism. There are many fanatics in this world that are far away from being literalists. More importantly the implications of treating the Bible as a book of make-believe tales opens up the question – how will the Church serve as a guiding light if all it does is shifts her position in accordance to prevailing social practices.

Assuming (let’s say the author is right) the Bible is to be treated as nothing but a set of moral stories to be learned from rather than taken in literarily, the present church structure is not strong enough to flourish on that belief-system. After all, you need a community-based Church where the sense of family is strong to discuss and hash out spiritual issues in order to form sound doctrines.
Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy puts the cart before the horse. No. It dismantles the cart and lets the horse loose. Literalist interpretation of the Bible might be a problem, but being Jewish or putting on Jewish lens is not going to fix it. And if we look at the revivals of time past and the way the Church has grown, I daresay that the root of its problems is not from some age-old gentile believers.

More importantly, this book smacks of elitism. I do not believe that you have to be a Jew or learn Jewish stuff to fully understand the scriptures. Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy might be a book with good intentions (though I highly doubt it), but it would have been better if it had never been published.

Many thanks to Harper One for review copy.


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