PCN Members Weekend
Ian and Fran Lovett report on group study of Spong’s “Unbelievable” - report in Progressive Voices magazine - complete magazine available on subscription
Unbelievable: Why neither the ancient creeds nor the Reformation can produce a living faith today
John Shelby Spong
Spong writes in the introduction that this was written in the twilight years of his life, indeed he estimates that some of his best books have been written in these years.
Whilst one might not want to study the fulsome arguments in those books, reading and discussing “Unbelievable” can be sufficient to underpin the notion that the dysfunctionality / dissonance of 1st and 16th
century-based Christianity really is unbelievable now.
Our group of 15 PCN members ‘just hanging on in there’, in terms of church, met in the welcoming surroundings of The Hayes at Swanwick for a couple of days to share our thoughts and experiences concerning the ‘then’ and ‘now’ of Christianity’s journey through the centuries. We soon discovered that studying Spong’s “Unbelievable”
was an excellent vehicle on which to travel for that purpose. The landscape is very familiar in this book and all the major sites and stopping points have a mention: Original Sin, the Virgin Birth, Atonement, Easter, Resurrection, Ascension, Miracles, Life after Death and Universalism and much else besides They were the stuff of our discussions and we found ourselves frequently in concert with his thinking. To quote the author himself: “… the universal human experience that our ancestors once called ‘original sin’”, (it could have been any other topic as well), “… the experience was real; the interpretation was false. We are not ‘fallen sinners’; rather we are incomplete human beings. Our old theology is dead. The door begins to open on a new way to tell the old, old story.” “Unbelievable” p.89)
It is not difficult to imagine that this ‘old story’ would have groups of people like us telling stories of their experience in those long ago days. Although in our series of discussions we were constantly aware that “experiences rarely travel well across either time or space”. If (to paraphrase Spong) Moses had possessed a smart-phone equipped with a camera in the story of the burning bush, could he have taken a photograph of the God who appeared during this experience? (p.178)
Needless to say our group had its literalism-awareness flag flying freely at all times. The process of our discussions during our time together was for one member to briefly introduce 3 consecutive chapters of the book after which our conversation flowed until the end of the session; we all agreed that this worked really well and our thanks to those who took the extra responsibility to present Spong’s thinking (and to Sandra and Pat for time management and liaising with the Hayes’ team for the room and refreshments). There were some unexpected bonuses for us in our time together, in particular the sharing of the work of one of our number who is a Prison Chaplain. Her related experiences left us all reflecting on the enormity of such a task as well as the ‘being real, honest and open’ in such a context; all of which was deeply challenging for anyone whose assumptions and faith position may rest on an ‘interventionist God’.
Our responses from being together for these days included such comments as: “An amazing time together from which we experienced huge benefit”; “The book is a great catalyst for sharing wisdom and insight”; “A safe place to share challenging issues and to be affirmed”; “Church doctrine is increasingly redundant in a 21st century Christian faith”. From this positive and refreshing experience of a weekend away the issues now to wrestle with are the how, when, and where the insights of this group and all the others spread around the UK might engage with the generations ‘below the grandparents’ who are faith seeking but simply balk at a reductive, literal and ‘closed off’ interpretation of the Bible.
With Christmas around the corner let’s hear it then for the blue octopus and the Wise Women, and young ‘Dr Who’s’ who will be taking centre stage at the Nativity plays across the nation’s infant and junior schools this year. Literalism concerning this particular narrative is surely redundant in the 21st century.
The gospel writers wrote about truths and not ‘the literal truth’. The former can indeed be life-changing and life-affirming – the latter is simply ‘Unbelievable’.
Ian and Fran Lovett