Eighty-one-year-old John Shelby Spong still runs four miles every day before breakfast.
He and his second wife of 23 years, Christine, have five children and
six grandchildren. The couple lives in New Jersey, and Spong spends his
time lecturing, writing, traveling and — most importantly, he said —
being with people he cares about.
“It’s been a wonderful life,” he said. “I’ve had just an incredible experience.”
Friends and followers see the retired Episcopal bishop as
unconditionally loving and accepting, both as a person and in his
interpretations of the Bible. For those qualities, critics have called
Spong a radical, heretic and even “public enemy No. 1” — labels that
have affected his personal and professional lives.
At his first wife’s funeral in 1988, Spong said, he was shocked when
an elderly woman struck him with an umbrella and called him an expletive
while he was seated in a pew with his three teenage daughters. The
woman then continued out the side door of the church, telling the
waiting pallbearers she had wanted to tell Spong what she thought of him
for years, and that she finally got the chance.
Throughout his career, Spong has received 16 death threats later
investigated by police or the FBI. The threats all came from
fundamentalist, “Bible-quoting” critics, he said.
Spong’s support of interfaith dialogue and gay rights spurs much of
his criticism. In 1989, he famously ordained the first openly gay
priest. He is often called controversial for his contemporary
interpretations of the Bible, in which he points to myths, stories to be
read as metaphors, and centuries-old cultural norms that he says
shouldn’t be confused with the word of God.
“I’m not going to debate with somebody about whether the Earth was
created in seven days, or whether demon possession explains epilepsy or
mental illness, or whether somebody can walk on water, or whether
somebody can literally take five loaves and two fish and feed 5,000
people. I just don’t live in that world.”
He will continue his week-long discussion of biblical truths and
myths during today’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy
titled “The Story of Judas Iscariot — Not a Character of History, but a
Composite Figure Drawn from Many Sources.”
Spong has been studying the Bible since he was 12 years old. He said
he still spends hours in his study each day reading, writing and
preparing future lectures for people who have left organized religion
because of the negatives attached to it. He calls himself a committed
Christian whose life has been deeply shaped by his faith.
His almost two dozen books on his studies and teachings have sold
more than 1 million copies, and he just finished the first draft of
another. Spong’s busy travel schedule reflects his success. It includes
lectures at churches, institutions and prestigious universities such as
Harvard University, the University of Cambridge and the University of
Still, Spong said his greatest success and joy is his marriage.
“The best thing is to marry the most wonderful woman in the world,”
he said. “I think the unity of two people sharing life together is the
most important thing that can happen to anybody’s life. I wouldn’t swap
that for all the gold in Araby.”
Bishop John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong, whose books have sold more than a million copies, was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for 24 years before his retirement in 2001. Acclaimed as a teaching bishop who makes contemporary theology accessible to the ordinary layperson, he is considered the champion of an inclusive faith, both inside and outside the Christian church. In one of his recent books, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Discover the God of Love (2005), Bishop Spong sought to introduce readers to a new way to engage the holy book of the Judeo-Christian tradition. A committed Christian who has spent a lifetime studying the Bible and whose life has been deeply shaped by it, Bishop Spong says that he is a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply, but who recognizes that parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence.
A visiting lecturer at Harvard and at universities and churches worldwide, Bishop Spong delivers more than 200 public lectures each year to standing-room-only crowds. He was previously a 2:00 pm Lecturer of the Week at Chautauqua in 2000. His bestselling books include Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, A New Christianity for a New World, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and Here I Stand. His extensive media appearances include a profile segment on "60 Minutes" as well as appearances on "Good Morning America," "Fox News Live," "Politically Incorrect," "Larry King Live," "The O'Reilly Factor," "William F. Buckley's Firing Line," and "Extra." His newest book is Eternal Life: A New Vision - Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.