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Library Learnings: Meet the author, appreciate more the book—#1: Jack Spong…Gretta Vesper…Marcus Borg

Before St. Augustine became a Catholic priest, and one of the most eminent of the church fathers, and the Christian philosopher who exerted the deepest and most lasting influence, and a champion of the doctrine of original sin, he led a licentious life. For over 15 years, he carried on an affair with a mistress who bore him a son, a woman he dumped in order to marry a 10-year-old heiress (he did have to wait two years, since, back then, one had to be 12 to marry). One of his most important works, fittingly Confessions, is among the hundreds of books on the shelves in our Library & Lounge. [All the books mentioned in this essay that are among the SSUC Library’s holdings are bold-faced.]

It is striking…and worth pointing out…that many of the authors of many of our books have led lives that would have other writers itching to tell. Or, at least, interesting experiences along the way—you know, like Paul’s road-to-Damascus incident. Compelling goings-on or occasional moments that help account for their writings, the ones in our Library, all about God and atheism, religiosity and irreligion, orthodoxy and skepticism, and other such matters. And that is what this Library Learnings essay, and others to follow, will attempt: to give you a nodding acquaintance…nothing more…with a few, at least, of the authors whose works in our church Library are yours for the reading. 

And read them you should. It’s like St. Augustine himself ordains: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page.” So, let’s go travelling. And let’s make Jack Spong our first landfall—our Library holds more books [17] written by John Shelby Spong than any other author. 

John Shelby Spong

It was with reason that, from the start, and long ago, religion book discussants at Sherwood Park United Church chose to call their collective The Spong Group: “Through your books, lectures, and columns, you provide the vocabulary, and give permission to ordinary people to struggle, doubt, and even reject the dogma of their youth,” United Methodist minister David Felten, one of the masterminds behind the Living the Questions adult studies series, wrote to Spong upon learning he’d suffered a stroke, this in 2016. “You’ve opened new spiritual vistas for them.”  

A retired Anglican bishop, Spong, “raised a fundamentalist in North Carolina,” the Westar Institute [think The Jesus Seminar] observes, “came to believe that insistence on an inerrant, literal view of the Bible obscures truth and destroys faith.” According to Wikipedia, “Spong himself describes his own life as a journey from the literalism and conservative theology of his childhood to an expansive view of Christianity.” “Through it all,” the National Catholic Reporter declares in a now seven-year-old laudatory profile, “Spong never retreated an inch.” 

And, oh, how that…how he…has rankled church conservatives: “He is as radically liberal as it is possible to be,” the Christian Courier has thundered, “and still maintain a nominal identification with the name ‘Christian’.” Indeed, “It is a travesty that he associates himself with Christianity to any degree.” Wait, there’s more: “It is a nauseating labour to review the spiritual foibles of this delusional theological celebrity.” As Westar has it, Spong’s challenges to the church-as-is “made him the target of fundamentalist hostility and fear.” 

“…you have demonstrated the importance of standing up and speaking out,” Felten states, addressing Spong. “Few people know as well as you the peculiar feeling of being both reviled and beloved,” he adds. “People cannot not have an opinion about Jack Spong.” 

This “liberal enfant terrible,” this “controversialist”, as the National Catholic Reporter has dubbed him, calls for “a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief away from theism and traditional doctrines,” Wikipedia reports. And he does…famously, infamously…call for a new Reformation. In one of his books, Spong sets out his “Twelve Points for Reform,” beginning with, “Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead,” and going on to warrant, “The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world…must be dismissed.” Read ‘em all in A New Christianity for a New World

In its profile, the Reporter quotes Spong as reflecting, “The older I get, the more deeply I believe, but the fewer beliefs I have.” But from this he has never wavered—it’s his mantra, and it pervades many of his books: we are called to live fully, love wastefully, and be all that we can be. Read his story in his own words in Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love & Equality, his autobiography. 

Gretta Vosper

Where Spong, on his journey, has left off, Canada’s Gretta Vosper has carried forward. In his foreword to her 2008 book, With or Without God, he says of her: “…she was determined to push the insights drawn from these giants [Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Robinson, Schleiermacher—his heroes] into dimensions of truth and experience beyond anything I had yet embraced.” He was, he added, “absolutely stunned by her brilliance, and by the comprehensiveness of her far-reaching intellect.”

Theirs is a mutual admiration society: half-a-dozen years ago when Vosper, the longtime minister of Toronto’s West Hill United Church, and a good friend to SSUC, was in England for a speaking engagement at Oxford, she remarked to Church Times that, “Jack Spong and his wife, Christine, have been elemental to my life and work. …they have always been there encouraging me, and challenging me to ‘keep talking’. If it hadn’t been for their generous support of me, I believe I’d have given up years ago.”

She didn’t, of course, but, over the course of those years, she changed her thinking. Did she ever. “When I was young,” she told Church Times, the main religious influence in my life was Jesus. …I was known to disappear for hours at a time so I could talk with him.” Nowadays, she, on her website, proclaims herself to be—besides a minister and author—an atheist. “My use of the word ‘god’ stopped when it became abundantly clear that my use of it reinforced traditional understandings, rather than inviting them to evolve….” 

“So, who or what is your God?” A year later, writer Malcolm Johnston, put this no-holds-barred question to her, this during an interview for Toronto Life (which, in its headline, labeled Vosper “a natural-born agitator”). “Essentially,” she replied, “the positive relationships between each of us….”

The year after that, Joan McMurtry, in a writing for British Columbia’s Progressive Christianity website, explained Vosper’s convictions this way: “Over the years, her theological beliefs ‘morphed from an understanding of God from a supernatural being who could intervene in the natural world into an understanding of god as the beauty we create between one another, that sustains us through the joys and sorrows of life’. She went from being a theist, non-theist, realist, to an atheist.” The writer added, “Gretta has had the courage to say what she believes.”

Which almost got her fired. Yes, not so long ago, the UCC decided—this after several years of acrimonious discussion and debate—that she could remain a cleric, but she’d been expecting a different outcome: “I was very surprised,” she told Religion News Service. “I was totally convinced…I would end up outside the church.” John Longhurst concluded his story for RNS with this from Vosper: “I still feel that this is my denomination. This is my heritage….”

Longhurst referred to the open letter the church’s moderator, Richard Bott, wrote afterwards: the church is struggling with two core values “which are central to our identity.” The first “is our faith in God. The second is our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.” The Vosper denouement reveals “the dance between these core values….”

“Canadians must conclude that the UCC no longer sees the existence of God as a primary issue,” the Gospel Coalition upbraided the church for its decision. In a 2018 column on its website, Wyatt Graham tut-tutted, “The foundation and end for all Christian ministry is knowing God. …So, while the UCC may no longer have an issue with Vosper, God does.”

“Named one of 2009’s ‘Most Compelling Women in Canada’ by More magazine, Gretta Vosper has been in the spotlight since founding the [now shuttered] Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity in 2004,” centerforinquiry.org reports. “The launch,” canadianatheist.com reminds us, “was even on the front page of the Toronto Star.” [In its 2019 interview with Vosper, this website’s writer referred to her as “a unique individual in the history of Canadian forethought.”] It’s no wonder that she admitted in that piece in England’s Church Times, “I sometimes envy the solitude truck drivers enjoy….”

While the SSUC Library has several of Vosper’s books, it’s her first, With or Without Godfrom 2008, to which here attention is drawn…and not just because in it Vosper—as Jack Spong has it—drives “the consciousness of the Christian West to places it has never gone before.” No, it’s also because it provides a needed segue: in it, the author differs, albeit graciously, with certain notions of the next author to be cited here, progressive Christianity pioneer Marcus Borg, someone who, Vosper points out, “speaks to a generation of believers that are still in the church.” 

Marcus Borg

It’s the case that the late Marcus Borg wanted to salvage, to resuscitate the church, not see it lapse. It’s as the University of Edinburgh’s Frances Henderson pointed out in a review for the University of St. Andrew’s website of Borg’s 2011 book, Speaking Christian, “he is deeply rooted in Christian tradition, and speaks very much to the mainstream churches.” 

But he did come to see “beyond Biblical literalism,”  wondercafe2.ca reports, “to a more metaphorical understanding” of the Bible and the Gospel stories. He wanted to make Christian concepts “more accessible to a modern secular thinker,” Henderson attests; his “aim is to help the traditional Christian rethink these concepts,” he adds, referring to salvation and sin and more such notions. (Borg loved to tell how “a Native American storyteller” would begin recounting “his tribe’s story of creation: ‘Now, I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.’”)

It’s as the Los Angeles Times put it in its January, 2015, obituary: he was “one of the best-known New Testament scholars to challenge the literal view of the biblical Jesus, and to question the supernatural acts associated with his life.” “Nevertheless, while Borg questioned the Bible, he never lost his passion for the spiritual life,” as the National Catholic Reporter mentioned in its obit, “or his faith in God as ‘real, and a mystery,’ as he put it in his 2014 memoir, Convictions.” As a fellow in the Jesus Seminar, he was a major figure in historical Jesus scholarship, but, “Unlike other members, he was not led to atheism,” Canon Adrian Alker states in Britain’s Church Times, “but towards deep belief in the spiritual life, and in Jesus as a teacher, healer, and prophet.”

Alker affirmed that “many considered him, a ‘friendly provocateur,’” and he described Borg as a “gentle, humble, and yet passionate person, who was a fine scholar, enthusiastic educator, and brilliant communicator,” one who did not, perhaps, “present the same threat ‘from within’ as the radical Bishop Jack Spong.” Talk about “humble”! In Convictions, his last work, he wrote that there was “nothing remarkable about my life, nothing heroic.” 

Maybe, but he does tell it, his story, if sporadically, in various of his books. “I appreciate how open Marcus Borg was in walking us through his journey, from a devout Lutheran home in North Dakota through teenage disillusionment,” Greg Wooley affirmed in a sermon he preached in Canmore’s Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, this just days after Borg’s death. “…Marcus used his doubts to direct him to learn more, and that knowledge directed him not away from his faith, but to a new and more authentic version of faith.” 

Friend and colleague and sometimes co-author, John Dominic Crossan told of the profound affect Borg’s study of the book of Amos had on him, and the prophet’s views on inequality. “He said it converted him religiously and politically to the left. I heard him talk again and again in lectures of God’s dream for justice on Earth.” (“It was a revelation,” Borg himself, in Convictions, said of Amos, in that it told of “God’s passion, God’s desire, God’s dream, God’s yearning for the transformation of this world….”) And so it was that Borg—who had been a member of the Young Republicans in college—evolved to become, in Alker’s words, “in essence, a leading evangelist of what is often called progressive Christianity.” 

As a theologian, Borg came to be one of the best known New Testament scholars, and a major figure in historical Jesus scholarship; according to the National Catholic Reporter, it was his 1987 book, Jesus: A New Vision, that launched him to prominence; Church Times described another book, The Heart of Christianity, as “a much valued introduction to the foundations of Christian faith.” As an in-demand speaker, he lectured so often and so widely that friends felt sure he earned more than 100,000 frequent-flyer miles almost every year. As a communicator, he wrote or co-authored 21 books; and he was often featured in programs on networks such as PBS and NPR. As a teacher, he taught in post-secondary institutions in Minnesota and South Dakota, before joining the faculty of Oregon State University, where he taught students for 28 years before retiring in 2007.  

[For his memorial service at OSU, which notes that “many photographs and videos of Borg’s lectures are available online,” the school “took a few small clips from them to honour his life, memory, and his work.” The result is a lovely, loving six-minute-long video, which can be accessed at https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/video/tribute-prof-marcus-borg-1942-2015.]

Oregon’s Anglican bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, someone who knew Borg well, said this of him, upon learning of his death: he was a “profoundly significant voice of reasoned faith for many, both in and outside the church.” Alker thought so, too, concluding his tribute with these words: “It would be reasonable to say that, because of Borg, thousands, if not millions of people have felt able to own the name ‘Christian’. …Liberal and progressive Christians owe a huge debt to him.”  

Ken Fredrick