Even aside from his arguments that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and that St. Paul was a self-hating gay, the new book by a former Episcopal bishop of Newark is explosive.
John Shelby Spong, the former bishop, tosses a hand grenade into the cultural wars with "The Sins of Scripture," which examines why the Bible - for all its message of love and charity - has often been used through history to oppose democracy and women's rights, to justify slavery and even mass murder.
It's a provocative question, and Bishop Spong approaches it with gusto. His mission, he says, is "to force the Christian Church to face its own terrifying history that so often has been justified by quotations from 'the Scriptures.' "
This book is long overdue, because one of the biggest mistakes liberals have made has been to forfeit battles in which faith plays a crucial role. Religion has always been a central current of American life, and it is becoming more important in politics because of the new Great Awakening unfolding across the United States.
Yet liberals have tended to stay apart from the fray rather than engaging in it. In fact, when conservatives quote from the Bible to make moral points, they tend to quote very selectively. After all, while Leviticus bans gay sex, it also forbids touching anything made of pigskin (is playing football banned?) - and some biblical passages seem not so much morally uplifting as genocidal.
"Can we really worship the God found in the Bible who sent the angel of death across the land of Egypt to murder the firstborn males in every Egyptian household?" Bishop Spong asks. Or what about 1 Samuel 15, in which God is quoted as issuing orders to wipe out all the Amalekites: "Kill both man and woman, child and infant." Hmmm. Tough love, or war crimes? As for the New Testament, Revelation 19:17 has an angel handing out invitations to a divine dinner of "the flesh of all people."
Bishop Spong, who has also taught at Harvard Divinity School, argues that while Christianity historically tried to block advances by women, Jesus himself treated women with unusual dignity and was probably married to Mary Magdalene.
Christianity may have become unfriendly to women's rights partly because, in its early years, it absorbed an antipathy for sexuality from the Neoplatonists. That led to an emphasis on the perpetual virginity of Mary, with some early Christian thinkers even trying to preserve the Virgin Mary's honor by raising the possibility that Jesus had been born through her ear.
The squeamishness about sexuality led the church into such absurdities as a debate about "prelapsarian sex": the question of whether Adam and Eve might have slept together in the Garden of Eden, at least if they had stayed longer. St. Augustine's dour answer was: Maybe, but they wouldn't have enjoyed it. In modern times, this same discomfort with sex has led some conservative Christians to a hatred of gays and a hostility toward condoms, even to fight AIDS.
Bishop Spong particularly denounces preachers who selectively quote Scripture against homosexuality. He also cites various textual reasons for concluding (not very persuasively) that St. Paul was "a frightened gay man condemning other gay people so that he can keep his own homosexuality inside the rigid discipline of his faith."
The bishop also tries to cast doubt on the idea that Judas betrayed Jesus. He notes that the earliest New Testament writings, of Paul and the source known as Q, don't mention a betrayal by Judas. Bishop Spong contends that after the destruction of Jewish Jerusalem in A.D. 70, early Christians curried favor with Roman gentiles by blaming the Crucifixion on Jewish authorities - nurturing two millennia of anti-Semitism that bigots insisted was biblically sanctioned.
Some of the bishop's ideas strike me as more provocative than persuasive, but at least he's engaged in the debate. When liberals take on conservative Christians, it tends to be with insults - by deriding them as jihadists and fleeing the field. That's a mistake. It's entirely possible to honor Christian conservatives for their first-rate humanitarian work treating the sick in Africa or fighting sex trafficking in Asia, and still do battle with them over issues like gay rights.
Liberals can and should confront Bible-thumping preachers on their own terms, for the scriptural emphasis on justice and compassion gives the left plenty of ammunition. After all, the Bible depicts Jesus as healing lepers, not slashing Medicaid.