Spong’s success grounded in deeply committed faith



Jessica White | Staff Writer

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 Oxford.

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.”