Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Religious Education Leading to Deconversion: A Case Report and a Larger Uncontrolled Experiment

The other day I was reading the weekly e-blurb put out by our church, and I noticed the following,
"The Adult Forum will begin a new book, John Shelby Spong’s Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, on May 5 at the regular 9:30 class meeting time. Everyone is welcome. No homework is required. We read aloud from the book (a paragraph by each person) for about 20 minutes, and then we discuss. Here is a brief description from the back cover of the book:

'For two hundred years, scholars have been analyzing one of the most important books ever written—the Bible—and overturning much of what we once thought we knew. Everyday Christians, however, are not privy to this deeper conversation. It is for these people that renowned bishop and author John Shelby Spong presents Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, a book designed to take readers into the contemporary academic debate about the Bible.'”
At least they have the good sense not to call it a Sunday school class (even though it will be held on Sunday mornings in one of the church's classrooms).

Don't you just love the "Everyday Christians, however, are not privy to this deeper conversation" comment?

Remembering that the first rule of digging a privy is to locate it a safe distance from the community's source of drinking water,

I started to wonder if I might be able to demonstrate what happens when "everyday Christians" become privy to that "deeper conversation" and try to mix it with the "living water" of Christ.

Let me begin with a case study from a former blogger, a former "everyday Christian", and a former full time "pastor and associate pastor" who decided to go back to school and wrote the following back in 2007:
"There is a 'liberal arts' college near my home, so I enrolled. This is where the defining moment occurred. I was given special permission to take two religion classes, Religion 101 Old Testament and Religion 102 New Testament, and I even added in Religion and the Arts, World Civ., and a required orientation class. I get to my religion classes with a pretty well established Christian worldview, based solely on my experiences up to that point in my life. I had never gone to school to be a pastor but I had been one, and was one at this time. I found out in the first couple of classes that I attended, I was…misinformed about a great many things. To this point, I had always believed the bible was without error, God’s own words. I believed that the stories in the bible were not just stories but actual accounts of history. I believed that Christianity was THE road to God, the afterlife and its rewards. I believed anybody that had not had a “salvation” experience was lost and destined for hell. I believed that the bible writers were all taking dictation from their 'God' phone and simply writing what he said down. I believed that the bible was some how one book that was stretched out over several thousand years. What I learned in that one semester of college literally blew my mind!

It would take up too much of your time to go into all the changes. Let’s just say that most of what I believed was…erroneous."
In contrast, his later seminary experience was more supportive of his earlier worldview,
"The classes were more of what I expected when I first started my secondary school work. Everyone there shared the same Christian worldview I was accustomed to it and it was more…comfortable. I wasn’t really challenged at all at these classes, but I was getting some hours under my belt and I felt pretty good about that."
But the story does not end there,
"Influenced by my friend and authors such as Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, some Philip Yancey and Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, Mike Yaconelli, Gordon Atkinson (Real Live Preacher, especially his early stuff), and more recently Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, and Donald Miller, I started to come to terms with the fact that I had completely left religion, the church, and all it had to offer."
Okay, I know he didn't say that he was reading Spong, but I believe that the effect would have been the same.
"I am not a Christian as most would define Christianity. I don’t want to be associated with, in my humble opinion, this dilluted version of religion. I define religion as the method by which we seek 'God'. I agree with Margaret Cho’s statement, 'I wish Jesus would come back and say, ‘THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT!!' I really believe that Jesus would really be appalled at what has happened and is happening in his name.

I am not an atheist. I define atheist here to mean the 'belief' that there is no God. I have not come to that conclusion in my journey thus far. Even though I may not view God as I once did, I haven’t rejected the idea of something bigger than myself in the center of it all.

I am somewhere in the middle of these two. Maybe agnostic thiest is the appropriate term if it is defined as one who views that the true value of certain claims, in particular the existance of 'God' is unknown or inherently unknowable but chooses to believe in God in spite of this...
Next we get a summary of beliefs which might pass for a creedal statement for the "spiritual, not religious":
"It would take a great deal of work to correctly define 'God' as I understand him/her, but I would like to put down a few thoughts.

I believe 'God' is not described very accurately in the bible, especially the Old Testament. I think it is more accurate to say that the authors of the biblical books were defining 'God' as they saw him/her, much like I am doing here. In the world that we live in now, I don’t need to Wow you with amazing stories of 'God's' works and deeds. Its just not necessary. Because of our current world’s fascination with high energy entertainment, we already get a steady dose of this without my having to awe you with the amazing feats of 'God'. So I won’t. 'God' is 'God', how can I add to that without seeming like a complete idiot?

I believe I have a duty to love others unconditionally. This is not an easy task and may never be made manifest in my life during my lifetime but I will try.

I believe I am responsible to my wife and two boys to love them, nurture them, protect them, teach and learn from them, support them, acknowledge them, guide them based on my life experiences, and just be there for them in all their needs. They are mine and I am their’s.

I believe mankind has an innate desire to be with one another. I believe the statement, 'No man is an island'. There is something about community, in all it’s forms, that is a very good thing. We are not meant to walk alone.

I believe somewhere in time, my questions will be answered. No matter what, I will get to the bottom of it all. No matter if the Christians are right or the atheist is, I will one day know and until then, I must journey on."
An isolated case report can only serve as a hypothesis generating bit of data. What might be the greater effects of scores of Bishops, priests, professors, and authors sowing seeds of doubt into thousands of enquiring minds?

A larger data set and controlled experiments are needed. Fortunately, we have such data from the Episcopal church statistics pages which tell the tale of the uncontrolled experiment we call the Episcopal church. While the teachings of Borg and Spong are not officially part of church doctrine, if you scratch the surface of a revisionist church leader or the surface of one of their congregants you are likely to find evidence for the aforementioned creedal statement lurking in the minds of many an Episcopalian.

Perhaps I assume too much, but the net effect of the teaching of doubt over traditional religious conviction may be seen in the evidence of Bishop Spong's former diocese which has lost 27% of its members over the past 12 years (the decline started well before that, during his reign).  (Diocese and Parish stats can be researched here)

The pernicious effects of books such as "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World" on the church as a whole, and the resultant risk of deconversion for individuals, lead me to suggest that this book should be considered inappropriate as a study material in church on Sunday mornings, especially when an "everyday Christian" might happen to walk in on the discussion, unless of course the discussion were to be led by a priest who was using the book to illustrate the hazardous lure of the heresies espoused by the author.

Otherwise, give it the sniff test and steer clear like this guy did:



  1. Anonymous12:44 PM

    You really shouldn't get upset about the Book Club that meets at your church on Sunday mornings. Getting upset and writing a blog about them validates their opinion and thought process. Besides everyone knows that only the educational elite of the college professor crowd are welcome in that club - and the regular members are group of college professors who are left of Lennon in their thinking!

    You also need to take into consideration that the Bible Challenge that the EDUSC is taking part in was called "Baptist Bible Drills" by two of the book club members. (The same ones that called you a Nazi when you were on the vestry!) So of course they don't know anything about the Bible ... nor do they want to know anything about the Bible. It is all show!

  2. Left of Lennon or left of Lenin? Six of one or half a dozen of the other.

  3. Anonymous2:13 PM

    I was wondering if you caught that! LOL

  4. Anonymous2:40 PM

    Back when I was a curate here in the Diocese of Los Angeles I pretty much sealed my fate when I objected to the rector that Marcus Borg was a bad pick for his Wednesday night Christian Education class. At least he didn't stop me from having at the same time a topical Bible studies using Loyola Press' Six Weeks with the Bible series. After I was fired he went on to use Dominic Crossan for Lenten classes. Really, what is the point of being in the Church once you dump Scripture and Tradition?

    God bless you folks that remain in TEC, you are fighting a rear guard battle. I miss the Church I was baptized and confirmed in.

  5. Pewster,
    Since TEC is built on sand and not (the)rock, it doesn't matter how far the privy is from the stream. the effluence will filter through into the stream. Downstream is the future of TEC.

  6. That stinks. Call in the EPA (Episcoffluent Purification Alliance)!