Reviews of Books and Films


If you enjoy wrestling with the big questions in life, and recognize the value of wisdom and experience—especially when coupled with sixty years of scholarly study of theology and philosophy, diligent pursuit of ever-elusive truth through reason; intellectual honesty; insatiable curiosity; and an astute mind and loving heart—then you owe it to yourself to read Eternal Life: A New Vision, the culmination of Bishop John Shelby Spong’s seventy-nine-year journey of inquiry. Eternal Life goes beyond religion, beyond heaven and hell, and explores a very different interpretation of the Christian story and history, and what that Christian “experience” can mean to a modern mind—specifically in terms of life, death, and life after death.

This latest—and last—book by Bishop John Shelby Spong is difficult to review in some ways; it is not easily characterized by simple technical questions about scripture or Biblical interpretation. Rather, Eternal Life covers the biggest and toughest of questions.

A few relevant disclaimers: 1) This reviewer is a non-theist, and no longer believes in god. 2) Many skeptics and non-believers break ranks with Spong insofar as he persists in using “God language” like “salvation,” “eternal,” and “redemption”. Such breaks are evidenced by the Bishop’s participation in some formal debates with atheists. Still, it seems that if we discard our symbols and metaphors we might arguably just as well discard all attempts at articulating the human experience—including art, myth, literature, and all of language. As Spong frequently points out, language is but symbol. It is therefore worth pointing out that the naturalist, skeptical, and materialist reader may want to be patient with Spong’s use of loaded symbolic terms. If we open our minds to alternative definitions that do not insult our modern advances in thinking, we just may find some beautiful ideas to which we can assent. 3) Finally, this reviewer is an admitted fan of John Spong, as evidenced by the inclusion and fictionalization of an extensive discussion with him—with kind permission—in the reviewer’s novel that illustrates how uncritical acceptance of any belief can divide, diminish, and literally endanger our humanity (A Secret of the Universe: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Discovery of an Eternal Truth).

Disclaimers notwithstanding, it is worth clarifying that Bishop Spong’s Eternal Life is indeed a new vision that boldly chastises and discards traditional religion, yet somehow illuminates what the great mythologist and comparative religion scholar Joseph Campbell called “the power of myth” to facilitate our understanding of our experiences—in ways even strict materialists can access.

Einstein said “the only source of knowledge is experience,” and it is experiencing the realm of human emotion and the interconnectedness of living things into which Spong calls us, using this symbolic language of old. Herein lies the beauty of Eternal Life: A New Vision; its wisdom is accessible to the progressive Christian and the skeptic alike. If some of us who consider ourselves atheists wish to move beyond that simple statement about what we don’t believe, and focus on the affirmative, there is much that can be learned from Bishop Spong’s views of what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, and how even ancient mythologies can inform our experience of love, loss, mystery, wonder, and awe.

Readers who can accept new interpretations and definitions of old symbols and allegories will glean much from Spong’s shared journey of experiences—concepts that are consistent with science and modern understandings of how the real world works, consistent with the mythological truth of sacred texts, and that still call us to be more fully human and to “live fully, to love wastefully, to be all that you can be and to dedicate yourselves to building a world in which everyone has a better opportunity to do the same” (p212). If we do that, Spong argues, we can experience the connectedness he associates with “god”—which lies within us! He says, “The divine we have always sought turns out to be a dimension of the human.” We can experience the “eternal” through this life—touch it, if you will. While the book embraces death and darkness as our call to meaning and light in this life, Spong is staunchly insistent that it is through this life that we experience this new, almost scientific or quantum view of “divinity,” connectedness, and interrelatedness. (Thankfully, he makes no attempt to co-opt quantum physics into yet another new-age, woo-woo religion, as do many who seek simply to provide the next opiate to the people—or to sell get-rich-quick books on Oprah.)

While Spong’s answer to the unanswerable question of life after death is an assertive “yes, it exists,” that “yes” comes carefully nuanced in modern arguments for a somewhat mystical interconnectivity. As Carl Sagan would remind us we are all made of “star stuff.” That alone is evidence of connection. But memories literally transcend time, and we recall and still live in the love of those who are dead—which makes them live on in a real way. Still, Spong is unwilling to make the seemingly distasteful assertions of years past, that we’ll actually physically be reunited with loved ones in some anthropomorphic post-life experience. Indeed Spong’s are a new set of definitions for old ideas, and a new way of looking at life after death, so any reader expecting affirmation of traditional afterlife fantasies of milk and honey will be disappointed.

Clearly we can’t expect that Spong has discovered heretofore unknown secret knowledge of the afterlife, and revealed it in this book; but what Spong gives us is far more than just an accounting of his own spiritual and intellectual journey through life, and it’s inevitable suffering and discarded theodicy-plagued solutions. It is also more than metaphor for his spiritual journey, which he sees as parallel to that of the evolution of humanity’s search for answers on a macro scale.

Bishop Spong argues that if we are willing to listen, we can find that through death life is illuminated, transformed, inter-connected, and indeed, transcendent beyond what we seemingly see. This is a mental stretch for many of us, but one can argue it need not conflict with even a purely materialistic view of the world, where memories are but electrical impulses stored in neurons, and matter is all there is. So for skeptics and believers alike, it is worth our effort to look beyond what could be a false dichotomy of either supernatural nonsense or blindness to our full human experience, and stand wrapped in awe at what is. Reading Eternal Life will help any curious mind to do just that—celebrate what is, and embrace life more fully in the process.

 (Special Note: You can listen FREEE to Stephen’s extended interview with Bishop Spong about Eternal Life via  iTunes or online at www.truthdriventhinking.com/audioblog.htm.)

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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So exactly what possessed me to go see the animated feature film “UP” is still a bit of a mystery. There were lots of reasons not to do so: time, no sources would be cited, there was nothing to be learned about Gnosticism or early Christian history, no awe-inspiring science or psychology revelations had been advertised, and they weren’t serving beer. Nonetheless, much as I’ve discovered about mythology and metaphor in history, there was such TRUTH articulated by this cartoon myth, that I would soon be fighting actual tears. (For the record, I did NOT “cry,” but was simply “tearing-up,” which was merely correlated with the film; it would be a mistake to assign causality without more data. It could have been the hvac system.)

So what got me to go see the movie? Probably it was the great reviews; perhaps it was the thirteen year-old guest staying with our two kids, or Pixar’s record of entertaining movies. Regardless, what’s more astonishing about my attendance is that I don’t “do” fiction/fantasy in almost any form—which I know is heretical coming from a geek wannabe, an author of a novel (one with 100-plus factual endnotes I should add), and an upcoming panelist on skepticism and fiction at this year’s Dragon*Con (I’ll redeem myself shortly, I hope). But the fact is that I’m never able put down any of my several “in-progress,” non-fiction books long enough to even consider something like Harry Potter, or the latest from James Patterson.

But alas, as in recent years I’m starting to understand—in the words of Joseph Campbell—“The Power of Myth”; and this movie is a perfect example. The poignancy, humor, flow, and life-like animation of “UP” not only captured my attention, it captured my heart and articulated a great life principal for entrepreneurs and adventurer-wannabes like me. And while I’ve skied great mountains, scuba dived ocean depths below 250’ (on straight air), and soared above the clouds in cockpits, the heights of my life articulated by “UP” will easily transcend those, as well as the adventures left unaccomplished when my days are all used up.

Like so many moving stories that chronicle the entire lives of their central characters, this one shows the beauty, disappointment, wages of aging, and pain that are all a part of living. As I can assure you is correct, we post-boomers who were raised to believe we can do or be anything, at some point in life realize that it was never true; and even if it had been, it clearly no longer is.

But in that realization, we who transition that mid-life crisis/realization can find great liberation. If we are lucky, we might even discover one of the great secrets of the human universe: love. We might just find that the heights we yearned to attain on the mountains “over there,” are heights we never even noticed we had already achieved on this side of the valley. Instead, we failed to notice we had already reached the summit, we failed to deeply fill our lungs with the mountain air, we failed to drink in the aesthetic beauty, and in some cases we failed to stop and appreciate those close to us—in our climbing team—who had shared the journey with us. This is the strength and moral of “UP.”

When we skeptics talk reason, facts, and truth-driven thinking over emotion-driven thinking, it’s important to note that most of us aren’t anti-emotion, or anti-human, or anti-mythology. In fact, as great New Testament scholars like Robert M. Price or Bart D. Ehrman have argued, sometimes it is when we insist upon literalizing metaphor and stuffing it into a dogmatic orthodoxy established by force and evolution over many centuries—that we lose the truth of the metaphor. We bastardize the mythological truth while shooting for literal truth instead.

Similarly, my family has long had a joke about films or sitcom shows that cross that reality line to the extent they become unwatchable. We call them “Sponge-Bobby,” after the frustratingly stupid antics of a certain square-assed animated figure. But the cool thing about “UP,” for me, was the ease with which I could completely suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride on the floating house. I felt no need to literalize the fantasy, yet at the same time the quality of the animation, the fluid flow of the thousands of helium balloons rigged by the curmudgeonly Mr. Fredricksen, and the beauty of the story and dialogue—lent the film substantial plausibility.

So while I may be humbled beyond words to sit on the panel discussion on Fictional Writing and Skepticism at Dragon*Con, I’ve come a long way, in recent years, toward seeing the power of myth to express what reality often cannot. “UP” is exactly the type of example I could cite. Perhaps it didn’t enlighten me on science, evolutionary history, or the history of god-worship, but it did some of what those things often do not do as efficiently. It gave me insights into the meaning of life, love, and the interconnectedness of our human experiences. After all, in the end, is either knowledge or experience of any value if not shared?

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(By Stephen L. Gibson, freely circulate with citations, CC 2009, Attribution-No Derivatives; www.truthdriventhinking.com and https://truthdriven.wordpress.com)