nicholas kristof, columnist for the new york times, did something many religiously orthodox christians like me will cringe at, but it deserves a careful look, and i've done it before myself, in a different way. that is: he gave sincere attention to another book by jack spong.
kristof's op-ed over the weekend deals with form episcopalian bishop john shelby spong's new book: the sins of scripture. he was writing it last summer when i did a bit of fieldwork in a course he taught at hartford seminary. the point, besides recycling some of his inflammatory theories like st. paul was a repressed gay man, is to say listen, the bible say some pretty awful things and many of them are portrayed as god's action or will. witness, for example, the command to kill the amalekites, man woman, child or infant (1 samuel 15).
kristof's genus in reviewing spong's work is to marginalize the more extreme claims and follow the hermeneutic of generosity. kristof writes, "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."
kristof concludes that "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."
for the record, the evangelicals (at least some of them) are pushing for a fuller reading of the bible and its moral values than currently in fashion with segments of the political debate.
i personally would argue that the scripture's first and primary aim is to show forth god's grace and mercy known in jesus christ, and the spirit's power to draw us into living as his disciples. when the bible becomes a source for battles over which of us is right or which is damned, we've missed the claim made clearly by jesus in scripture: 'do not judge, or you too will be judged' but if those christians who, as i do, decry the conservative use of the bible as a moral legitimation for a narrow political program, don't publicly offer alternative readings of the bible and its contemporary relevance, then we're truly as sorry as kristof suggests.