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In 'Sins,' a Christian denounces conservative beliefs

The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love, By John Shelby Spong, HarperSanFrancisco, 315pp, $24.95

Imagine Donald Rumsfeld opening a press conference with, ''Ladies and gentlemen, after careful reflection, I've decided that this country really stinks."

In Christianity's Cabinet, John Shelby Spong might be expected, by dint of his resume, to serve as defense secretary for the faith. The former Episcopal bishop of Newark, he is a well-known author of popular books on biblical scholarship. But he's made his name plugging radical rethinking of his religion, a campaign on full view in ''The Sins of Scripture."

''I am now convinced that institutional Christianity has become so consumed by its quest for power and authority, most of which is rooted in the excessive claims for the Bible, that the authentic voice of God can no longer be heard within it" is just one sentence that will have conservative believers calling their local exorcist. Elsewhere, he writes, ''It is quite possible, maybe even probable, that the Jesus served in most of the Christian churches of the world today is simply an idol created in a primitive time that is destined to die."

One more: ''There is no theistic God who exists to take care of you or me. There is no God who stands ready to set aside the laws by which this universe operates to come to our aid in time of need."

Spong's greatest ire is reserved for Bible texts and Bible text-quoters who justify sexism, homophobia, and other injustices. He doesn't just damn fundamentalists who simplistically regard the good book as the historically literal and inerrant word of God. He also takes on institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church, which he says pushes warped views on matters from women's rights to sexuality. (He writes that some early Christians, desperate to purge any hint of sex from the Nativity story, argued that Jesus was born in Mary's ear.)

Unless you slumbered during history class or spend your days faith healing with snakes, you'll be neither surprised nor offended to hear that fanatics have put the Bible to evil purposes, and Spong is a little long-winded on the subject. He occasionally strays from scholarly terra firma to airy speculation, as when he insists Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. But hey, it worked for ''The Da Vinci Code."

Given how he feels, why in God's name is Spong still a Christian? This brings us to the second, more intriguing part of his book. He contends that there are voices in the Bible that offer a corrective and authentic vision of God, one imbued with nobility and love missing from the traditionalists' take. He cites passages that envision God as something other than a robed divinity directing history from heaven, and others that speak of equality rather than prejudice. (''In Christ . . . there is neither male nor female," St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, though Spong acknowledges Paul's problematic views on matters such as homosexuality.)

Spong's arguments won't convince fundamentalists, who will regard him as a traitor to his faith. His book is a valuable modernist manifesto for progressive and undecided readers seeking a response to the conservative theology dominating the news these days.

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