John Shelby Spong was the perfect bête noir for conservative Christians during most of his 20-year tenure as bishop of the Episcopal Church's Diocese of Newark, New Jersey. Here was a bishop who would not only question the literal nature of Jesus' virgin birth or resurrection, but who would invariably blame fear or ignorance for the survival of such beliefs in a post-Darwinian, post-Freudian or post-Spongian world.

Spong told reporters in 1991 that this book was on his list of future projects, and it has been well worth the wait. Although much of Spong's other writing also has included a strong element of autobiography, "Here I Stand: My Struggle for A Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality,"(HarperSanFrancisco, 448 pp, $25) gives readers the most personable writing Spong has given us about his life as an activist and a contrarian. He paints a fuller picture of buckling under his mother's stern form of Calvinism, in which "for crying out loud" qualified as an impious reference to Jesus on the cross. His father is a bundle of contradictions: a racist who once stood courageously against anti-Semitism; a man who attended church as rarely as possible, but knelt in prayer each night. The young Spong blames himself for his father's death, convinced that if he worked nightly at memorizing the catechism in The Book of Common Prayer, God would keep his father alive.

It's hard to dispute that this young man found his true calling in becoming a priest. Spong tells about celebrating imitation Eucharists as a boy. He describes parish life with palpable affection, and many Episcopalians would welcome his kind of creative, high-energy leadership. In a time when Episcopal priests usually speak in a non-committal passive voice, Spong has left little doubt about what he believes, what he disbelieves, and why.

For those who enjoy honest debate, Spong's candor is a blast of fresh air. (Even conservatives are not generally afraid of interaction with Spong or his kindred spirits.) But the book turns combative and harsh as Spong describes life under John M. Allin, the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop from 1974 to 1985. Allin's greatest sin in Spong's eyes was in being the theological opposite of Spong's mentor, John Hines. Hines, who proceeded Allin, was probably the most engaged social activist among the presiding bishops of the late 20th century. From the Allin years onward, "Here I Stand" becomes a list of professional slights, melodramatic narratives about fundamentalist power plays, and condescension toward those who still believe in the supernatural God of Christian theism.

For instance, Spong answers fellow bishops who once questioned his intellectual firepower by referring to his many books, his guest lectureships (at Cambridge and Harvard) and his two honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees. Spong dismisses N.T. (Tom) Wright as "a propagandist rather than an educator" because Wright believes in such doctrines as the virgin birth. Spong's contentiousness reminds the reader that it's possible to be just as fundamentalist about disbelief as about the Nicene Creed.

Every generation has its bishop who builds notoriety for public "rethinkings" of Christianity's supernatural doctrines. Spong has filled that role, with great enthusiasm, since the deaths of James Pike and John A.T. Robinson. In a mysterious way, such bishops help the church develop a stronger apologetic for its historic beliefs. Spong's repudiation of much of his church's creedal faith has to be kept in perspective. Perhaps someday Spong will achieve a similar perspective about those of us who have the temerity to believe that God can intervene in the Creation as often as he pleases. That is the prerogative of the Creator.

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