Years ago in the wilds of western Illinois, I learned to drive a school bus from a fundamentalist rural preacher. I also learned a few other things as we wrestled the yellow monster down gravel roads and across narrow bridges, for all the while we carried on an animated debate about salvation, religion, and the Bible. I’ve never forgotten his casual farewell after I thanked him for the driving lesson and the talk. “Oh, that’s OK,” he said. “I just thought you should get to hear the truth.”

I had been out of college long enough to know that there really were people who believe that every single word of the Bible is literally and exactly true. And as a skeptic I found that I could more or less hold my own with this preacher as long as our debate stayed at the philosophical level (how can a good all-powerful God allow evil? don’t all religions have similar moral teachings?). But when we got down to biblical nuts and bolts, I was stymied. My childhood years in Methodist Sunday school availed me naught: the preacher insisted that either I had to agree that everything in the Bible was the literal truth–creationism, the death penalty for “witches” (Exodus 22:18), the virgin birth, and a chariots-in-the-sky Second Coming–or I had to ditch the Good Book altogether. And I didn’t know enough about it to suggest a third alternative.

That was the first time–but certainly not the last–when I could have used Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, the latest product of the prolific and controversial Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong, himself a recovered fundamentalist, has gone through a mountain of biblical scholarship and put its results within the reach of us nonseminarians. This is the book to read if you have ever managed to see past the makeup, the bad taste, the greed, and the politics of prominent U.S. fundamentalists and wondered, “Could they, maybe, be right after all?”

The answer is no. No way. Not even close. Spong takes his readers through both testaments, laying out four devastating arguments against literalism that make it clear that we’re not dealing with a rational phenomenon at all.

(1) Biblical self-contradictions. The book of Genesis contains, side by side, two incompatible creation stories. In the first God created heaven and earth, the various animals, and lastly people–male and female, simultaneously, and both in God’s image (Genesis 1:1 to 2:3). In the second God first created a male out of mud and then the various animals in a futile effort to make a suitable “partner” for the male. Eventually God put the male to sleep and created woman out of his rib (Genesis 2:4-25). On a spiritual level, the two stories need not conflict (the point being that all things come from a single benevolent creator). But as literal chronologies, they cannot both be true. In the first two chapters of the first book, the characteristic fundamentalist argument–“If you don’t believe X, then how can you believe anything in the Bible?”–meets its downfall.

Similarly, the stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 2 and Luke 1 and 2 contradict each other. Matthew has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt after the birth (when King Herod had all babies in the area killed), and finally returning to Nazareth. However, Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary resided in Nazareth from the start, went to Bethlehem only to pay taxes, and after fulfilling the requirements of Jewish law over a 40-day period, returned permanently to Nazareth–no sojourn in Egypt, no mass murder.

Even the key events that differentiate Christianity from other religions are told in incompatible ways. After the crucifixion, did Jesus appear to his disciples only on a Galilee mountaintop (Matthew 28)? Or only near Jerusalem (Luke 24)? Or in Jerusalem and later on a Galilee seashore (John 20-21)? Spong says that trying to determine when and where he appeared is beside the point. “When the experience of Easter was first put into words, it was simply a proclamation without narrative. Jesus lives! Death cannot contain him! . . . Then later the concept was encapsulated into narratives about a tomb that was empty and a grave that had been escaped. The essence of the gospel is never found in the narrations, but all of the irreconcilable contradictions are. In the telling and retelling of the story, the facts were bent, twisted, and even changed.

“The biblical literalist wants to claim inerrancy for what is in fact a narrative two steps removed from the reality it seeks to narrate. Behind the narrative is an unnarrated proclamation. Behind the proclamation is an intense life-giving experience.”

(2) Contradictions with science. Fundamentalists make much of their belief in the Bible’s creation story and their disdain for evolution theory. But the Bible contains many assumptions that even the most devout creationist does not believe. Genesis 1:6-8 implies that God placed a solid blue dome of sky over the earth to separate the “waters above” from the “waters below”; this universe, says Spong, consists of a flat earth rather like a self-contained domed stadium. Joshua is said to have commanded the sun to stand still (Joshua 10:12-14) so that a battle could continue–but had it done so, notes Spong, “the gravitational effects would have destroyed this planet forever.”

Unlike the first argument, these points (and many more like them) are not absolutely conclusive. Someone stubborn and ingenious enough might maintain, in the spirit of the Flat Earth Society or the National Enquirer, that all these things are actually true, and might deny the findings of astronomy and space travel and psychology. But most fundamentalists don’t believe that the earth is flat and don’t act as if they did.

Every attempt to confine Christianity to a first-century (or earlier) worldview will in the long run be fatal to Christianity, says Spong. “That worldview has passed away. It no longer lives. Unless the experience of our faith story can be separated from the words and concepts of a dead worldview, it will be a dead faith story. Those who literalize the ancient biblical text guarantee this fate to the very religious system they think they are fighting to save.”

(3) Revisions of history. None of the Gospels is an eyewitness account of Jesus’ days on earth–the oldest, that of Mark, was written at least 35 years after the crucifixion. (Paul’s letters to early churches actually predate the Gospels.) Matthew, the author of the next oldest Gospel, clearly knew Mark’s story and incorporated 600 or its 661 verses into his own narrative. “But,” writes Spong, “he also did not regard Mark as either Holy Scripture or as literally inerrant, for Matthew altered Mark’s text frequently to suit his agenda, his writing task, his audience, and his theological perspective.” For instance, Mark has Jesus say to an inquirer, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (10:17-18). Matthew alters this to “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good” (19:16-17), thus blurring the separation between Jesus and God clearly implied in Mark’s earlier and less theologically sophisticated version.

There’s nothing surprising in this. Everyone who has read (or written) more than one account of a given event knows that the details and the emphasis will differ depending on the context and purpose of telling the story–in this case the authors are working from decades-old oral traditions and written fragments, in a world where the Romans persecuted Jews, Jewish Christians, and gentile Christians, who all disagreed with each other.

Many New Testament stories were deliberately written to echo Old Testament stories and themes. Matthew, for instance, cites Isaiah 7:14 as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ virgin birth: “The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23). But Matthew ripped that verse out of its Old Testament context. In the original, Spong points out, “The prophet Isaiah was going to give King Ahaz of Judah a sign from God that the siege of Jerusalem being carried on at that moment . . . would not be successful. A child born some seven hundred years later could hardly accomplish that purpose.” Moreover, Matthew quoted from a Greek translation that used the word “parthenos,” which means “virgin”; in the Hebrew original the word is “almah,” which means only “young woman.” This isn’t fulfilling a prophecy–it’s special pleading.

(4) Moral anachronisms. Fundamentalists justify their antifeminism by using some of Paul’s more misogynistic letters. But Paul also advised “slaves” to “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters” (Colossians 3:22). Even fundamentalists who admire South Africa don’t go this far anymore.

But here again, Spong’s argument is less than absolutely conclusive: some may be prepared to worship a god who endorses slavery and sexism and takes sides in tribal warfare. But a Christianity so construed won’t be of much use–and hopefully won’t attract many adherents–in the 1990s and beyond. (Spong, who has stood out strongly against homophobia in the Episcopal church, can’t resist using part of a chapter to tweak the homophobes, speculating that Saint Paul was a repressed homosexual. This historical side issue so distracted the Chicago Tribune’s reviewer, religion columnist Michael Hirsley, that he failed to discuss fundamentalism, the main point of Spong’s book.)

Intellectually speaking, fundamentalism was dead on arrival early in this century and its condition hasn’t improved. Numerically speaking, it’s thriving like mold spores on a month-old quiche. Why? Spong thinks it’s a quest for security in the letter, rather than in the experience that is at the core of every religion. “Religion almost inevitably tries to take our anxiety away from us by claiming that which religion can never deliver–absolute certainty. If religious systems succeed in giving us certainty, they have surely become idolatrous, for the ultimate mystery and wonder of God cannot be reduced to a particular language or captured in the concepts of any human being.” (If only all preachers were so honest.)

But despite the book’s title and the bulk of its contents, Bishop Spong is not out to lambaste, or even convert, fundamentalists. His real target is the biblical ignorance of mainstream Christians–who have essentially abandoned their sacred book to the foolishness of the fundamentalists–and the failure of their clergy to educate them. His book would have been superfluous if the churches had been doing even an adequate job of education.

“I find the biblical ignorance that marks the lives of churchgoers to be beyond my capacity to exaggerate. In preaching today, the speaker cannot illustrate with a biblical example without telling the story in full detail because the knowledge of biblical content is no longer something that permeates the lives of even churchgoing individuals in any meaningful way.” One congregation told him that they did think that the Ten Commandments were important–but when challenged, all 180 of them together could not come up with the full list. (Had they been more knowledgeable, they would have been faced with the problem of reconciling the three different versions in Exodus 20, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 5.)

Scratch a Christian, Spong implies, and you will find either a biblical idolater or a biblical ignoramus. And as a Christian this frightens him: “We have no more than one generation left, in my opinion, before the dying embers of the values that were based on Bible reading and a biblical view of life will be cold. There is still time for those embers to be fanned into bright, contagious flames once more. If we do not succeed in this last opportunity, the ignorance of mainline Christians will increase and the absurdity of fundamentalist Christians will reach a new crescendo. The result will be a revulsion that will accelerate the total secularization of the life of this society, putting an end completely to the religious traditions of our past.”

Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture by John Shelby Spong, HarperSan Francisco, $16.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.