Arlene (not her real name) rode my schoolbus. She was about three years older than me; friendly girl, always very fashion-forward, and radically uninterested in scholarship -- a natural disinclination accentuated in her teen years by the copious amounts of ganja she and her friends smoked during lunchtime in their shag-carpeting-lined Chevy vans over in Student Parking.
Arlene was in my American history class, which at the time was state-mandated for high school graduation. This was her third trip through the course. I remember one day, after the unit on World War II, when the teacher passed out our graded exams, and we could see that Arlene's bore a prominent red "E." We heard her sigh over her exam, and saw her out-of-order eyes try to focus on the the document before them. "So, like, who did win World War II? Like, it wasn't, like, Hitler? Damn."
There was no fourth American history class for Arlene. About a decade later I ran into her cashiering at a supermarket in the next county, apparently a responsible taxpaying citizen despite the less-than-glorious end of her academic career.
The virtues of perseverence aside, there often comes a point, in certain endeavors, when you just have to cut your losses and stop trying. John Shelby Spong seems to have reached this point, at least according to his recent manifesto announcing his refusal to further debate homosexuality, the role of women in the Church and other issues whose resolutions are so self-evident that it's pointless to discuss them further.
I first read Jack Spong when I was in college. I thought that his Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism was brilliant. Over the years I thought he'd gotten a little too strident, a little too self-promoting, a little too eager to assume for himself the mantle of modern-day Reformer. But I rather liked this particular segment of his manifesto:
I do not debate any longer with members of the "Flat Earth Society" either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United States on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church's participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day.
Many of us can relate to that sentiment. Just yesterday I was reading a gentle, patient attempt by a seminarian to try and exegete "clobber verses" in Romans for the benefit of Sincere Bible Study Guy (those of you who frequent Bible studies will be acquainted with this Typ) who seemed incapable of understanding what she was saying. She may as well have been typing in Japanese characters. It wasn't a case of "I passionately disagree with you." It was more like the Peanuts films where adult voices are represented as a discordant "WONK-WONK-WONK." I caught a brief mental glimpse of Arlene, back in history class, staring slack-jawed at the chalkboard, probably working out the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven while our teacher was lecturing about VE Day. Another year, another lecture, wouldn't have made a difference.
So part of me is with Jack Spong: Over it; moving on. But another part of me resists giving up. How can a Church be "ever-reforming" if reformers decide, "To hell with it," and recuse themselves from the conversation?
And...I can't help but wonder if Spong is really capable of carrying out his own resolution. My money is on "no."