My wife Maribeth forgot to pray for the surgery of a friend several days ago. When she admitted what happened, she still didn’t how the surgery went or what the doctor’s prognosis might be. But she felt chagrin because she hadn’t prayed beforehand.

She raised an eyebrow when I suggested that it might not be too late to pray. I explained that we tend to confine ourselves to proleptic prayers—anticipating things that will happen in the future. But if God is eternal, why shouldn’t we pray about things that have happened in the past? Why not pray retroactive prayers?

Jesus did this at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Sisters Mary and Martha complained that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had arrived sooner, but Jesus knew it wasn’t too late to pray for his friend. Not all retroactive prayers have such striking results, but they will have results. For this reason, we pray with an awareness that God’s timeline is much longer than ours.

Old Testament professor Jerald Janzen once asked a seminary class, “What has been Abram’s impact on the world?” His own answer was, “We don’t know. The returns are not all in yet.”

That’s true of every person and event. Consequences of our past continue to unfold, subject to God’s influence, so it is never not too late to pray about anything. It’s not too late to pray for the outcome of a surgery. It’s not too late to pray for the outcome of an election. It’s not too late to pray for the outcome of a firing or a divorce. Although we are painfully aware of the limits of our times, we deal with a timeless God.

Biblical Literalism

An iconoclast must get the attention of those who cherish icons, and Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong certainly does that with the subtitle of his book, Biblical Literalism, which says it’s a “heresy” to believe the Bible is literally true.

Now that he has our attention, what is he really saying?

First, Bishop Spong says that modern Christians don’t understand the role of scripture in the life of Jewish readers, for whom the Bible was first written. “To read the gospels properly…requires a knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling. It requires an understanding of what the Jews called ‘midrash,'” he contends (3). Only our “Gentile ignorance” of Jewish literature would lead us to believe that the events of the Gospels actually happened.

Instead, Bishop Spong believes, the Gospel narratives were written to portray Jesus as a gifted story-telling rabbi. This was especially true of the gospel of Matthew, which often quotes Jesus as saying, “It is written…but I say…” Spong says this formula was typical of rabbinic midrash, not a unique claim of divine authority by Jesus.

Next, Spong holds that the supernatural events of Jesus’ life (e.g., the virgin birth, healing miracles, physical resurrection and ascension) were metaphors that the Gospel writers used to claim that Jesus was a holy man. The Gospel writers felt constrained to make this case because Jesus was self-taught rather than the product of a rabbinical school.

It soon becomes clear that he doesn’t use the word heresy merely as an iconoclast’s strategy or marketer’s ploy. “Unless biblical literalism is challenged overtly in the Christian church, it will, in my opinion, kill the Christian faith,” he says at the outset (4). “… I feel called to free the Bible from those who read it literally, no matter how much they say they are associated with either God or Jesus” (11).

A well-known member of the Jesus Seminar, which seeks to separate the authentic acts and sayings of Jesus from the accretions of church history, Bishop Spong is already suspect in the eyes of evangelical Christians. This book will confirm their suspicions. Bishop Spong is by no means the first Bible scholar to read the Synoptics as a form of midrash, but here he attempts to weaponize the idea for ongoing debate between progressive and evangelical Christians.

It is regrettable that an innovative thinker such as John Shelby Spong devotes his last years to making Bible study a partisan pursuit. Serious scholarship promotes diversity of thought instead of suppressing it, so an objective scholar has no axe to grind, much less to wield. What is gained by demonizing believers who don’t see a biblical text as we see it? How is the church purified or strengthened by denouncing them as heretics?

Even so, Biblical Literalism challenges us to read the Gospels from a different perspective that is often fruitful. It gives us a fresh appreciation of how Scripture was central to Jesus’ ministry, even when it seemed to run counter to his guiding principles. It shows that his pattern of reverent inquiry (the genius of midrash) could be transformative for all of us.

John Shelby Spong, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2016). 394 pp. $15.99 pbk.


Setting GoalsJanuary is a good time to take stock of where you’re heading, and an excellent tool for the task is my book, Setting Goals That Count. First published more than 30 years ago, it’s now available in an updated edition from Jordan Publishing.

Readers say their first “Ah-Ha!” moment comes when they see the difference between making plans (which all of us do every day) and setting life goals. Life goals are snapshots of the kind of person you will be this year, next year, and for the rest of your life. That calls for deep, critical thinking. Prayerful thinking.

And that’s what Setting Goals That Count leads you to do.

I’ve used the exercises in this book to assess the direction of my life again and again. They are rooted in Scripture, and help me discern how I can best honor God with life decisions I’m making. They’ll do the same for you.

Available in print or Kindle eBook versions, Setting Goals That Count is just a click away at–To order, click HERE.


Memory takes me back to a July afternoon twenty years ago at a church camp near Charlevoix, Michigan. A quick check of the Internet shows that Charlevoix Family Camp is still hosting evangelistic services and youth camping programs this summer. (I hope they continue.) But my memory is of a long-past meeting in that place, when my wife Judy led singing and Oral Withrow was the evangelist. Though both have now died, I still picture them vividly in my mind.

Judy was a vivacious woman with gleaming blue eyes who loved to lead congregational singing. Oral was a balding fellow with a cherubic smile and ready wit, whose sermons captivated our attention with their down-to-earth practicality. As I recall, they led two worship services each day in the campground auditorium, where dozens of campers and commuters from northern Michigan gathered to sing and pray.

What I remember most poignantly was the spirit of the little community that gathered on the grounds that week. Walking along the sandy road past clapboard cottages and billowing nylon tents, I struck up conversations with an amazing variety of church people. We talked about books we were reading. (I lent a copy of The Spiritual Life, by Evelyn Underhill, to Oral’s wife, Laura.) We talked about the natural beauty of the place. (A couple took Judy boating on Lake Michigan to search for Petoskey stones.) And we dreamed of the future.

It was a community so united by a common faith that we laid aside our differences (political and otherwise) for a weekend of renewal.

This was before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Before the nuclear accident at Fukushima. Before so many things that shape our identity today. It was exhilarating to dream of the future then, and now it is comforting to remember when we allowed ourselves to come together.



Words may fall into obscurity for lack of use, even though they refer to realities that still figure prominently in our daily lives. Here’s one that has been little used since the days of the McCarthy hearings: propaganda. We need to blow dust off that word and reacquaint ourselves with what it means, because we are now immersed in it.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” It comes from the name of the Vatican’s Congregatio de propaganda fide (“Congregation for propagating the faith”), established in 1622 to promote Catholic missionary activity. Eventually, propaganda referred to any large-scale effort to inform the public.

However, the term gained a negative connotation in the late 19th century as European political leaders rallied their people by spreading messages of German national pride, English national pride, Russian national pride, etc. As they ratcheted up their rhetoric, they made ever more outlandish claims that depicted themselves as heroes and their neighbors as villains–even more so when war broke out. California Senator Hiram W. Johnson said at the time, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

We find ourselves in a similar situation. Around the globe, national leaders extol their moral superiority to recruit fanatics who will trample upon their neighbors’ basic rights. They use emotionally charged words to promote their causes and dismiss the claims of others.

As a writer, I’m keenly aware of the power of words. They can rescue, counsel, and encourage. They can also incite bigotry, suspicion of foreigners, and insurrection against the state. Simply because a leader says something emphatically and repeatedly, I cannot assume it is “a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance” (see 1 Tim. 4:9). Like the people of Berea when they first heard the astonishing news of Jesus Christ, I need to check today’s propaganda against Scripture to see whether it’s true (see Acts 17:11).


I am not a political activist but a human being, so I share humanity’s responsibility for the world in which we live. I will not pollute the air that all humanity breathes, poison the water that all humanity drinks, or subvert the land that is the source of all humanity’s food and clothing.

I am not a political activist but a citizen, so I pay careful attention to what is happening in the civic arena. I support or oppose political decisions that affect our civic freedoms. I resist any oppression of my fellow citizens, even when it is perpetrated in the name of patriotism.

I am not a political activist but a Christian, so I intend to be a clear voice of truth and an unmistakable example of compassion like my Lord Jesus Christ. I will not put myself or my nation’s priorities first, but my suffering neighbor first, as Jesus teaches me.

If you merely observe what I say and do, you might suppose I am a foot soldier for some political movement; but if you ask why I say and do these things, you will learn my true identity. I am not a political activist but a human being, a citizen, and a Christian. I do not seek to advance any political party or national cause, but the well-being of all God’s creatures.

When you have a disheartening experience, don’t write it off as a failure; consider it a life experiment. An experiment never fails. It always teaches you something.

Dr. Malcolm Rigel, who taught counseling at Warner University in Lake Wales, Florida, gave me an interesting insight on this. We were returning from lunch one day when I said, “Mac, I appreciate the way you help people deal with their failures. When you bring up the subject in your spiritual retreats, you seem to have a much more positive attitude about it than I have.”

He grinned. “Joe, the compost pile is the richest part of my garden. That’s where I throw my kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, and all the manure I can find. It’s a smelly, repulsive-looking thing. But the compost pile decays into rich humus that will feed my garden next spring. My failures and disappointments are like that. They trouble me. I would like to ignore them. But I’ve learned that failures can provide rich compost for my life if I apply what I learn from them.”

What have you learned from your life experiments? How have you used the compost of your life?

From Setting Goals That Count: A Christian Perspective, p. 49.
Copyright © Joseph D. Allison