Friday, January 5, 2018

Unbelievable - Part I by Bishop John Shelby Spong

The book has elements about it that have bordered on the miraculous. I was not sure I would ever be able to complete it. I had written about ninety per cent of this volume before I had a stroke in September of 2016. The stroke immobilized my right side. It was not clear that I would recover. I could not lift my right hand, nor walk without a walker, dragging my right leg. These symptoms, however, began to fade in about six weeks and all my limbs have returned to functioning, a bit weaker, but functioning nonetheless. My tread mill was a valuable aid. I had used it daily for many years, but now it became important in my rehabilitation. My rule was to use the track for one hour a day. Once I did twelve minute miles or five miles an hour. Today in that hour I do three and one quarter miles, not a jogger’s pace, but steady as strength has flowed back into my body. One symptom, however, has remained resistant to my efforts at recovery. I cannot make my right hand write legibly enough that I can read it. I could use the computer, but that is not natural to me. I never learned to type and hunting and pecking takes so much time. People suggested that I get a program where I talk into my computer and it converts the words to print. I tried that, but perhaps I was undone by my southern accent. Every time I spoke the word “career” the computer would write “Korea!”
There was still the final ten per cent of the book to be done: a chapter on why I believe in life after death, the final chapter of the book on universalism as the mark of a non-tribal Christianity, and the Epilogue on my “mantra” – the “what I do believe!” chapter. Each of these was frankly significant to the book’s argument. They had to be right. I finally dictated them to my wife and she typed them. Then I could proceed to the editing.
I wanted this final book to be more than a mediocre work. It had to be clear and understandable. I tried to develop a crucial distinction between the Christ experience and the Christ explanation. The experience is real and timeless; the explanation is in the language of its day and is thereby time-warped and time-bound. The explanation must be surrendered, but the experience does not have to go with it. The Incarnation, the virgin birth, resuscitation as the meaning of resurrection and the concept of the Holy Trinity – all are explanations that will never last. People hear the experience of Christ being challenged when it is only the explanation that is at stake. I wanted to make sure that people could understand that explanations have to die, but the experience remains eternal. Human religion is always bound by time.
Most people do not recognize what makes a book excellent and memorable. So let me tell you what occurs. There are four primary steps of editing, which we have developed. First my own turn and Christine’s – it is a joint task. I would read the manuscript and produce the editing cuts and send them to Christine. She would go over them, incorporating the changes with which she agreed and doing a thorough punctuation check. Her rule is that if you have to read a sentence twice, it needs to be changed. She was raised on English grammar and is a minimalist on commas. We always make a request not to be bound by the style sheet provided by Harper. They agreed.
Then in round two the book goes to two professionals – the manuscript manager, Lisa Zuniga, and the copy editor, Kathy Reigstad. I have never met these two ladies, but they have worked on my last four books and I admire them greatly. They live in different parts of the Pacific Northwest. They both always come back with suggestions of what it would take to make the work better. Sometimes a word I have chosen is just not right and a new one has to be found. Sometimes dates need to be added to produce the correct context of my subject. Sometimes I depend on my memory and have been proved dead wrong. One quote that I was sure was from Mahatma Gandhi turned out to be from G. K. Chesterton. In any event after this second editorial phase the manuscript comes back to me. I am invited to accept or reject each of their changes. This is hard work, but I am well served by the team of Zuniga and Reigstad.
The third editing then takes place. Overwhelmingly I accept the work of these two geniuses. Occasionally I will rewrite a passage to make my point clear. Finally they have noted passages that are somewhat repetitious. I read the marked places in the manuscript. I pull these repetitions out of the text, place them side by side and choose where it is best to make this point. This task completed, I return the book to Lisa and she incorporates all of the changes into the manuscript. The book begins to shine.
The last editorial opportunity comes when the manuscript comes back from Lisa to me for a final read. All the changes that have been made are incorporated. The book is supposed to be almost complete. Changes are costly at this point, but one reads it again. We find little things. One row of type was not perfectly lined up. One repetition still glared forth on the final read and had to be struck with my editor’s pen. We argue over arcane uses of punctuation. Then comes the moment when the book is put into a UPS envelope and sent on its final journey never to be seen again until it arrives finished at my door about six weeks later. I recognize sadly that this will be the last book of my career. When it went out on its final journey, there was a personal sense of completion and just a little bit of depression. I will not know this experience ever again. Christine and I celebrated by going out to lunch. Life has been a grand adventure.
The book title is always a critical issue for the author. I want the title to reflect the content of the book. HarperCollins, however, has a different agenda. They want the title to leap off the shelves at the bookstores and challenge the potential readers. My working title was Charting a New Reformation. That was descriptive, if not exciting. The book went to the publisher under that name. It did not appeal to my editor, Michael (Mickey) Maudlin. Few of my other titles have passed his test in the past. Over the years, however, I have come to trust him. He communicated back with another idea – a one word title, Unbelievable. My daughters thought it was fantastic. If Christianity in its present form has become unbelievable, it is better to be honest and say so. This title would work for me if we could add a subtitle that would give a hint of the book’s content. My final proposal was to add the words Why Neither Ancient Creeds nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today. That satisfied everyone and the title was set in early June of 2017.
In late August while I was reading the New York Sunday Times I spotted a feature story on Katy Tur, a reporter for NBC News. She had been given the unique assignment to follow Donald Trump in his pursuit of the presidency. At the time that the assignment was made it was of minor importance. Donald Trump was not at that time considered a strong candidate, but time has a way of changing perceptions and Trump won the election. Katy’s career was clearly “struck by lightning.” The article then stated that Katy was writing a book on the Trump campaign that would be released in September. Her title was Unbelievable and it was being published under the imprint of William Morris, which just happens to be a HarperCollins label. I was floored.
I wrote to my editor and asked what that title would do to my title. I found it hard to believe the two parts of HarperCollins could have two books published within five months of each other, using the same title and not know about it. I learned that one part of Harper located in San Francisco did not communicate with the part of Harper located in New York. We went immediately into a search for a new title. Why Christianity Has Become Unbelievable was offered. That did not satisfy me. I do not believe that Christianity itself has become unbelievable, but that the form in which Christianity has been communicated has become so. That title was, therefore, misleading. We ruled out other titles like Not Believable. That sounded negative. Mickey then urged us to wait. We did not have to rush to a decision. We had lots of time.
Katy’s book came out in September with a large media campaign. It was reviewed by the New York Times Book Review. It was third on the Times non-fiction best seller list that week and remained in that position for a second week. Then it fell to sixth for two more weeks before it disappeared from that list. The interest of the country had moved toward the Trump administration and away from the campaign. Mickey then decided not to change the title of my book at all. He argued that between September and January is an eternity in the book business and felt that the two books are about very different subjects so that there is little chance of them being confused.... So the decision was made to stick with the original title. I do not know Katy Tur, but I do admire her. I wish her well and I was honored to have this footnote of similarity connect her book with mine for just a moment.
It is now the time to introduce my book to the reading public. I will talk about its content next week. I see it as the crowning achievement of my writing career.
~ John Shelby Spong
An Endorsement From The United Kingdom
If you choose just one book of John Shelby Spong’s then choose Unbelievable. This final book is not only a summation of his life’s teaching, but a contemporary catechism that addresses the real questions and profound hesitations that contemporary women and men really do have about Christianity. Put another way, it provides in one volume the basis for a new reformation for all those who have left the church in despair or who will never darken its doors because of the intellectual non-sense and constricted life that are perceived to be required by its followers. Here is something different that asks us not to check our brains at the door, but to think deeply, “to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that we can be.”
Peter Francis, Warden
The Gladstone Library
The United Kingdom

Read the essay online here.

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