Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong knew he was onto something when, a year ago, he casually mentioned the working title of his latest book in a speech at a private liberal arts college in Florida. "I'm thinking of calling it something like Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism," he said, and 300 college students rose to their feet applauding.

Now on tour with his book by that title, Spong said he believes the Bible can be made relevant again to mainline Christians.

Mainline Protestants and Catholics are "biblically illiterate," he said, having abandoned the book to fundamentalists who interpret it literally. Spong said he challenges his audiences to pick up a Bible and read it for the experiences and feelings there that transcend time. Do not read it literally, he tells them, for if you do, "it just doesn't make sense."

Spong, bishop of the Newark diocese, is probably the Episcopal Church's most controversial leader right now because of his outspoken support for homosexual rights. In December 1989, he ordained a gay man who then embarrassed him by stating publicly that celibacy and monogamy were outdated. Spong was reprimanded last summer by his fellow bishops.

Spong said this week he ordained J. Robert Williams because Williams was so brilliant that he had the potential to push the church's understanding of homosexuality beyond its current boundaries. Spong obviously relishes playing that role as well in a church that values harmony and unity.

He has lobbed another grenade in a part of his new book that suggests the apostle Paul may have been a closet homosexual.

"Nothing else, in my opinion, could account for Paul's self-judging rhetoric, his negative feeling toward his own body and his sense of being controlled by something he had no power to change," wrote Spong, citing several passages by Paul to bolster his argument.

Spong proposes that as a Jewish teenager, Paul came to believe he had homosexual inclinations. But homosexuality was condemned and loathed by Jews as a sin against God. "His reaction was to say, 'I will kill desire and keep the law religiously,' " Spong said.

Then Paul was converted to Christianity on that famous road to Damascus, "and what Paul hears is that the grace of God is put alongside the law," Spong continued. "The dark side of Paul is capable of being loved."

Paul's experience of God's unconditional love and his later witness to that message was the apostle's greatest legacy, Spong said: "To say to every human being, we all have a shadow side. The message is not that Paul was sexually active, for I have no reason to believe he was. The message is that God can love all that is our humanity."

Paul often has been criticized for his views on the subservience of women, views cited by churches as one reason women cannot be ordained. Spong proposes that Paul's repressed homosexuality is partly responsible for the ferocity of his opinions about a woman's place. "Paul would find women constantly threatening," Spong said.

Spong's views, although warmly received by the Episcopal Church's more liberal factions, have been roundly criticized by conservative groups such as the Prayer Book Society and the Episcopal Synod of America. He also has gone head-to-head with TV evangelist Jerry Falwell and a lesser-known evangelist, John Ankerberg.

His main beef, however, doesn't seem to be so much with fundamentalists as it is with the clergy in his own and other mainline churches. Pastors don't teach the Bible in their sermons, he said, partly because they are bothered by the inconsistencies.

An example: Paul wrote that God declared Jesus His son at the Resurrection. The author Mark said it happened at baptism. Matthew and Luke, drawing on the miraculous births of Greek heroes, said it happened at birth.

Rather than try to figure out which one was right, Spong said, a pastor should explain that "the adult power of Jesus of Nazareth was so incredible that the {disciples} felt compelled to explain it as divine, according to their traditions."

Although such views occasionally get him cast as the devil incarnate, Spong hardly acts the role. In an interview this week, he delivered his assertions thoughtfully and modestly.

His mother, he said in the soft tones of his native Charlotte, N.C., was a reformed Presbyterian whose church was so conservative its members didn't sing hymns because they were written by men and women. His mother, now 83 and living in a nursing home, defends him constantly, he said, even though she doesn't understand what he's saying. "She called me a while back and said, 'Son, what is a heterosexual?' " he laughed.

Spong is married and has three grown daughters: a banker, a lawyer and a physicist. Two of the three attend Episcopal churches, he said.

"My scientist daughter doesn't believe the church belongs in her world," he said. "She says 'Dad, the questions the church spends time answering are the questions we don't even ask anymore.' "

That concerns him, and so his next book, he said, will be aimed more at her world: "For example, how can we merge the creation story with what we know about the beginnings of the world?"