It sometimes is said of N.T. Wright (pictured below), former Church of England bishop of Durham, that he's never had a thought he hasn't published.
It's only a slight exaggeration, but it's also true that almost everything Wright puts in print is worth reading, including especially his latest volume, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.
The books begins with what seems like an outrageous claim, which is that "we have all forgotten what the four gospels are about." Well, all but Tom Wright, who is about to explain that to us.
The claim at first struck me as both silly and arrogant, and although I never quite lost that initial reaction, I came to see how Wright's hyperbole speaks to an important truth, which is that in many ways people who don't place Jesus in his original Jewish context when (if ever) they read the four gospels will miss a great deal of what the writers of those gospels were trying to say.
And what was that? To put it succinctly: That Jesus of Nazareth was the God of Israel incarnate, come to proclaim the reign of God, whose kingdom would be inaugurated through his birth, life, ministry, death and, especially, his resurrection.
The gospel, thus, is not first what you often hear in churches, especially those that would identify themselves as conservative or evangelical. Which is to say, it's not first this: You're a sinner. Jesus came to die for your sins. Believe in Jesus and you'll go to heaven.
You'll find that gospel reflected in the historic creeds of the church, beginning with the Nicene and Apostles creeds, but as Wright properly notes, those creeds go from Jesus' birth to his death and resurrection with hardly a jot or tittle about his life and ministry as it's recorded in the four gospels. That omission, he contends, has "had a massive, and I believe completely unintended consquence. It is, in fact, one major part of the reason why Christians to this day find it so hard to grasp what the gospels are really trying to say."
As Wright notes, "The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God." Ultimately, he says, the creeds triumphed over the gospels and we lost a good deal of their central message, which is that the story of Jesus is "the story of Israel's God returning at last."
Wright is at his best when he is unpacking the gospels that those creeds ignore. He carefully walks readers through the main points of the four gospels and tries to tone down what has gotten too much play in modern Christianity and to give more voice to what has been ignored or given too little attention.
As he does so he re-makes a point that he had made in a previous book, Simply Christian, which is that Christianity says the great human drama will not end with disembodied souls being snatched up into heaven but with God rescuing and redeeming the whole creation -- on Earth as it is in heaven, as the Lord's Prayer puts it.
So, he contends (correctly, in my view), that the emphasis on personal salvation one finds in many branches of Christianity is overdone at the expense of a broader and more biblically accurate view in which God sets the whole of creation to rights -- in which, in other words, God's kingdom finally comes in full flower, a kingdom over which Christ has been given all authority.
And the kingdom of heaven, he writes, "is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth."
If Wright is critical of Christians who overemphasize personal salvation, he's equally critical of Christians at the other end of the spectrum who want to present Jesus as simply a teacher of morality and one whose story in the gospels is all metaphor with no real history. Both approaches, he insists, are wrong.
To understand what the gospels are trying to tell us, it's vital that we place their message in the context of the history of the people of Israel. Otherwise they make no sense. When we read them in that context, however, we find Christianity asserting that Jesus is the Messiah that Israel had yearned for and expected, even though many Jews then and now reject that claim (the book to read is Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, by David Klinghoffer). "And," Wright says, "if Jesus is the Messiah, then his public career and death, and not some other way, is how Israel's God is accomplishing and establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven."
Wright has a deep appreciation for what Christianity owes to Judaism, as he should. And he gives no stark evidence of being a supersessionist, which is to say someone who believes that Christianity has not only replaced Judaism but also made Judaism irrelevant.
But if I were to fault him, I would say that in this book he does not help Christian readers understand how to think about Judaism today, given that God has never abrogated the covenant God made with the Jewish people, a covenant that called the people of Israel to be a light to the nations.
I think Wright passed up several good opportunities in this work to say at least something substantive, however brief, about that even as he contends that "the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is in fact the climax of the story of Israel, even though nobody was expecting such a thing and many didn't like the look of it when it was presented to them. . ."
That said, a particular strength of the book is Wright's explanation of how the gospels carefully tell the story of how the kingdom of God clashes with the kingdom of Caesar. In recent years scholars have done a lot of writing about how the concept of "empire" is found in the gospels, particularly how the Roman Empire was crushing the Jewish people in Jesus's day. If you don't grasp that reality as you read the gospels you miss a lot. Wright does a good job of placing all that in context. I especially liked his idea that Rome itself was "symbolically overthrown as the Roman guards at the tomb fail to prevent Jesus's resurrection."
In the end, Wright argues that "in Jesus, the living God has become king of the whole world." It's a compelling argument even if it's obvious that the kingdom, or reign, of God is so far incomplete, as any fool can see by reading the newspaper or simply looking out the nearest window.
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DEFANGING AN ANTI-ISLAMIC PREJUDICE
Religion News Service reports that the anti-Shari'a movement in state legislatures is losing steam. Thank goodness. What a useless, counterproductive, bigoted movement that has been. For more details on why, see my post here.
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P.S.: Kansas City's annual AIDSWalk is just a month away now and lots of walkers, including me, are gathering pledges to help the AIDS Service Foundation of Kansas City. If you'd like to lend a hand and kick in a few bucks (or many bucks), click here.