Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Notes: Simply Jesus by Tom Wright

Tom Wright's latest popular level book, Simply Jesus, brings the fruits of his many decades of scholarly work on the gospels, and his unique take on them, and makes it accessible to the interested lay-reader (or the scholar who just lacks the necessary time to read his 700+ page tomes!). Wright continues to chart his idiosyncratic course through Christian theology which is always guaranteed to intrigue, fascinate and irritate both conservatives and liberals alike!

Wright's basic working thesis is that both today's liberals and conservative theologians have used their different versions of the contemporary world-view to shape their readings of Jesus, distorting it in different directions. Instead, Wright proposes a scheme in which he claims to draw a usable interpretive framework with which to understand Jesus and his message, from the context of 1st Century Palestine - thus enabling us to shed our imported pre-conceptions and get closer to the real Jesus. Liberals, Wright castigates for their failure to embrace the miraculous aspects of Christ's ministry, thus eviscerating the invasion of God into history of its full power and significance, and in the case of Christ's physical resurrection its meaning and credibility too. Conservatives though, he scolds for their failure to engage with the idea of the Kingdom of God on earth 'as it is in heaven'; depleting Christianity by reducing it to a dualistic 'soul-only' salvation in which escape from the earth is the goal rather than the reign of God on earth. In marking out these broad lines of argument Wright quite brilliantly corrects some of the extremes into which both ends of the spectrum are prone to fall.

Wright's extensive use of the Old Testament is also fascinating, especially where he draws on the prophets and history. One of his contentions is that in the person and life of Jesus (through which the announcement of God's kingship is made), God is doing for the world, what he did for Israel in the Exodus and return from exile. He points out that the pattern, (i) overcoming a tyrant (ii) rescue, (iii) giving a vocation to God's people, (iv) God's presence, (v) inheritance; are exactly what Jesus achieved - with far greater scope than those Old Testament narratives (p75). Therefore, Wright continues:
Just as physical healing is the up-close-and-personal version of what it looks like when God takes charge, to fix and mend the whole world, so individual forgiveness is the up-close-and-personal version of what it looks like when God does what he promised and restores his exiled people..... most Jews in Jesus day saw the Babylonian exile as only the start of a much longer period of history in which God's people remained unredeemed, un-rescued and unforgiven. When Jesus was announcing forgiveness, both on the one-to-one personal scale and more widely, this is the story people would have had in their heads. And this is the story we must assume Jesus intended them to have in their heads. (p75)
Wright's chapter on 'Battle and Temple' is compelling reading. Arguing that the Old Testament temple, was the place where heaven and earth met, as the presence of God was conducted into the Holy of Holies; he demonstrates the way in which many of Jesus words make most sense if we Jesus as the living embodiment of the the temple. Jesus cleansing of the Temple, as well as announcing judgement on it, comes into sharp focus as does his conflict with evil. Likewise his work on the background the gospels is remarkable, the comparisons he makes with other Jewish would-be messianic movements in the centuries either side of Jesus - brings the unique nature of Jesus and his movement into brilliant clarity.

When it comes to examining the death and resurrection of Jesus, Wright is in the thick of the most hotly contested theological issues of the last few years. Wright's emphasis is on the Christus Victor  model of atonement, and yet intriguingly he subsumes some of the language and insights of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) into his scheme. Again many liberals will resist the required physicality of the resurrection, and will baulk at anything more than the example and moral influence of the cross. Yet Wright insists that the cross-resurrection of Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation, and is the first fruits of the renewal of everything including the physical realm. Conservatives would want Wright to be much stronger on PSA - and address the issue of divine justice and the cross, not just the conflict with death and evil, and the associated abandonment of the Son by God the Father at Calvary. Part of this, as several commentators  have noted, is that Wright draws extensively from 1st Century culture, and Old Testament narratives and prophets for his interpretation - but little from Old Testament Law or from the NT Epistles - whose combined influence could bolster the element of PSA which Wright permits in his account. Contrary to some conservative bloggers, I do not think that this invalidates Wright's important work here though. In the wake of the Steve Chalke controversy over PSA several years ago, it became clear that his work was part of an anti-reaction to some caricatures of PSA, or the impression given in some circles that this was the only way to describe the achievement of the cross. In response to Chalke et al, many others have pointed out that the Bible's many ways of describing the Cross may be tricky to systematise - but that each image is like the facets of a diamond - each quite brilliant. The cross and resurrection of Jesus is the basis for all hope, and Wright helps us to see the way in which his triumph over sin and death achieves this for us.

Wright is an enigmatic scholar who can express his vast knowledge in straightforward language. While I struggle to appreciate his work on Paul and justification; I cannot think of a writer who more concisely and illuminatingly brings the gospels to life by drawing the social/political/theological background into such clear focus. While his academic works (published as N.T. Wright) are densely argued and heavily footnoted, his more popular works such as this are fast-paced and almost unbelievably contain barely any references at all. As a Christian, seeking insight into Jesus, understanding of the gospel's text and context, and always trying to be suspicious of my own assumptions which I bring to that exercise, Simply Jesus is a brilliant resource. I do not think agreement with the great Professor on every point is required in order to have one's own assumptions raked through and tested, and light shed in dark corners through reading Simply Jesus. I found it absolutely compelling.


No comments: