17 April 2012

review: how god became king 2

N. T. Wright, How God Became King (New York: HarperOne, 2012).

In working to rediscover "the forgotten story of the Gospels," the Bishop seeks to reveal how many Christians have misread the texts for generations.  Chapter Three of his book reveals six "inadequate answers" to understanding the gospel narrative.  While there may be some merit in each of these strategies of reading, by-and-large Wright contends that they form an insufficient context for the Gospels.

1. Going to Heaven.  For years, Wright has made the case (rightly so) that most modern Christians have simply assumed that going to heaven when we die is the purpose for the faith.  But as the Bishop's extensive work on the Resurrection has demonstrated, the fuller picture of the gospel is the renewed heaven and earth being eternally bound together.  The hope of going to heaven has (typically) been taken as an escape-hatch through which the devout are able to escape this world (before God destroys it) and be raptured into heaven.  This is a big misreading of the gospel, and should not be read back into the narrative.

On Jesus Creed, McK covers a nuance of this point that should be included here: " . . . if the kingdom is eternal in the sense of our final destiny, and if that is what many people mean by heaven, and even if we are now seriously adjusting heaven to much more earthy, is there that big of a difference."  That is to say, not all earthly conceptions of heaven are non-biblical.  Perhaps the most telling piece of knowing what is true and good, is whether the real-life impact of one's final destiny fits with the biblical data.

2. Jesus's Ethical Teaching.  Again, yes, there is good moral instruction coming from Jesus's lips.  But is that all he was up to?  I contend that a master of ethics would not have been so vehemently opposed and crucified as an affront to Israel (or we could use liar, lunatic or lord from CSL).  Jesus was doing much more.  "Jesus was announcing that a whole new world was being born and he was 'teaching' people how to live within that whole new world" (47, emphasis original).  To quote John Meier here: "He was not proclaiming the reform of the world; he was proclaiming the end of the world."

3. Jesus the Moral Exemplar.  Quite similar to #2, actually.  Wright uses a good metaphor here, "I can watch a ballet dancer on stage with great delight, not because i think I can copy him, but precisely because I know I can't" (49).  Frankly, if we are to follow Jesus as a pattern for our lives, then the daunting task will become overwhelming and frustrating for the disciple.  (And doesn't this get in the way of a whole lot of substitutionary-stuff to which we evangelicals hold dear?)  Again, there is more to the gospel.

4. Jesus the Perfect Sacrifice.  In some ways #3 is one end of the pendulum swing, and this is the other.  If we cannot follow Jesus's perfect example, then perhaps he has done everything for us.  Wright sees this as a tie-together of #1 and #3, and there is some validity in that as well.  Many Christians have understood the life of Jesus in this way - a telling of his perfect life so that his death would be sufficient as a sacrifice for all.  This line of thinking is prevalent in many churches, I fear . . . and it diminishes the story to which the Gospels are inviting us to enter.  As the Bishop points out, however, the Gospels only point to Jesus's sinlessness occasionally; it is not as though this is a major theme within them.

5. Stories We Can Identify With.  We can enter into the stories as though we are reading a play that is reenacted over and over.  Again, there is some truth here . . . many times we find ourselves in a position that resembles one in the Gospels, which allows us to navigate via placing ourselves in the story.  But that is such a small portion of what the gospel is about that it is quite insufficient to a reading.  Further, it would seem as though this were the beginning of a reading centered in moral relativism, rather than an encounter with the fiery life of Jesus.

6. Proving Jesus's Divinity.  Here is another widespread approach to the life of Jesus as seen in the Gospels.  My own experience has seen this approach tightly woven with #4 . . . that the point of the Gospels is to show that Jesus is divine and perfect, therefore his death is powerful.  Let's say that it is an aim of the Gospel narratives to show Jesus's divinity.  OK, John gets that out in Chapter One and then has quite a bit more to say about Jesus's life (cf. 54).  So, what are we to make of that?  Once more, there is some grain of truth in this perspective, though it misses out on the full fruit of the gospel story.

These misreadings have a definite impact on the church's understanding and use of the gospel.  Partly because we can see pieces of truth in each of the six approaches listed here, it is already painfully obvious that an overemphasis on any one of these would be detrimental to a full and complete picture of the Messianic Jesus.  What the Bishop is contending is that, while these themes are certainly present throughout the Four Gospels, none of theme can rightly claim to be the larger narrative in which the others find their place.  Even though Wright is being accused of dismissing centuries of church history in handling the Gospels, he is more specifically interested in recovering the lost meta-narrative that has been missing - the larger context into which these themes will find their place.

He is correct in his assessment of these points, and he is correct in searching for the larger story.  At this point we could go in a few directions, I suppose.  But what the Bishop is now going to take up is his assertion that the Gospels are telling the story of how God became king in and through the Messiah Jesus. I personally believe that he has this point right, though we will make a more complete unpacking of his points as we navigate through.

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