23 April 2012

review: how god became king 3

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

Part Two of the Bishop's latest book on the Gospels is titled, "Adjusting the Volume," for it seeks to place four messages found in each of the gospel narratives into proper balance.  His contention is that some themes have been underplayed, while others have been overplayed in the life of the (primarily modern) church.  The four 'speakers' that need their volume adjusted are: The Story of Israel, The Story of Jesus as Israel's God, God's Renewed People, and the Clash of the Kingdoms.

Chapter Four takes up the first of the four themes: The Story of Israel.  His first point is that the four Gospels, despite many recent attempts to proclaim otherwise, are indeed biographies . . . at least, by ancient understandings of the term and the genre.  They have their own method to the madness of biographical accounting, but they do indeed present themselves as biographies - ". . . biographies of Jesus" (63).

Th second point raised is that the Story of Israel is the necessary prequel to the story of Jesus.  Thus, "The first speaker of our quadraphonic sound system to be turned up is this: the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel" (65).  And I believe that this is a key component which has been lost over the last few generations of the evangelical church.  We tend to read Jesus in a vacuum which keeps him isolated from Israel's story . . . we have lost sight of the fact that this historical figure lived and ministered in a historical context, and that it shapes the very message he sought to give.  Wright speaks of "the strange story of Israel" in response to the problematic approach we've developed to the gospel narrative, "The problem is that we have all read the gospels, if we haven't been careful, simply as God's answer to the plight of the human race in general" (66-67).  In other words, we have lost the intended backstory - the significance and development of God's salvation - as it journeys through the rich history of Israel.

Wright surveys the four Gospels with this in mind, showing their particular handling of this particular theme in turn.  This brings him to the conclusion, "Unless we are constantly aware, in reading the gospels, that they are telling the Jesus story in such a way as to bring out the Israel story, we will never hear their proper harmony" (80).

Chapter Five then turns to the second of the four themes: The Story of Jesus as the Story of Israel's God.  According to Wright, the first speaker was played too softly . . . but this one is turned up way to loudly!  He contends, "The second speaker contributing to what we hear the gospels saying is the one that enables us to hear the story of Jesus as the story of Israel's God coming back to his people as he had always promised" (83).  What does it mean that this has been turned up to the point of distortion?  Too often we have taken the gospel narratives and assumed that they are showing us a singular truth, namely, "Jesus is God!" that we are not listening to the rest of the message.  Indeed, ". . . we have been so concerned to let the gospels tell us that the story of Jesus is the story of God incarnate that we have been unable to listen more carefully to the evangelists telling us which God they are talking about and what exactly it is that this God is now doing" (84).

It would follow that if the background and context of the Jesus story is the story of Israel, then reseting that speaker would naturally cause us to rebalance the second.  There is definitely truth in that when we see Jesus we see the Father, and the Bishop is not excluding that perspective.  Rather, he is saying that we  are taking notions of divinity and placing them upon Jesus's life and then claiming that we know God through that convoluted formula.  Instead, it is Israel's God that is at work in Jesus, and the gospel narratives are trying to show us the uniqueness of this story.  Wright begins at creation . . .

Again, Wright works through the Four Gospels to highlight this theme.  Two statements of summary/conclusion are worth including here:

1)  "But Jesus is talking about God becoming king in order to explain the things he himself is doing" (92).

2) ". . . that, in Jesus, Israel's God had become present, had become human, had come to live in the midst of his people, to set up his kingdom, to take upon himself the full horror of their plight, and to bring about his long-awaited new world" (95).

And that last bit is key to understanding this particular point.  Jesus is living out the story of Israel's God inasmuch as he is retelling and reliving the story of exile, restoration, and the return of YHWH to Zion.  Jesus is therefore the coming of Israel's God to the holy temple (as the holy temple, as seen in John) for the sake of renewing the world with the kingdom of God.  "All the functions of the Temple - festival, presence, priesthood, and now sacrifice - have devolved onto Jesus" (104).

No comments: