Friday, January 9, 2015

Review of N. T. Wright’s Simply Good News (Part 2)

In chs.1-2 Wright lays out a general outline of his understanding of the gospel and some of the challenges presenting the gospel to the world today encounters.

In chs.3-4 he focuses on Jesus, his relation to the gospel, and the ways and influences that have distorted this.
Jesus  
Jesus both announces and enacts God’s greater New Exodus.  He is God’s good news, his Gospel, in person.
The central theme of the good news that he is is the kingdom of God. But he was not alone.  Many dreams and visions of this coming kingdom pervaded the Judaism of the first century.  But his vision of the kingdom differed from all the others in that he proposed a kingdom that would come and be practiced in a way no one else expected (Kindle Locations 550-551).

As the gospel in person Jesus busied himself inculcating a kingdom perspective by telling strange riddling stories about it and enacting kingdom practices.  The former were the parables we find in the gospels while the latter included healing, forgiving, exorcizing, restoring people to community, and humanizing the dehumanized.

The Power of Love

The source of this strangeness of Jesus’ version of the kingdom is its origin. For it is in love, God’s love, rather than on power, on coercion, or even on consent that it is based. This love is also embodied by and as Jesus.  So he is also God’s kingdom in person too. He proclaimed that this love-based kingdom, so different as to be unintelligible to many other Jews, was taking place in and through him.  The early church announced it had already taken place in Jesus.
This kingdom of love entering into a world in rebellion against God provokes all sorts of resistance. At the heart of this resistance is conflict between Jesus, God’s kingdom in person, and an accuser, the satan, the dark person/power seeking to undermine God’s work, God’s kingdom, God’s world, and God’s son. The satan draws himself up to full height in opposing Jesus.  He realizes he/it is in a death struggle with him. In this struggle the satan is revealed as the full horror he really is. And in this struggle, at the very moment of his apparent triumph, the satan experiences God’s own condemnation declared against him/it.is pronounced upon it. Upon evil itself. (Kindle Locations 646-650).

And this paradoxical “victory” was what the early church meant and proclaimed as “good news”!  And when we today say “Christ died for our sins” this is what we should mean too. (Kindle Locations 667-670)
Resurrection

When the church preached Jesus’ resurrection they meant two things.  One is that it is about bodies, new and alive after death.  And second, the Jews were unique in believing that their God would do such a thing as part of his renewal of the entire creation.
Jewish belief in a general resurrection of the dead for all at the end of all things was confounded by Jesus’ resurrection in the middle of time.

For both Jews and Christians belief in resurrection entailed both creation (God’s good work) and judgment (God’s passion to set right what has gone wrong with his creation). (Kindle Locations 710-712)
Though Jesus’ resurrection itself is a unique act of God, it escapes historical proof (which rests on repeatable probabilities).  But the empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances to others after the resurrection provide evidence for its historicity.

The Real Good News
The resurrection does not mean:

-that Jesus, because he was the Son of God, was granted a special privilege not open to others,
-a special miracle meant to prove Jesus’ divinity,
-life after death,
-going to heaven.
The main point of the resurrection is that it is the beginning of God’s new world.  Life after life after death, as Wright cleverly put it. (Kindle Locations 787-788).
For Jesus followers, experience of his resurrection begins to make sense of everything else.  Most importantly, it makes us human again, for the first time.
Summary:  The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection. (Kindle Locations 797-798).
Ch.4
Can We Trust the Gospels
Our minds are out of whack with the way things are from God’s perspective.  His truth then will seem odd, perverse, wrong, or impossible or all of these.  It was for the Jews of Jesus’ time and is for people in our time as well.
“He was doing and saying things designed to tease his hearers into facing new and dangerous questions, into looking at familiar ideas (such as the kingdom of God) from new and unexpected angles. Most people, then and now, find that disturbing and try to avoid it.” (Kindle Locations 878-879)
A Different Kind of a Kingdom
For all sorts of reasons, then, the kingdom Jesus’ announced and enacted proved a hard sell – and it still does.  It challenges our rebellious allegiances to our own personal or social/political/economic kingdoms and calls us to change our loyalties to this love-based kingdom of God, to him.

But there are three particular reasons that North Americans today have a hard time accepting Jesus’ “good news.”
The Way the Church has Presented the Gospel for the Last Millennium (or Turning God News into Bad News)
Here’s how Wright describes the default version of the gospel most North Americans have heard:
“Most people who regard the statement that Jesus died in your place as the center of the gospel place this truth, this beautiful fragment, into a larger story that goes like this. There is a God, and this God is angry with humans because of their sin. This God has the right, the duty, and the desire to punish us all. If we did but know it, we are all heading for an eternal torment in hell. But this angry God has decided to vent his fury on someone else instead— someone who happens to be completely innocent. Indeed, it is his very own son! His wrath is therefore quenched, and we no longer face that terrible destiny. All we have to do is to believe this story and we will be safe.” (Kindle Locations 976-980)
The problem here, as Wright nicely puts it, is that “there’s more to Jesus’ death than this; and more to the gospel than Jesus’ death.”
Signs that things are wrong with this story: first, in the Bible the various statements about the death of Jesus in our place come within the double narrative of creation and covenant second, the Bible presents God as Love. The wrath of God is simply the shadow side of the love of God for his wonderful creation and his amazing human creatures, third, the goal of God’s rescue operation is the restoration and transformation of all things (not focused on heaven), and fourth, the story of gospel is more like a coronation than a sacrifice.
All this suggests that
“. . . the bigger picture, throughout Paul’s letters, is about Jesus establishing his rule. His death is a vital and central part of how that is done. We cannot bypass it. We cannot downplay it. We cannot underemphasize it. But it makes the sense within this picture: of the love of God, the covenant of God, the plan of God for the fulfillment of the whole of creation, not its abolition, and above all, the coronation of Jesus as the world’s rightful king and lord. (Kindle Locations 1051-1055).
Any other story that considers creation lesser and expendable in favor of a disembodied “heaven” is in truth a version of paganism.
If you are “told that the point of the whole game was to go to heaven, and the problem was an angry God who didn’t seem to want you to get there” (Kindle Locations 1090-1091), you are hearing the wrong story based on faulty assumptions.
The Story of Rationalism and Romanticism (Last 200-300 years)
Rationalism, the search for true ideas, and it reactionary spawn Romanticism, the search for true feelings, formed the framework in which the gospel was proclaimed in the West.  Individuals, finding truth through human reason or experience, infected the presentation of the gospel.  It turned theology towards ideas and individuals, an infection we continue to fight against to this very day.
Wright summarizes:
“The problem with both rationalism and romanticism is that they divert attention from the central message of the gospel. They try to get the fruits (Christianity does make sense; Christianity does involve the personal experience of God’s presence and love) without the roots (Christianity is about something that happened, which constitutes the good news). Both movements, then, not only in their non-Christian forms but specifically in the way they have encouraged Christians to embrace them, have led many in the church far away from the central emphasis of the good news.” (Kindle Locations 1182-1186)
The Big Change in the World Occurred in 18th Century
The rise of rationalism, science, technology beginning in the 18th century appeared to put us in control of a world made qualitatively better and no end of progress in sight.
Since Christians believe the decisive moment that changed the world was with Jesus’ death and resurrection, this is in direct contradiction to the modern claim, an entirely different and competing story! To give into this story and attempt to translate the gospel in its terms puts the church’s message of control of individuals to use or manipulate as they see fit.
Along with distorted medieval theology, the cultural movements of rationalism and romanticism, and the modern belief that the decisive turn in world history took place in the 18th century have progressively turned the “gospel” into the individualistically-focused, self-help therapy or good advice about how one can escape this grubby world and find oneself in heaven (some not-earth place).  The fundamental truth of gospel and event, the Jesus-event, has as a result been obscured or lost.
Reflection
In ch.3 Wright offers a digest of the understanding of Jesus and the gospel he has pioneered in his larger and more technical works. For those familiar with that larger work this chapter is a good summary and review.  For the unfamiliar it can provide a challenging entre into a fresh bold view of the gospel that subverts the default gospel we’ve inherited and opens up the genuine vistas of what God is up to in the world.
The formula Wright provides in ch.4 for understanding what has happened to the gospel – distorted medieval theology + rationalism and romanticism + the assumption that the big world-changing event happened with the rise of human control over the world in the 18th century – I find convenient and useful shorthand for remembering and describing the basic outline of how we got to where we are. 
This couplet of chapters, then, puts Jesus into the larger biblical story (correcting misperceptions at that level) then uses that larger story as the background to his handy sketch of how it has been distorted, good news into bad, rejected, reformulated, and promulgated as gospel.

No comments:

Post a Comment