N.T. Wright re: Jesus and “end times” Scriptures

Anglican N.T. Wright, the leading New Testament scholar alive today, asks What if… “you are sliding down a steep slope – say, on a toboggan, or on skis  – and suddenly realize you are heading for a sheer drop. You seem to be accelerating towards it, and the slope is too steep for you to check your speed, let alone to stop, turn round, and go back up again out of danger. What are you going to do? The answer may well be that there’s nothing you can do. You need to be rescued. You need, in fact, someone to stand in the way: someone who has managed to get a fixed foothold on the slope, and who will catch you, stop you, and help you to safety. And if you were lucky enough to see someone offering to do that, you’d have to steer towards them and be ready for the shock of a sudden stop. Better that than plunging over a cliff.

The key thing to realize, in reading the early chapters of Acts, is that Jesus himself had warned his fellow Jews that they were precisely in danger of accelerating towards a cliff. If you read Luke’s gospel straight through, you will notice how the warnings which Jesus gave seem to increase in quantity and volume all the way to chapters 19, 20 and 21, where he solemnly declares that if the nation as a whole, and the city of Jerusalem in particular, don’t stop their headlong flight into ruin, their enemies will come and destroy them. The warnings are very specific. Israel (so Jesus declares) has bought into a way of life which is directly opposite to what God wants: a way which ignores the plight of the poor, which embraces violence, which denies God’s call to his people to become the light of the world. Again and again Jesus warns, ‘If you don’t turn back, you’re heading for disaster’ (Luke 13.5). When he arrives in Jerusalem he bursts into tears as he describes, in a prophetic vision, a great military force laying siege to the city and leaving no stone on top of another. This will happen, he says, ‘because you didn’t know the way of peace’, and ‘because you didn’t realize that God was visiting you’ (Luke 19.41–44).”   (Wright, N.T. (2011-05-31). Acts for Everyone, Part One: Chapters 1-12 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 40-41). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.)

Notice a few things here, classic N.T. Wright, which have a serious effect on how we think of Scriptures often associated with “the end times.” First, according to Wright, these Scriptures AREN’T about the end-times. They are about a very concrete, specific situation facing Israel and Jerusalem, just like 400 years before as the prophets warned them of impending doom via the Babylonians. This time the doom is via the Romans. So a lot of the Gospel sayings of Jesus that TV prophecy preachers weave all around the Book of Revelation for their scary sermons of doom and Armageddon, are actually about something that happened over 1,900 years ago. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the war of 70-72 AD, Christian commentators for the next several centuries commented on these verses  Wright refers to by saying  ”Yep,  precisely as Jesus said would happen.” Viewing these Scriptures as about the 1st century (rather than the end of the world) is not a new idea with N.T. Wright – it has a long, long history in Christian interpretation – right back to the generations closest to the sayings themselves.

So does this have anything to do with us? Absolutely! Wright comments further on:

“to leave behind slavery and sin and to find the way to freedom and life. You need to allow Jesus himself to grasp hold of you, to save you from the consequences of the way you were going (‘forgiveness of sins’) and to give you new energy to go in the right way instead (‘the gift of the holy spirit’). To do all that is to ‘turn back’ from the way you were going, and to go in the other direction instead. That is what is meant by the word ‘repent’….. sharing in the new life of the baptized community, the life which has the stamp of Jesus upon it, the life which is defined in terms of turning away from the course you were on and embracing Jesus’ way instead. And, though circumstances change, we can see how the same message translates without difficulty to everyone in every society and at every moment in time. ‘The promise is for you, and for your children, and for everyone who is far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.’ That means all the rest of us.”

Thanks be to God.

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Environmentalism: A Significant Theological and Ethical Concern

Because Earth is not detention hall, because postmodern Christians are abandoning End-times theories of abandonment, because this world is the world of God’s redemptive activity, because man is steward, not owner, of Creation (the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it); because this earth is the one being renewed and restored (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3: 21, Romans 8: 19-25 etc), because this earth is where the resurrection will occur – a trait of postmodern/emerging Christianity is a concern for the Creation, the environment, this place. Recycling is an ethical issue for  postmoderns. Endangered species are part of a theology of creation, an issue of biblical proportions for them. This may sound ludicrous to some modern Christians. If it does sound ludicrous then we are at a point of departure between modern and postmodern Christianity, and I suspect future generations of Christians will look back and consider those modern Christians to be the ludicrous ones.  Postmoderns do not walk around with the primary view of Christian faith being getting me to heaven when I die. The world around them, the Creation here and now, figure large. In fact, if push comes to theological shove, some modern Christians may want to call ‘hippie tree-hugger’ but the postmodern Christian will respond that they are embracing a Hebraic biblical worldview while the modern Christian is a dualistic Gnostic, denying this world and focused on blasting off to a purely spiritual one, implicitly denying resurrection.

Some may not believe modern evangelicalism has been outright anti-environment. It may be that the impression comes from particular political positions evangelicals have been known for. However, pop modern evangelical theology has factored in: an inventor friend of mine, when asked about the environmental safety of his invention, actually said “well, it’s all gonna burn, so who cares?”

When postmodern Christians hear evangelical leaders decry this concern for Creation and the environment it sounds to their ears suspiciously like a Republican defense of big business or Left Behind theology or both. While it is true that this environmental concern is a reflection of societal awakenings that began in the early 1900s with individuals like outdoorsman/ nature lover President Teddy Roosevelt and his crowd, what the postmodern Christians have done is take that concern for the environment and look into the Bible and come to realize “hey! this is part of our mandate!” So while movements in the broader culture may well have sparked the most recent Christian look at the issue, what’s been discovered is that our Scriptures indeed have a direction for us on this subject, and our history has many resources as well.

Bloggers and other de-criers of the Emergent boogeyman hear postmodern Christians speaking about their profound concern over creation and their deep interest in being good stewards of the world God made, and accuse them of being New Age Earth Mother worshippers.  In reality, this is the ‘greening of the evangelical conscience’. It isn’t going away. And it’s in line with a biblical theology of creation. A creation God cares about, evidenced in his discussion of birds, mammals and plant life throughout the Scriptures, especially the Wisdom literature. So: good.

 

The Biblical vision of the Renewal of All Things

In America the last couple hundred years Christians have by and large traded the Bible’s hopeful vision of beauty and salvation in a world redeemed by God Himself for an alternate story about Earth. We’ve traded a story of hope and beauty and salvation for a story of abandonment, destruction and hopelessness. But “ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself” (N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. 2012). Genesis tells us earth is where God placed humanity. This is our home. It is not some detention hall, waiting for school to be over. It is not a dress-rehearsal. All such images are unworthy of the biblical narrative.

 Often overlooked by American Christians, the story of the Bible ends with humanity and God dwelling on earth, not humanity flying off to strum harps forever in some faraway disembodied heaven. The Bible’s vision is of the world being fully healed and set right in the Age to Come. Charles Spurgeon, one of most famous and beloved pastors from the 1800s understood this:

 “ I wish you now to observe that we are linked with the creation. …. Now, God will one day change our bodies and make them fit for our souls, and then he will change this world itself. ….We expect to see this world that is now so full of sin … turned into a paradise, a garden of God.   ….earth will be renewed in more than pristine loveliness.”

–  1868   (Sermon 788  “Creation’s  Groans and Saints’ Sighs”)

Martin Luther, when asked what he would do if he knew the next day was the Day of the Lord,  said “Plant a tree.” This is the biblical vision Jesus is referring to when he says in Matthew 19:28  “… at the renewal of all things…” He also reminded us “The meek will inherit the earth.” Acts 3: 21 refers to “the final restoration of all things.” Here’s a few of the many Scriptures in the Bible about this joyful vision:

Romans 8: 19-21 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.

Revelation 21:  the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth and the abode of God is with men.

–           “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

–            “…and all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city”

This is the fulfillment of the OT expectation expressed in places like Habakkuk 2: 14 “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” and “On that day Yahweh will become King over all the earth—Yahweh alone, and His name alone”  (Zechariah 14: 9). And don’t forget  Isaiah 2: 2-4

In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be the highest of all—
the most important place on earth.
It will be raised above the other hills,
and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.
People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.”
For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion;
his word will go out from Jerusalem.
The Lord will mediate between nations
and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.

The Scriptures tell us God will make all things new. Not make all new things. Rock on, Pine Creek Gorge. The God who made the universe delights in you.

I just backpacked Pine Creek Gorge with my son

Every year before he goes back to college my oldest son and I go backpacking somewhere for two or three days. This year we climbed the West Rim Trail of Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon/ Pine Creek Gorge into the Natural Area and then packed down to the creek and camped under the hemlocks beside the stream. Juvenile Common Mergansers, a bald eagle and perhaps the nicest smallmouth bass I’ve ever caught were some of the creatures we shared the Gorge with.

Each year we take along a couple copies of a recent theology book and have a blast reading it simultaneously laying in the tent at night and talking back and forth about it.  This year we took N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, a book that’s been out for quite some time, but which Tanner had never read. I heartily recommend it:  it’s one of the best introductions to what we really mean by Christian spirituality for the postmodern world. Wright is the leading New Testament scholar on the planet, an Anglican who has been at the forefront of both Pauline and historical Jesus research for more than two decades.

As we were soaking up the extreme beauty of the Gorge we talked about the bizarre Left Behind version of Christian eschatology in which they imagine God abandoning  His good creation – the earth – and destroying it. “Why would anybody be attracted to such an ugly and disheartening  story?” I asked my son rhetorically as we stood in the creek. We commented what a joyful addition to our lives the biblical doctrine of the renewal of all things has been for us. That is, the Bible teaches that, rather than betraying it, God intends to renew the world, healing Creation of all its ills – and all of the mountains, rivers, dolphins, bluejays, wildflowers  et etc  will still be around for us to thrill to enjoy in the Age to Come. What a better, more Gospel “Good News” story than the toxic, twisted Left Behind plotline.

In the next blog I’ll cite the biblical references for the healing of all Creation.

Emergent church book titles that sum it up

The “Emergent” conversation within (mostly Western) Christianity has believed for quite some time that we are in the midst of a massive rethink, the coming of an end to one era in Christian thought and practice, and the beginning of another (which has happened several times before of course). This often makes some people who are deeply invested in the current institutions and doctrinal systems of modern Christianity very apprehensive, and even calls down accusations of heresy. But this was the case each time one historic era of Christianity died and a new one was birthed. Look at the titles of these books. Do they give you a feel or sense or idea of some of emerging Christianity’s themes?   These are by no means the only excellent books on the subject out there, but these have titles that are indicative:

 

Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Organic/ Networked/ Decentralized/ Bottom-Up/ Communal/ Flexible {Always Evolving} (Kester Brewin, Baker, 2007)

Post-Modern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century World (Leonard Sweet, B&H, 2000)

A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Brian McLaren, Josey-Bass, 2001)

The Search to Belong: Rethinking intimacy, community, and small groups (Joseph Myers, Zondervan,  2003)

Jesus Brand Spirituality: He wants His religion back (Ken Wilson, Thomas Nelson, 2008)

The Radical Reformission: reaching out without selling out (Mark Driscoll, Zondervan, 2004)

Church Re-Imagined: The Spiritual Formation of People in Communities of Faith (Doug Pagitt and the Solomon’s Porch Community, Zondervan, 2003)

The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Carl Raschke, Baker Academic, 2004)

Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A manifesto for the church in exile (Rob Bell and Don Golden, Zondervan, 2008)

Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture (Spencer Burke, Zondervan, 2003)

The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Dan Kimball, Zondervan, 2003)

and last but not least, and getting the award for longest subtitle, of course:

A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/Calvinist + anabaptist/Anglican + Methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN (Brian McLaren, Zondervan, 2004)

Why new theology?

Almost 500 years ago some guys in Europe thought the world needed a better Christian theology than the one in use. What these guys ended up with (the theology of the Protestant Reformation) has completely shaped what we evangelicals assume the Gospel is today. We take what they said for granted, we take it for gospel.

Today the same thing is happening. Christians are looking around themselves and saying “I think we need a better theology than the one that is in use.” And I think, for a whole host of reasons, they are right. And that’s one of the reasons I am very interested in new turns in Christian theology. Open Theism? Emergent theology? Process Theology? Liberation theology? Social Justice? Green theology, narrative theology, Black theology? Inter-religious dialogue? Yes, let’s talk! For those who think it’s a waste of time, allow me to remind you of that little conversation four to five centuries ago – the Protestant Reformation.

Some Christians fear any new discussion of theology. They fear that the conversation itself, or questions arising from it, will end up with people in hell. The problem with this is that it really means they are counting on correct answers on a theology test to save them, rather than Jesus. And that’s very bad theology.