A fantastic new book

In our time the doctrine of the atonement/ Jesus crucified has come under attention once again. The way it is usually explained within Western Christianity, it sounds like the all too familiar abusive father who takes his rage out on someone innocent, in this case his own child, and then dresses it up by wrapping his ugly behavior up with the word love. The idea that the Creator God Himself has to kill someone in order to forgive people has understandably caused people to wonder what kind of God we are talking about.

Into the midst of this, world-renowned theologian N.T. Wright has written an absolutely incredible book. He has clearly familiarized himself with both popular and academic treatments of the atonement written recently, and pastorally identified the very real problems our current understanding of the crucifixion brings to people. This is understandable, he says, and it’s fine, because the ways that the crucifixion is understood in Western Christianity have de-railed from the actual story and meanings in the Bible. In fact, he demonstrates, the way in which the prevailing theologies of Western Christianity are explaining the atonement end up de-biblicizing it, de-Judaizing it, and paganizing it.

If we start reading the Bible at the beginning, we find the problem is not that God made the world as a testing ground to see if people would go to heaven or hell, and then makes a way for the first rather than the second. No, that is not the story we find when we read the Bible’s story. And when we make that the story, we start mis-understanding the cross in all sorts of ways that fall far short of what the followers of Jesus meant when they said that he died “for our sins” and “in accordance with the Bible.”the day the rev began pic

Wright’s book is called “The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion.” It is a life-changing, worldview-changing book; one of the best things Wright has written in a while, and that’s saying something. Run, don’t walk, get a copy, and read it.

N.T. Wright: ‘the deceitfulness of sin’

“There is such a thing as ‘the deceitfulness of sin’, and it’s very powerful. You start by allowing yourself the apparent luxury of doing something small which you know you shouldn’t but which you think doesn’t matter. When it becomes a habit, you stop thinking it’s wrong at all. If the question is raised, you are ready with rationalizations: everyone does it, this is the way the world is now, you mustn’t be legalistic, no good being a killjoy. This creates a platform for the next move: here’s something else which a while ago you would have shunned as certainly wrong, but it’s quite like the thing you’ve got used to, so maybe… And before too long you’re rationalizing that as well. And once the mind has been deceived, the habit will continue unchecked.”*

I’ve seen this play out many times in so many lives. Wright has summed it up, spot on. I could not have come close to saying it any better.

N.T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone. Westminster Press: 2003.

N.T. Wright on Mark 4:26-34

World renowned New Testament theologian N.T. Wright makes the following comments on Jesus’ seed parables in Mark 4.

“When you audition for a choir, often the conductor will ask you to pick notes out of a chord. Here is a chord of three, four or five notes; you can hear it all together, but can you hear the notes individually, and sing each in turn? It’s often quite a test.

We can all see the surface meaning of the story: in this case, the secret growth of a seed, or the small seed that produces a big bush. But can you see the individual notes that go to make up these chords?

Answer: the seed is laid in the earth and then arises. The word for ‘get up’ is one of the regular words for the resurrection. And the resurrection, by this stage in Jewish thinking, wasn’t about how individuals would find ‘life after death’. It was about how God would dramatically restore Israel’s fortunes, even raising the saints of old to share in the new blessing.

Jesus asks: What shall we say God’s kingdom is like? What picture shall we give of it? In one of the best-known passages in the Jewish Bible, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet asks a very similar question about God himself: To what will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him (Isaiah 40.18)? It’s not just an accidental echo. The passage is all about a fresh vision of God, the creator, coming to rescue his people, coming to restore Israel after her time of devastation.

…the other note in the chord, comes at the end of the story: the birds of the air make their nests in its shade. Ezekiel and Daniel both use this as an image of a great kingdom, growing like a tree until those around can shelter under it (Ezekiel 17.23; 31.6; Daniel 4.12, 21). Don’t worry, Jesus is saying. Remember who your God is and what he’s promised. Realize that this small beginning is the start of God’s intended kingdom – the kingdom that will eventually offer shade to the whole world. Jesus’ hearers, of course, probably knew their scriptures better than most of us do. They might be able to pick out the notes in the chord and at least begin to make some sense of it all. The challenge for us, as readers of Jesus’ parables in a very different world, is to think out what we have to do to be kingdom-workers, kingdom-explainers, in our own day. How can we strike fresh chords so that people will be teased into picking out the notes, and perhaps even into joining in the song?”

Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (pgs. 47- 50). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Left Brain/Right Brain, Life, and Spiritual Knowledge

Towards the end of the last blog’s quote of N.T. Wright, Wright says “We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter…..  not because we don’t believe in evidence and argument, not because we don’t believe in history or science, but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home.” It’s not hard to see why someone could say he is pulling a cheap end-run, trying to skirt the argument,  encapsulating science within a larger epistemology, like Hinduism encapsulating Christ within its pantheon, arguing for a both-and approach, when everyone with our Western Enlightenment mindset knows the question is really either-or.

However, I think Wright is actually expressing something thoroughly true to human existence. (Richard Rohr also does very good work in this area, among others, see his Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi). There are certainly more ways of “knowing” something than empirical science. I know that I love my wife, I know that I will be deeply content the next time I am surf-fishing, I know what musical transition will sound good, I know when I have done the right thing, I know my children, I know how much pressure to apply to jump the first step of our staircase, I know that that sunset will thrill my daughter. None of these types of knowing are based around empirical scientific evidence. Knowing that you love someone may be the most accessible example in everyday life. Humans know all kinds of things, all day, every day, which have nothing to do with empirical scientific proof. Western Enlightenment has acted like really only empirical evidence matters in the real world of grown-ups, but real life indicates conclusively that that is nonsense.

We have a left brain and a right brain, and I mean it literally, but more than literally as well, to say a person needs both sides of the brain to be alive. The left crunches numbers and facts, the right handles, music, art, beauty, intuition. The left handles science, the right handles spirituality. As the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathon Sacks, has said, science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean. And I would argue that human experience shows, that when we opt for simply one dimension, we lack a balanced, healthy, whole life.

Even within Christian spirituality this is evident. We can’t go on simply reading. We need to sing – it’s literally a different part of our brains. We need to get up and do something as an expression of the imago dei, because sitting and being only cerebral will distort, and sometimes literally kill, us. (Sitting too much is linked in numerous medical studies to early death). We need to interact relationally with other people. We need our imaginations fired, which is not the empirical part of our brains, to receive the benefit of exemplary causation, a much more powerful reality than “role model” and one medieval Christianity understood thoroughly in its attention to the role of the saints. One evidence of this is the number of evangelical protestant – oriented people who struggle so much with a male authority-figure image of God because of bad experiences with their fathers or other male leaders. Well, with our down-grading of Mary’s role in Christian spirituality, we’ve taken away from them a feminine aspect in Christian devotion that earlier generations had access to, and we’ve stuck people with only a get-over-it option, which other generations weren’t trapped in.

All of that to begin to say, though of course we can’t unwind it all in a blog post, that science, though it contributes wonderful things to our life and understanding, is not the only dimension of human knowledge which we need for a full, flourishing human life and civilization. Nor can science prove or dis-prove something like the resurrection of Jesus.

N.T. Wright on the Epistemology of the Resurrection

Here’s some interesting musings from N.T. Wright on the kind of epistemology one brings towards an event like Jesus’ resurrection. It’s in his fun little book Surprised by Scripture, in the chapter “Can a Scientist believe in the Resurrection?” The whole chapter is an enjoyable read, but here are some tidbits that point in some intriguing directions (bold and italics are mine):

“What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science. Faith of this sort is not blind belief that rejects all history and science. Nor is it simply— which would be much safer!— a belief that inhabits a totally different sphere, discontinuous from either, in a separate watertight compartment. Rather, this kind of faith, which is like all modes of knowledge defined by the nature of its object, is faith in the creator God, the God who has promised to put all things to rights at the end, the God who (as the sharp point where those two come together) has raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving as I said evidence that demands an explanation from the scientist as well as anybody else. Insofar as I understand scientific method, when something turns up that doesn’t fit the paradigm you’re working with, one option at least, perhaps when all others have failed, is to change the paradigm, not to exclude everything you’ve known to that point but to include it within a larger whole.  

…. As I said, the resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world, though it is also that; it is the defining, central, prototypical event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus. If we are even to glimpse this new world, let alone enter it, we will need a different kind of knowing, a knowing that involves us in new ways, an epistemology that draws from us not just the cool appraisal of detached quasi-scientific research but the whole-person engagement and involvement for which the best shorthand is “love,” in the full Johannine sense of agápē.

My sense from talking to scientific colleagues is that, though it’s hard to describe, something like this is already at work when the scientist devotes him- or herself to the subject matter, so that the birth of new hypotheses seems to come about not so much through an abstract brain… crunching data from elsewhere, but more through a soft and mysterious symbiosis of knower and known, lover and beloved. The skeptic will quickly suggest that this is, after all, a way of collapsing the truth of Easter once more into mere subjectivism. Not so. Just because it takes agápē to believe the resurrection, that doesn’t mean all that happened was that Peter and the others felt their hearts strangely warmed. Precisely because it is love we are talking about, not lust, it must have a correlative reality in the world outside the lover. Love is the deepest mode of knowing, because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality. This is the mode of knowing that is necessary if we are to live in the new public world, the world launched at Easter, the world in which Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t.

That is why, although the historical arguments for Jesus’s bodily resurrection are truly strong, we must never suppose that they will do more than bring people to the questions faced by Thomas and Peter, the questions of faith and love. We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter. To do so would be like someone who lit a candle to see whether the sun had risen. What the candles of historical scholarship will do is show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn’t look like it did last night, and that would-be normal explanations for this won’t do. Maybe, we think after the historical arguments have done their work, maybe morning has come and the world has woken up. But to find out whether this is so, we must take the risk and open the curtains to the rising sun. When we do so, we won’t rely on candles anymore, not because we don’t believe in evidence and argument, not because we don’t believe in history or science, but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home. All knowing is a gift from God, historical and scientific knowing no less than that of faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.”

Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (p.60- 63). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The Point of Holiness

NT Wright has expended considerable ink in saying that the point of Israel was not for Israel itself, but for the whole world. Israel was chosen by God to be the vehicle through which He blessed the Gentiles with the knowledge of the One True God. Copious amounts of OT scriptures can be cited. Most Christians and Jewish folk themselves agree with this reading of the OT. Israel did not exist as an end in itself – all nations were to be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. Israel was called for the sake of the Gentiles.

In the same way, Christians living a holy life  – a human living as the kind of creature she or he was made to be – is not an end in itself. It is for the sake of the whole creation: reflecting the image of God into the world around, something the entire Creation is standing on tiptoe waiting expectantly for according to Romans 8:19. As Wright says of 8: 26-27 “…this is no incidental reference to prayer and the work of the Spirit. The whole point is that when we pray we are not merely distant or feeble petitioners. We are starting to take up our responsibility as God’s image-bearing human beings, sharing God’s rule over creation.”*

Paul’s climax in Romans 8, overlooked in the Western tradition for a thousand years, is not that we are holy and get to go to heaven, but rather that God’s plan is coming together: holiness as humans finally leading the way expressing God’s rule to the whole creation as His stewards in the way it was always meant to be. Holiness is not an end in itself, in the sense that it is for itself; no, it is for the sake of the whole Creation. God’s world can only be put right when its masters are right. And saying we can’t finish the job of New Creation is no way to shirking our calling and duty, anymore than saying I can’t resurrect my own body so it doesn’t matter what I do with my body!

The holiness tradition that I grew up in, and I think our Pentecostal & Charismatic cousins, missed something vital here. Holiness, as I was growing up, was a goal in and of itself, something you aimed at for its own sake. Once you had it, you had sort of arrived, and now just needed to help other people get it. It was because God wanted people to follow a certain standard… this is how God is, this is how you should be. But the why and for what sake was often left out. Connecting it to the larger story in Scripture was left out… or just seen as part of getting to heaven… we were good at quoting “without holiness no man shall see the Lord”. In the end it was self-serving. That’s because we had virtually no theology of the Creation and ecology. Back then people would have laughed out loud at the thought that holiness was for the sake of the planet. That’s because our Hal Lindsay / Left Behind theology had us thinking God intended to burn the planet up and throw it in the trash. Yes, God’s “very good” Creation extolled throughout Scripture.

Instead of repeating the latest idiotic responses of the Far Right, US evangelicals need to read and consider carefully the theology they will learn when Pope Francis releases his encyclical on the environment. It’s time for us to grow up. Just as Jesus-generation Jews mistaked their calling thinking it was only about Jewish folk rather than the nations, so modern Christians need to stop the mistake of thinking our calling is only about humans, rather than the whole created order.

 

*Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (Kindle Locations 1364-1366). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Book Excerpt: N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Scripture. Do We Need a Historical Adam?

Today I downloaded, via Kindle, N.T. Wright’s new book, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. In it he gives his take on a wide variety of issues today swirling in religion, science, politics, and the coming of Jesus. Below is the beginning of the chapter in which he wrings out whether or not a Biblically faithful Christian needs to believe Adam was a historical person.

“THE ROOT PROBLEM we face as Christians is that in articulating a Christian vision of the cosmos the way we want to do, we find ourselves hamstrung because it is assumed that to be Christian is to be anti-intellectual, antiscience, obscurantist, and so forth. This constitutes a wake-up call to us in this form: though the Western tradition and particularly the Protestant and evangelical traditions have claimed to be based on the Bible and rooted in scripture, they have by and large developed long-lasting and subtle strategies for not listening to what the Bible is in fact saying. We must stop giving nineteenth-century answers to sixteenth-century questions and try to give twenty-first-century answers to first-century questions. Our concern is for the truth and beyond that for our love of the God of truth and our strong, biblically rooted sense that this God calls us to celebrate the wonder of his creation and to work for his glory within it. There are two theological drivers for people to believe in a young-earth creationism and a historical Adam. The first supposes that if people let go of this position, they are letting go of the authority of scripture . I suspect , myself, that sociocultural factors are among the main influences. In dispensationalism in particular, a flat, literal reading of Genesis is part of a package that includes the rapture, Armageddon, saving souls for a timeless eternity, and so on, together with the usual package of ultraconservative (as it seems to a Brit) policies in society, government, and foreign policy. So I suspect we need to think through the question of how the authority of scripture actually works and what it might mean in this case. But there is a second theological driver of the problem. This has to do with the deep-rooted Western soteriology that has characterized Catholic as well as Protestant, liberal as well as conservative: a sense that we know, ahead of time, that the Bible, particularly its central New Testament texts like the Gospels and Romans , must really be about the question of how we get saved. For some, particularly in the Reformed tradition, the question of Adam as the federal head of his descendants is one part of the soteriology that sees Jesus the Messiah as the federal head of all those who are “in him.” So let me say something brief about scriptural authority, and then something slightly fuller about Adam and related issues.”

Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (Kindle Locations 437-445). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.