Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tom Wright's voyage into the mind of Jesus

The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright (SPCK, 2000)

The eschatological debate between liberal and conservative scholars is so deeply entrenched, so polarised, so emotionally charged that any reconciliation seems unlikely - at least this side of the Second Coming! But what would happen if a theologian with impeccable academic credentials consciously set out to transcend these factions? The chances are, of course, that such an author would get shot at from both sides, even as both sides tried to claim him as an albeit wayward member of their own camp. And that rather sums up the career of N. T. ("Tom") Wright, formerly Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, now promoted to Bishop of Durham.

Aside from his work as bishop, Wright is best known for his lengthy multi-volume work-in-progress on the historical Jesus and his connections with the early church entitled "Christian Origins and the Question of God". In the shorter book reviewed here, "The Challenge of Jesus", Wright produced a fascinating introductory overview of his thesis that will appeal to the non-specialist reader without underselling the author's status as one of the leading British theologians of his generation.

Wright's starting point is the familiar and widely accepted truth that we must understand how Jesus and his contemporaries understood his teaching and his actions before we can apply them to our own setting. But Wright goes a stage further, claiming that even with a sound understanding of this principle, the way the Church has traditionally acted out its mission does not do justice to the uniqueness and particularity of Jesus' works. Individual emulation of Jesus' actions and the lifestyle application of popular interpretations of his teaching, however culturally adjusted, are inadequate. In short we are not just people (plural) but the People (singular) of God, and Wright's conclusion is no less than that the Church must be to the World what Jesus was to Israel.

That may not sound anything like as exciting or challenging at first sight as it will be once you have digested Wright's closely argued and beautifully polished prose. He shows with unerring skill, both as historian and Bible interpreter, how Jesus subverted traditional Jewish symbolism and messianic expectations to supplant the Temple with his own person and position his own death as the central historical event in a new Exodus. In doing so, Wright brings together tools that will be familiar to both liberals and conservatives, and he is remarkably successful in making two important connections: Firstly, the author shows in politically and psychologically credible terms the connection between Jesus' actions and his death sentence. Secondly and even more strikingly, he demonstrates in a historically and spiritually authentic way the connection between the Jesus who walked and talked and the Christ of the Church's kerygmatic literature. The value of these achievements in a book that concurrently stresses the historic centrality of the physical death and resurrection (for which read literal re-embodiment) of Jesus Christ cannot be over-stated.

That is not to say that the book is without flaws, the most serious of which is Wright's inadequate handling of the Atonement. Nowhere in the book's climactic chapter, 'The Challenge of Easter' does the author come close to explaining how Jesus' death can be the means of salvation or even transference of guilt. In fairness to the author, it is clear from passing comments elsewhere in the book that he vehemently disowns the Liberal view that Calvary was no more than an example to the infant church of the cross-bearing path it would have to follow. Nevertheless, he does not elaborate this conviction in the parts of the book where it matters most, and readers could be excused for inferring from the chapter under discussion that Jesus' painful death was little more than an inconvenient bridge he had to cross to get to his glorious resurrection.

The under-emphasis of substitutionary atonement is just the most serious of several flaws, including a rather too guarded analysis by the author of exactly what he means when he speaks of Christ's divinity, and in a lesser work these might have been fatal. But it really is too much to expect that any one book but the Bible itself can do justice to every strand of Christian truth. The key strength of Wright's book is that it provides in one concise and highly readable paperback a broader-based homage to the historical truth of the New Testament than anything else I can bring to mind. Moreover Wright is not just a theoretician, and in the last two chapters of the book he applies his exegesis, developing with ruthless logic the ethical challenge of an inaugurated but unfinished eschatalogical Kingdom of God. The challenge to our preconceptions, prejudices and comfort zones is deeply unsettling and yet fundamentally uplifting.

In summary, almost every one with an opinion of his or her own will find something in Wright's thesis to disagree with, but most readers of whatever persuasion should find his work challenging and rewarding. This concise introduction to the larger project is engagingly written and full of fresh and striking insights that will stimulate both the heart and the brain. I would recommend it to anyone who seriously wants to get to the heart of what Jesus and his contemporaries will have understood by the "Kingdom of God".

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