Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

I loved this book. He talked about how Jesus would have been viewed as a prophet by his contemporaries. I felt like I was reading Jesus's sayings and parables for the first time and getting to know him without the veil of churchiness. The air of mystery Jesus surrounded himself with clearly came through.

Jesus persists in veiling himself in indirect references and metaphors... It is almost as though Jesus were intent on making a riddle of himself.

In Wright's view, Jesus came to announce judgment on the Temple and Jerusalem, and this is how many of the "coming of the son of man" parables and sayings are to be interpreted. Wright made a convincing argument that these passages can not be seen as referring to the end of the space-time universe itself. Instead, like the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus invested military conquest with its "earthshaking" theological meaning via metaphors like the sun and moon being darkened.

Jesus approaches Jerusalem in a quasi-royal manner.. as the crowd descends the Mount of Olives, he bursts into tears and solemnly announces judgment on the city for failing to recognize "its time of visitation". YHWH is visiting his people, and they do not realize it; they are therefore in imminent danger of judgment, which will take the form of military conquest and devastation. This is not a denial of the imminence of the kingdom. It is a warning about what that imminent kingdom will entail. The parable functions, like so many, as a devastating redefinition of the kingdom of god. Yes, the kingdom does mean the return of YHWH to Zion. Yes, this kingdom is even now about to appear. But no, this will not be a cause of celebration for nationalist Israel.

Jesus therefore staked his prophetic name on his prediction that the Temple would be destroyed within a generation. And indeed it was.

He spent the last part of the book on what Jesus thought about himself being the Messiah and even the Son of God. Wright focused (rightly I think) on Jesus's symbolic actions more than on specific proof-text snippets. Anyway, some of it was pretty speculative but it could be true.

Jesus did not, in other words, "know that he was God" in the same way that one knows one is male or female, hungry or thirsty, or that one ate an orange an hour ago. His "knowledge" was of a more risky, but perhaps more significant, sort: like knowing one is loved. One cannot "prove" it except by living by it.

The next book in the series is The Resurrection of the Son of God, which I've already read. I believe he's releasing another book about Paul soon.

The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright

This is the first book in N.T. Wright's fantastic series "Christian Origins and the Question of God." In this volume, he covered his theory of how history works ("critical realism"). He argued that the Bible should be read as stories within a larger story rather than as a collection of timeless and abstract truths. This is just the way the people work. For example, rather than talking about a theoretical definition of patriotism, the real thing modern Americans might do is tell stories about how the country came together during World War II, etc., Finally, he covered the nature of first century Judaism and gave an overview of how Jesus and the early church fit into that landscape.

The Enlightenment has challenged Chistianity's historicity, and Chistianity hasn't always responded very well. He wants Christianity to embrace the Enlightenment instead of fearing it.

Christianity has often been too unshakeably arrogant in resisting new questions, let alone new answers, in its stubborn defence of... what? Christians have often imagined that they were defending Christianity when resisting the Enlightenment's attacks; but it is equally plausible to suggest that what would-be orthodox Christianity was defending was often the pre-Enlightenment worldview, which was itself no more specifically "Christian" than any other.

I liked the way he viewed the Bible's authority.

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act has been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a remarkable wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to trained, sensitive and experienced actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted "authority" for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that some character was now behaving inconsistently, or that some sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This "authority" of the first four acts would not consist -- could not consist! -- in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier parts of the play over and over again."

How all this relates to the question of God:

The Stoics might be right: there is one god, since the whole world is divine, and we humans are part of it. The Epicureans, and their modern successors the Deists, might be right: there is a god, or possibly more than one, whome none of us knows very well and all of us distantly acknowledge, with ignorance and distortion. The pagans might be right: there are different "divine" forces in the world, which need to be propitiated when angry, and harnessed one's own advantage when not. The Gnostics might be right: there is a good, hidden god who will reveal himself to some of us, thereby rescuing us from this wicked world of matter and flesh, which are the creation of an evil god. Or the modern atheists or materialists might be right. There is no neutral ground here. We are at the level of worldview, and here ultimate choices are involved. The claim of first-century Judaism, and of subsequent Judaism, is that the creator of the world has revealed himself in Torah in ways which simply do not allow for the claims of Stoicism, Epicureanism, paganism, Gnosticism and the rest -- or for those of Christianity. The claim of Christianity from its earliest days, and subsequently, is that the creator of the world, the god of Abraham, has revealed himself through Jesus, and through his own spirit, in ways which disallow the various pagan claims - and also those of a Judaism that rejects Jesus. This conclusion is of course unpalatable in a world (our own) that has been dominated by neo-Epicureanism with its distant, unknowable divinities.