Reading Journal

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

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.


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