Saturday, February 16, 2008
Reflections on "Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church"
N. T. Wright has proved to be not only one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the present generation but also a committed and passionate churchman. Few have had the impact on contemporary scholarship that Wright has had. One of the most articulate presenters of what has been dubbed the "New Perspective" on Paul, he is also probably the greatest authority on the "historical Jesus." There are few if any equals to Wright when it comes to mastery of the Jewish world of Jesus and insisting (rigorously so) that Jesus and Paul be understood in that first century context. Through such tomes as The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and the Resurrection of the Son of God Wright has basically set the agenda for contemporary NT scholarship. You either argue with Wright or against Wright but there is little middle ground.
Repeatedly though Wright has left the "academic" ring to join with Christians in articulating what that ancient faith means for the contemporary world and life. Here Wright is sometimes apologist (as in his exchanges with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and Judas and the Gospel of Jesus) and sometimes pastoral theologian. In this latter capacity Wright publishes sermons and books.
In his newest book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne 2008), Wright combines the hat of NT scholar and pastoral theologian to address the issue of the substance of the Christian hope. As Wright has argued in his academic books there is a constant connection between creation, covenant and eschatology throughout the Story of God in Scripture. In this work Wright gives the fullest exposition of any of his writings on what that looks like. He says he sets out to answer two questions of paramount importance:
1) What are we waiting for?
2) What are we going to do about it in the mean time?
Wright begins by examining contemporary beliefs about the afterlife both in the secular world and among the churches. He subjects the common equation of "resurrection" with the vague idea of "life after death" to severe criticism ... refreshingly and biblically so.
Wright then examines, from a historical perspective, what it was that early Christians believed about "hope." The look at the setting in Judaism and the contrasts with Paganism is well done. One of the questions that keep coming to mind as this section is ruminated upon is "Which of these looks more like what is commonly held by Christians today?" The answer is often disturbing!
Through a series of chapters Wright shows how Jesus himself is the embodiment of God's new creation. That new creation is wedded to the old through the incarnation itself ... and the bodily resurrection of the Son of Man. The doctrine of resurrection of believers both in the NT and in the early Fathers is directly tied to what happened to Jesus. Jesus is the New Adam and just as the fallen world is tied to the old Adam so we are connected to the New. Our bodies, like that of Jesus, are to be redeemed ... ahh ... What HOPE.
Wright so far, in my view, is not only convincing but expresses biblical faith wonderfully. But that only answers question one. In Part 3 of the book he moves to how that teaching effects the life of the sojourning People of God both in Scripture and (perhaps) more importantly NOW. Just how does eschatology shape what Christians teach, and PRACTICE, concerning justice, beauty, evangelism and spirituality. These are not mere esoteric subjects in Wright but rooted concretely in the bitter (at times) grind of life. Eschatology is not simply a peripheral issue but of incredible importance because it does teach us how to live, though contemporary Christians often turn it only into an argument about the millennium (sadly and mistakenly). To quote Wright,
"From Plato to Hegel and beyond, some of the greatest philosophers declared that what you think about death, and life beyond it, is the key to thinking seriously about everything else--and, indeed, that it provides one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all. This is something a Christian theologian should heartily endorse."
I think Moses, Jesus, and Paul would say "amen" to that opinion.
I cannot recommend Surprised by Hope enough. For those who do not want to wrestle (or are intimidated) with the massive tome The Resurrection of the Son of God this book is a refreshingly engaging text (Surprised, btw, is not simply a condensed version of RSG). It is laden with insight into the biblical text and into bridging the hermeneutical gap between the ancient faith and its contemporary meaning. Wright has no masters and few peers in this area.
There will be some who will not read this book simply because it is not written by a "Church of Christ author" as the phrase goes. This is, sadly, a purely denominational and sectarian stance. Our restoration fathers and mothers in the faith challenged us from Alexander Campbell to J. W. McGarvey to Everett Ferguson to interact with the very best scholarship in the world. In that tradition I recommend Wright as a way of seeing the biblical message afresh and critiquing the incipient paganism and neo-Gnosticism running through contemporary piety.
And from the standpoint of my own personal journey at the moment I found this book to be refreshing and encouraging. I think you will too.