Saturday, June 7, 2008

Review of Surprised by Hope

Wright’s newest title and growing theme in his writing and teaching of late is an attempt to connect the elusive dots between Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the end of the age, and their implications for the individual, the church, and the cosmos in the present. He outlines his framework primarily as a critique against mainstream, post-Enlightenment, Western Christianity which views salvation as “‘my relationship with God’ in the present and about ‘going home to God and finding peace’ in the future’” (196). This gross misunderstanding, according to Wright, is committed generally to life after death without working out the specifics (6), begets an escapist piety without quarrels with the injustice in our day (27, 66), skews proper exegesis (199), smacks of Gnosticism in which “the created world is at best irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place” (90), and places personal eternal security at the center of everything and “the hope of creation as mere embroidery around the edges” (80).

Emphatically distancing himself from evolutionary optimism (things will get better and better as we build heaven on earth) or transitional souls (things will get worse and worse until we finally abandon this wicked earth), Wright seeks to answer “the major, central, framing question” of both Testaments: “God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos” (184). The bodily, in our space-time continuum, resurrection of Jesus “is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven” (234). By rising bodily (not spiritually) from the dead, death has been defeated (not redefined), and we have witnessed the inception of the inevitable trajectory of God’s good earth (our present space) meeting God’s perfect heaven (God’s present space) as depicted in Revelation. Believers are signposts here and now of the goodness of creation and its eventual renewal by championing the Lord’s present dominion over all the earth – spiritually, socially, politically, economically – and anticipating when we are resurrected bodily and creation is “set free from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21). “We do not ‘build the kingdom’ all by ourselves but we do build for the kingdom…what is done in the present in the body, by the power of the Spirit, will be reaffirmed in the eventual future, in ways at which we can presently only guess” (143, 156).

As always there are so many things Wright does exceptionally well. His opening chapters prove that he remains a premier apologist and one of few theologians with refreshing, exciting things to say about the resurrection and new creation. In a lot of ways, his critiques are penetrating and demand attention. Biblically, we cannot deny social action, political involvement, environmental concern, the integrity of secular work, or the stuff of life but neither can we support their weight under the present ambiguity about a temporary earth and eternal heaven. He has caught the evangelical hand in the cookie jar trying to retrieve treats of present relevance while balancing precariously on a rickety step-stool of escapism.

At the end of the day, despite talk of the middle way, we are still left out of focus when we approach the New Testament with Wright’s prescription. At the heart of the problem is his rendition of the gospel: “the gospel, in the New Testament, is the good news that God (the world’s creator) is at last becoming king and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world’s true lord” (227). Though this is absolutely true and cannot be said enough in our wishy washy private spiritualism, this narrow definition demands he shy away from (not deny) talk of the role of sin in individuals and Christ’s solution (which really fuels talk of his lordship), a deafening theme in the Scriptures. By emphasizing the former aspect of the gospel at the exclusion of the redemption of humanity is really the false dichotomy that looms large behind the social action versus evangelism debate. Both are about as helpful as giving priority to Jesus as Savior or to Jesus as Lord.

Not surprisingly, when you tease out the implications of a Jesus more Lord than Savior you end up with incredibly helpful insights and incredibly bizarre exegesis. To cite a few of the latter: 1 Corinthians 5:17’s warning that without Christ’s resurrection “you are still in your sins” becomes “not simply a private experience; it is a fact about the cosmos” (247). Similarly, he draws a curious analogy: “He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over creation. That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God” (202). That is Wright’s paradigm speaking, not the Scriptures and certainly not 1 Peter 2:9-12 which labels believers with all the titles of Israel and gives them the same marching orders, “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness…[that Gentiles] may see your good deeds and glorify God”. A final example is his esteem for the church’s mission for beauty. Because Christ is Lord over a good creation beauty joins the ranks of social justice and evangelism as the duties of every believer. Though we cannot deny its relevance, it is infused by Wright a priority the New Testament simply does not give it.


Paul-David Young said...

Great review David. I should have just read this for Sunday school yesterday. How much of his shying away from personal sins and the need for repentance be a deliberate attempt to counter-balance the spiritual climate of evangelicalism, and how much do you think he is trying to soften the hard words of the gospel?

Jon Furst said...

Excellent thoughts that I will have to chew on some more. I appreciate what you say about Wright's false dichotomy. This is where the neo-Calvinists lost it as well, in that they conceived of a creation that was redeemed before men. Isn't it the order of the gospel that men are redeemed before their environment?

david said...

I do think that much of what Wright says which drives evangelicals up the wall is in my opinion a healthy, welcome counter-balance and not at all a softening of the gospel. But when you begin to use phrases like "the heart of the gospel" and "the framing question of the New Testament" and fail to mention forgiveness of sins and eternal life you are no longer counter-balancing but misreading.

Its interesting, I reread Acts in light of this book and was surprised again particularly by Peter's adamant claim that Jesus literally died, literally rose, and that this resurrection means forgiveness is now available for sins as well as a freedom not found under the Law. The resurrection certainly meant others things to the church which instantly put caring for the poor at the fore of their concerns, but it could not mean less.