N.T. Wright gets back to basics

christianBishop N.T. Wright is arguably the most prolific biblical theologian of our time. Capable of treatises that challenge long-cherished interpretations of doctrines – such as his expansive Paul and the Faithfulness of God addressing justification- Wright’s versatility shows through in a different approach targeted both to the believer and to the intelligent seeker. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (Harper Collins, 2006; Amazon Kindle edition) is one such book.

Part One, “Echoes of a Voice,” invites the reader into a conversation. By examining injustice (and the human desire to correct it), the “hidden spring” of an undeniable thirst for spirituality in the human heart, relationships between persons and the role of beauty for meaningful existence, Wright examines longings common to all human beings, asking important questions for whom the only sensible answer is God.

Part Two launches into a review of who God is and how God has chosen to relate to creation. He briefly reviews (pp. 60-63)- and dismisses – traditional approaches to God, including what he calls “Option 1,” namely, pantheism (“all is God and God is all”), panentheism (“all is in God”), and “Option 2,” deism (where God creates then removes himself). In its place, he proposes Option 3, a scheme where heaven and earth are “overlapping and interlocking” (p. 63). The biblical narrative of both Old and New Testaments bears witness to this engagement between Creator and Creation, but why is such engagement necessary? Wright clarifies (p. 66):

In particular, this God appears to take very seriously the fact that his beloved creation has become corrupt, has rebelled and is suffering the consequences.

With this premise given, much of the rest of the book (including Part 3) falls into place as a solution to a problem. The Kingdom of God (chapter 7), Jesus as the one who rescues and renews (chapter 8) and New Creation (chapter 16) can be viewed in this light. Other themes include worship (chapter 11), prayer (chapter 12) and the nature of Scripture (chapter 13), to name a few. In each case, Wright keeps things simple, remaining faithful to his goal of helping those who are new to faith or considering following Jesus.

n-t-wright-206x300
Bishop N.T. Wright

A great strength of the book is its stories. Wright is quick to spin a tale, such as the powerful dictator who decided to control the unpredictability of springs and the floods they cause by paving them over. In their place, he introduced a complicated system of pipes from which water would flow. What happens when people realize that there is far better water to drink than the bland brew that comes out of rusty pipes? Religion taps the deep wells that authorities have forbidden and that many have forgotten, springs that – when tapped – can produce unexpected results. Wright (p. 20) concludes:

September 11, 2001, serves as a reminder of what happens when you try to organize a world on the assumption that religion and spirituality are merely private matters, and that what really matters is economics and politics instead. It wasn’t just concrete floors, it was massive towers, that were smashed to pieces that day, by people driven by ‘religious’ beliefs so powerful that the believers were ready to die for them. What should we say? That this merely shows how dangerous ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ really are? Or that we should have taken them into account all along?

Where Wright shines is his treatment of the meaning of resurrection. While he fleshes out his eschatology in greater detail in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper Collins, 2008), in Simply Christian (p. 114), he previews his later thoughts: “Resurrection isn’t a fancy way of saying ‘going to heaven when you die.’ It is not about ‘life after death’ as such. Rather, it’s a way of talking about being bodily alive again after a period of being bodily dead.” In any case, Wright places his accent in the same place as the New Testament, namely, on resurrection as the cornerstone of Christian faith and the basis of Christian hope.

(Read my review of Surprised by Hope by clicking here.)

Simply Christian isn’t flawless. A survey like Wright’s doesn’t have the space to delve too deeply into topics. One example is his description of King Saul’s reign as a “false start” (p. 77). There’s no acknowledgment that Saul’s reign has been estimated as having lasted between 10 and 40 years. By comparison, David ruled for 40 years (1 Kings 2:11) so Saul’s reign was a healthy duration by any measure.

This is the second book I’ve read by N.T. Wright. His writing are appealing in large part because they major on interpreting the biblical witness, avoiding a speculative, philosophical approach to theology. Though he doesn’t allude to John Wesley, one can’t help but think that Wesley would have been a fan of the former Bishop of Durham.

——-

Photo credit (N.T. Wright): Patheos.com

 

Advertisements

So many books, so little time

booksI’m in the final stages of correcting assignments for an online missions course that I monitored for Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Once that’s done, I’ll put up a review of the two Kindle version course text books, both of which were new to me:

Hunter, George G., III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…AGAIN. 10th anniversary edition, revised and expanded. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2000, 2010.

Pierson, Paul E. The Dynamics of Christian Mission: History Through a Missiological Perspective. Pasadena, CA: William Carey International Press, 2009.

Other e-books that I haven’t started, but that are beckoning to me from my iPad Kindle reader:

1) Allen, J. Bennett. The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case. Long Beach, CA: Allen & Allen Semiotics, 2010.

This reflects my budding interest in innocence projects, which came out of following the story of Ryan Ferguson, exonerated after being wrongly imprisoned for nearly 10 years in a Missouri penitentiary for a murder he did not commit. Ferguson’s grace under fire amazed me, and his tireless advocacy for the innocent post-release is inspiring.

2) Barrett, Matthew, and Caneday, Ardel, gen. eds. Four Views on the Historical Adam. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013.

-I’ve seen very little dedicated to this topic, so hope to expand my thinking about possibilities.

3) Burden, Suzzanne, Carla Sunberg, and Jamie Wright. Reclaiming Eve: The Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God. Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 2014.

-Carla Sunberg recently spoke at the Africa Nazarene Women’s Clergy conference, and referenced this new book. It’s designed for the average lay reader.

4) Carson, D.A.  Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008.

– I appreciate the original 5 points from H. Richard Niebuhr, and look forward to Carson’s take on it.

5) Fudge, Edward William. The Divine Rescue: The gripping drama of a lost world and of the Creator who will not let it go. Abilene, Texas: Leafwood Publishers, 2010.

– This Church of Christ biblical scholar is best known for his excellent work on hell and conditional immortality. You can read my short book on the same subject by clicking here. You may also be interested in my podcast interview with Christopher Date at the Rethinkinghell.com website, dedicated to evangelical conditionalism (aka annihilationism). Grab a cup of coffee…the interview is 90 minutes long.

6) Heurtz, Christopher L. Simple Spirituality: How to See God in a Broken World. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2008.

– Anything on Christian simplicity attracts my attention.

7) Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York: Dutton (Penguin), 2013.

-Rev. Brent L. White, a UMC pastor with a growing blog, highly recommends this book. Timothy Keller is pastor of the 5,000 member Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

8) McClung, Grant, ed. Azusa Street and BeyondC: Missional Commentary on the Global Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement. Revised edition. Alachua, Florida: Bridge-Logos, 2006.

– I’ve read little about Pentecostalism from an insider’s point-of-view. This was mentioned by Pierson, and should be enlightening.

9) Merrick, Britt, with Trowbridge, Allison.  Godspeed: Making Christ’s Mission Your Own. Ontario, Canada: David C. Cook, 2012.

– Honestly, I don’t remember who recommended this, but it looks like it would be a good book for an intro to missions course.

10) Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville, Dallas, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

– My friend and advocate for those living in poverty, James Copple, is a big Bonhoeffer fan. This one’s for you, Jim!

11) Noble, T.A.  Holy Trinity: Holy People (The Historic Doctrine of Christian Perfecting). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013.

– Dr Thomas Noble was the internal examiner for my PhD viva through the University of Manchester. He is considered one of the foremost Wesleyan theologians of our time, with an accent upon Christology.

12) Olson, Roger E. Questions To All Your Answers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007.Sanneh, Lamin. Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008.

– The more I read of Roger Olsen’s blog, the more I like how he thinks. Dr Matt Price of MVNU put me on to this book.

13) Snyder, Howard A., with Scandrett, Joel. Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace (Overcoming the Divorce between Earth and Heaven). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.

– Snyder is one of my John Wesley heroes. I’m about 10 pages in on this one, and liking how he frames ecology from a soteriological perspective. This (so far) reminds me of Michael Lodahl’s God of Nature and Of Grace.

14) Truesdale, Al, ed.  Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists. Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 2012.

– Truesdale has been a gatekeeper for me in my academic career, including inviting me to write several articles for the 2013 Global Dictionary of Wesleyan Theology. I’m anxious to see what he and others have to say about what Paul Bassett has called the “fundamentalist leavening of the holiness movement.”

15) Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Madison, Wisconsin: IVP Academic, 2010.

– I’m an unapologetic theistic evolutionist. My Presybterian pastor friend, Chris Wiley, had good things to say about Walton’s work.

16) Wright, N.T. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. SPCK, 2011.

– I’m about 1/2 way done with this. It’s not as revolutionary to my own thinking as Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, but it’s making some good points.

———

Photo credit: Readcwbooks.com

From “over there” to everywhere

It was a contest I just had to enter. Mrs. Vera McKim, our Upstate New York District missions president, announced the children’s essay topic: “The work of a missionary.” My 11-year-old imagination kicked into gear, as I thought of stories I’d heard about missionary heroes like lifelong missionary to Swaziland Fairy Chism, Scottish surgeon David Hynd, and pioneer missionary to Peru Esther Carson Winans.

At the top of my paper, I carefully wrote: “S.A. on missionaries by Greg Crofford.”

“A missionary,” I began, “is a person God calls to leave the United States and go to the mission field. They are gone for many years, and preach about God. Sometimes they start schools or hospitals. When the church is strong, they say goodbye and go somewhere else to begin all over again.”

That was 1974. Much has changed in the intervening 37 years. The NWMS (Nazarene World Missions Society) is now Nazarene Missions International, but much more than a name change has occurred. Let us consider three shifts in thinking and methodology applied in carrying out Christ’s Great Commission to go and His Great Commandment to love.

The mission field: From “over there” to everywhere

Missionary work by definition is cross-cultural. In Acts 1:8, Jesus called his disciples to begin spreading the news about new life in Christ in Jerusalem, continuing to all Judea, going on to Samaria and to the rest of the world.

As Jews, the disciples first preached to fellow Jews in their own city and country. Next, they went to the Samaritans, distant cousins with some key cultural and historical differences. Finally, the disciples became apostles (“sent ones”), evangelizing cities with peoples radically different from themselves.

Though the Roman Empire had laid a thin veneer of Hellenistic (Greek) culture all around the Mediterranean basin, this masked divergent and enduring local cultures. The Church sent out Paul, Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Luke and the other Jews to proclaim Christ crucified, risen and coming again in places drastically different than their homeland.

Ralph Winter

The founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission Ralph Winter (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: a Reader, 3rd edition, p. 341) has labeled these three gradations – from a shared culture between messenger and listener, to a somewhat different setting, to a radically different culture – as E-1, E-2 and E-3. The second and third levels usually involve learning the language of the host culture, and always include learning new customs and norms.

As a denomination born in the United States, the Church of the Nazarene began primarily with E-1 evangelism accomplished through revival services and camp meetings. Yet from the beginning, there was a concern for E-3 efforts.

The Church sent missionaries to far away places like Cape Verde, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Peru. The “mission field” in the popular imagination was “over there,” a place far from home where American Nazarenes – and sometimes Canadians and British – went to plant the church and spread the message of holiness.

But as the denomination matured around the world, the vision for cross-cultural ministry captured the imagination of Nazarenes globally. The “mission field” is now to everywhere, from everywhere. Missionary work happens everywhere E-2 and E-3 evangelism transpires. A Congolese pastor teaches theology at a Bible college in Malawi and learns the local language, Chechewa. He is engaging in E-3 cross-cultural ministry regardless of whether he bears the title “missionary.” Indeed, most missionary work on the African continent is carried out not by official Western missionaries but by Africans who cross cultural and linguistic barriers.

In the same way, the diaspora of South Korean Christians means the gospel can penetrate places off-limits to traditional missionaries from North America or Europe. Missionary endeavors are no longer unidirectional but multidirectional. In the words of Thomas Friedman, the “world is flat.”

Continue reading

‘Surprised by Hope,’ by N.T. Wright – Part 2

Take away resurrection, and you take away the central message of the New Testament. This is the conclusion of N.T. Wright, renowned New Testament scholar and author of Suprised by Hope : Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008).

Wright maintains that Scripture emphasizes not a disembodied existence after death, but the resurrection (or new creation) of our bodies at the return of Christ, a continuation of meaningful service in the Kingdom of God. This is not “life after death” but “life after life after death.” An interim period after death – a time marked by our conscious existence with Christ – will be crowned on “that great, getting’ up mornin’” with life eternal.

What makes N.T. Wright’s book challenging is that he’s not content to leave the resurrection as an abstract, future doctrine. He is determined to bring the future into the present. We say in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” – so what? How will this radical doctrine affect the way the Christian church operates in the here-and-now? Wright observes (p. 197):

As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality – what I have called life after life after death – then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.

Continue reading

‘Suprised by Hope,’ by N.T. Wright – Part 1

At Easter each year, we celebrate Christus Victor, the victory of our Lord over sin, death, and the devil. It’s the perfect season to reflect on the meaning of the resurrection, and N.T. Wright’s lucid Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Harper, 2008) helps us to do just that.

Why does it matter to say as we do in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body”? N.T. Wright tackles the question with gusto, putting the resurrection back on center stage where it belongs. This begs the question: And exactly what has been front and center? Wright argues that a form of Platonic dualism (even Gnosticism) dominates, where “salvation” has been narrowed to whether we’re ready to go to heaven. Lurking behind such thinking is a downgrading of the importance of our bodies. In this mistaken view, what is important is an immortal soul and whether it’s fit for an eternal dwelling in heaven. Such a position narrows our focus to the next world, undercutting our engagement in this one — more on that in Part 2 of this review.

N.T. Wright maintains that the New Testament does not teach that every human being has an immortal soul. Rather, 1 Cor. 15:53 is clear that what is mortal (our present body) must put on what is “immortal” (our resurrection body). At the same time, Wright affirms that there is consciousness that continues after our death. In an illustration borrowed from John Polkinghorne, he writes (p. 163):

“God will download our software into his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again.”

Continue reading