Monday, January 28, 2013

Simply Jesus, by N.T. Wright

Chapter 4 - The Making of a First-Century Storm

Continuing his metaphor of the perfect storm, Wright directs us exclusively to the first century.  He begins this discussion with the Roman storm.  Rome's line of rulers included Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Octavian...who assumed the title of "Augustus."  Following him, Tiberius took the same titles.

1.  What did these three gentleman (oops...wrong word) have in common?
2.  What were their individual and collective goals?
3.  Why did Rome need the Middle East?
4.  Why did they fail so miserably?

On now to the Jewish storm...the second great element in Jesus' perfect storm.  The Jews of Jesus' day believed they were living within a actors in a play whose script they already know.  And so for them, history itself was "progressive."  This was contrary to Roman thinking altogether.  "Thus, whereas the Romans had what we might call a 'retrospective eschatology,' in which people looked back from a 'golden age' that had already arrived and saw the whole story of how they had arrived at that point, the Jews cherished and celebrated a 'prospective eschatology,' looking forward from within a decidedly ungolden age and longing and praying fervently for the freedom, justice, and peace that, they were convinced, were theirs by right.  God would do last!"  This is what their stories conveyed with deep passion and hope.

5.  As you reflect upon your own biblical training, what do you recall about the passions and hope of ancient Israel?  What, besides the stories themselves, do you remember about these people?
6. In what ways do these stories mimic or share in the passion and hope of our stories today?
7.  As Wright lifts up the importance of "creation & covenant" for the Jews, how these same words serve to describe our sacrament of baptism?

Wright give us the chant, "Hitler and the Messiah!" to illustrate the two themes of the great evil empire and the coming royal deliverer.  "Down with the one!  Bring on the other!"  First Egypt, then Babylon...Israel was captive to both.  Upon their return home, thanks to Persia's overthrow of Babylon, Israel has little time, relatively speaking, to establish itself and gain stability.  Then comes Rome...and the perfect storm ensues with a vengeance!

8.  What do you imagine life to have been like for these ancient Jews?
9.  Aside from the larger theme of dominance by foreign governments, what would their day-to-day  and week-to-week existence consisted of?
10. Where on this earth do such struggles continue today?  Why do they perpetuate still?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Simply Jesus

Chapter 3 - The Perfect Storm

1.  Ever the master of focused analogies, Wright introduces this chapter by giving us the analogy of "The Perfect Storm."  What do you remember of this actual event from October of 1991?  Did you see the movie?

2.  He continues, "Those of us who study and write about Jesus find ourselves at the mercy of our own perfect storm."  He then goes on to illustrate the various "winds and cyclones" produced by the very mention of Jesus.  Taking Wright's lead, how would you characterize this "tropical storm" we presently experience around us?

3.  Next, Wright discusses "The Distortions of Skepticism and Conservatism."  Quite accurately, he summarizes our common dilemma: we oversimplify complex problems.  Bingo!  "Jesus, as always, gets caught in the middle - along with a good number of his followers."  As you reflect on your own history, what kind of exposure or involvement have you had with either or both camps?  How does this convenient rush to "oversimplification" serve to widen our gulf of understanding and squash our desire to seek common ground?

4.  In "Two Jesus Myths," Wright describes the true nature of these two camps:  the first myth, the high-pressure system of conservative Christianity...and second, the skeptical new classic modernist myth.  By "myths," Wright means "a story that purports to be in some sense 'historical' and that encapsulates and reinforces the strongly hold beliefs of the community that tells it."  He goes on, "The underlying problem with both these myths is that they pose the question in the wrong place."  Where do you see these two "myths" at odds with each other in our context?

5.  The third element of this perfect storm is "the sheer historical complexity of speaking about Jesus."  Wright aptly draws another excellent analogy with the life and death of John F. Kennedy.  Here's the catch:  "If we don't make the effort to do this reconstruction, we will, without a shadow of doubt, assume that what Jesus did and said makes the sense it might have made in some other context - perhaps our own." He continues, "If, trying to make things simple, we fail to recognize this multilayered complexity, we will simply repeat the age-old mistake of imagining Jesus in our own image or at least placing him, by implication, in our own culture."  Bingo again!  

So...what are the major barriers today to doing real history and discarding perpetual ignorance and bias?  How do we meet this challenge together?  (Don't you just love easy questions?!)

6.  Wright concludes, "What that we need to understand how world views work."  Ah, but that requires some real work on our part...perhaps even a subsequent change of view and values.  Risky and time-consuming stuff, indeed!  "So how can we go about the task of trying to understand Jesus himself?"  Wright replies to his own question: "There comes a time when it may be appropriate to stand back, having heard it all, and to have another shot at saying, 'Actually, I think this was what was going on.'  This, I think, is one of those times."  This includes "getting our minds and imaginations into Jesus' own day by examining another 'perfect storm,' the one into which Jesus himself was walking."

Where is Jesus leading you to further deepen your understanding and appreciation of his life, his mission, and his invitation to believe and follow?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Simply N.T. Wright

Chapter 2 – The Three Puzzles

N.T. Wright states right from the get-go that “Jesus is unavoidable.”  Where, outside of your own church activity, have you seen Jesus lifted up in our culture and the world?  How does this very public (both religious and secular) depiction of Jesus differ from your understanding and worship of Jesus?

Wright also notes that Jesus is deeply mysterious:  “Jesus puzzled people then, and he puzzles us still.”  Three reasons are given…

First, Jesus’ world is a strange, foreign country.   Most of us in the West find the people and customs of the Middle East to differ significantly from our way of life.  Pushing those differences back to biblical times creates for us even greater confusion. 

Where do you struggle the most to comprehend the life, language, and goals of Middle Eastern culture…both now and then?

Second, Jesus’ God is strange to us.  Wright says, “It isn’t enough to ask whether someone believes or does not believe ‘in God.’  The key question is which God we’re talking about.”  (I recently came across a T-shirt that read, “May the God of your choice bless you!”)  In Jesus’ case, his depictions of God were not only different, but completely new.

How do you react to your pastors (who you love and trust implicitly) when their preaching or teaching presents some aspect of God or Jesus in a new way to you?  (Eschatology quickly comes to mind here!)  What process allows you to integrate learning and expanded understanding into your thinking and believing?

Third, Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge.  In other words, Jesus wasn’t afraid to lead…despite the violent reactions and outcome.  Remarkably, Jesus’ death did not diminish his effect on the world…it only became stronger.  Jesus had now launched “the transformative new project this God had planned all along.  And his followers really believed it had happened.” 

Such talk of someone new being in charge has always been dangerous…remember Al Haig?  While our culture seeks to keep politics and religion separated, this wasn’t the case for Jesus and his culture.  If Jesus presided over both worlds then, how does he seek to lead us in all aspects of life now?  What are the barriers we erect to subjugate this?  What can we do to be a part of the ongoing transformation of the world Jesus seeks today?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Simply Jesus

Chapter 1 - A Very Odd Sort of King

1.  Describe what your life was like at the time "Jesus Christ Superstar" came out.  Did you see it?  If so, how did it affect you and others?  What the public reaction where you lived?

2.  Wright describes his early confrontation with the gospels' accounts of Jesus as he prepared to preach and teach.  He asked himself, "Did he really say that?  Did he really do that?  What did it mean?"  What types of questions, similar of different, emerge for you as you read and hear the gospels of Jesus?

3.  "Jesus - the Jesus we might discover if we really looked! - is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we - than the church! - had ever imagined!"  How did you and we arrive at our various expectations of this king Jesus?  How are they under-realized and under-utilized at Christians?

4.  Then, as now, Jesus comes into our lives with an agenda that surprises, shocks, and disappoints many...even us!  We want much from this king...but seldom pause to examine our deeper motives and goals.  Should we be surprised that this king has a different agenda than ours?  How, then, do we best learn, understand, embrace, and live out this agenda?

5.  Finally, what are the two or three major questions of Jesus' life you bring to this group examination?  How important is it for you to frame the proper questions (often complex and ongoing) rather than seek quick answers (often simple and unsatisfying)?  What type of balance do you seek?