Monday, September 26, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Three

1. Wright asks congregations to identify the purpose of the four gospels.  What are they all about?  This chapter isolates six traditional church answers.  “The first inadequate answer is that Jesus came to teach people how to go to heaven.”  “The ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth. When Matthew has Jesus talking about heaven’s kingdom, he means that heaven— in other words, the God of heaven— is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, but on earth as well.”  This summary is fully explained in Wright’s previous book, Surprised by Hope.

- How does this common misreading of the gospels misconstrue Jesus’ life and message?  Why is this so difficult to reconcile in our culture?

2. “A second popular approach to the material ‘in the middle’ of the gospels is to understand it in terms of Jesus’s teaching, particularly about what we call ‘ethics,’ or how to behave.”  “Jesus was announcing that a whole new world was being born and he was ‘teaching’ people how to live within that whole new world. To that extent, we should both embrace the idea of him as a ‘teacher’ and radically qualify or modify it. You only understand the point of the ‘teaching’ when you understand the larger picture of what Jesus was doing.”  “In the gospels, Jesus is undoubtedly a great moral teacher and exemplar. But he is much, much more. And it is that ‘much more’ that the church has found so hard to grasp and express.”

- In your view, how does Jesus both fulfill and transcend the role of teacher?  What does it mean for Jesus to be more than just a teacher?

3. “A third standard line people sometimes advance when wondering why the gospels tell their readers about what Jesus did in his public career is to suggest that he was offering an example of how to live.”  “Again and again in the gospels we find that Jesus is not, in fact, holding himself up as an example to follow or copy.”  “But it is held within a framework where Jesus is not simply ‘an example to copy,’ but the one who is doing something new that will change the way things are for everybody else. Where he is going, he tells them, they cannot come. He is to be arrested, but they must escape. His task is unique. It cannot be reduced to that of the great man showing his followers how it’s done.”

- Where is our religious culture guilty of this?  Why is it so popular?

4. “A fourth inadequate answer has tried to tie the first and the third together. The aim is still to get us to heaven, but Jesus is not just the moral exemplar— his perfect life means that he can be the perfect sacrifice. Since it is his sacrificial death that enables our sins to be forgiven, and since in the Old Testament the sacrifice must be pure and without blemish, it was necessary that Jesus’s life should be sinless, so that his sacrifice would be valid, acceptable to God. Many Christians have tried to ‘explain’ the ‘middle bits’ of the gospels in this kind of way.”  “The idea of Jesus as the sinless sacrifice is clearly present in early Christianity. But do the gospels make this link?”

- Why does Wright struggle to accept this premise?

5. “A fifth inadequate answer takes quite a different tack. ‘The gospels are written,’ people have said to me, ‘so we can identify with the characters in the story and find our own way by seeing what happened to them.’ Well, there is once again quite a lot in that. Getting inside the stories in the gospels is indeed an excellent way of coming to understand Jesus better and allowing the power of his life to transform our own. But this is scarcely a sufficient explanation for why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the books they did.”  “The question we have to face about the gospels is the question of where they are coming from and where they are going, not simply the various things we can use them for along the way.”

- What are the limitations and risks of such self-application?

6. “The sixth standard line has been to say that the gospels were written to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus. This, I suspect, is what many Christians regard as the gospels’ principal purpose. Some would add too the equal purpose of demonstrating his humanity.”  “Sometimes people will say, making a more personal or pastoral point, that the gospels, in telling the story of Jesus, show us who God really is. That’s a bit more like it. That, in fact, is precisely what John says at the end of his prologue: nobody has ever seen God, but the only son, who is intimately close to the Father, has brought him to light. Look at Jesus, and you’ll see the human face of God. But even that doesn’t get us far enough, because John at once goes on, as do all four gospels, to tell us what this embodied God is now up to. It isn’t enough to know that Jesus is in some sense “divine.”

- Wright asks: Which God are we talking about, what is he now doing, and why? What does it mean?”  Why are these question so critical?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How God Became King, by N. T. Wright

Chapter Two

1. The idea that Jesus came to teach a new, simple, clear ethic of being nice to people, without any “dogmatic” claims or “supernatural” elements, is so deeply embedded in Western culture that one sometimes despairs, like a gardener faced with ground ivy, of ever uprooting it. To this day there seems a ready market right across the Western world for books that say that Jesus was just a good Jewish boy who would have been horrified to see a “church” set up in his name, who didn’t think of himself as “God” or even the “Son of God,” and who had no intention of dying for anyone’s sins— the church has gotten it all wrong. The authors of such books routinely proclaim themselves “neutral,” “unbiased,” “impartial,” or “independent.” As if.
- Describe some of current Western depictions of “Jesus.”

2. Faced with these challenges, would-be “orthodox” Christian scholars and teachers have had one of two reactions. First, many— including the present writer— have accepted the historical challenge and sought to answer it. When we really study all the evidence for all it’s worth, it is possible to offer a historically rooted picture of Jesus that is much fuller and more positive than the one classic liberal reductionism has constructed. Engaging in this work does not mean, as some have supposed, that one must first accept the reductionist worldview of the Enlightenment. Plenty of people were doing history before the eighteenth century; the word “history” does not simply mean “what a good eighteenth-century skeptic would allow.” In the second reaction, many devout Christians, including many learned scholars and theologians, have held aloof from the “quest” and from any imperative toward actual historical inquiry concerning Jesus. Surely, they say, we simply have to go with what our great tradition has handed down to us, rather than play around with historical reconstructions offered by skeptics; we mustn’t try to go behind our God-given gospels and invent something different of our own. I still believe that the first of these positions is justifiable, though it is no part of the present book to argue the case for it. My problem with the second position is that it takes us back once again to the problem of creed and canon, or indeed “gospel” and “gospels.”
- Wright asks, “How can we escape this trap?”

3. The Achilles heel of the “social gospel” movement, however, was that many of its enthusiasts were, like the critical scholars of the time, focusing on the center rather than the edges, and so misreading the center itself. In trying to have a Jesus who cared for the poor without needing to be the incarnate son of God or to die for the sins of the world and be raised bodily thereafter, they falsified (so we could argue) even the bits they were highlighting. The problem with all this, however, is not merely at the level of theory (“How come you’ve taken some bits of the gospel story, but left out other bits?”). The problem is that, a century after the “social gospel” was at its high-water mark, the world, including the Western world, still seems to be a place of great wickedness. Greed and corruption, oppression of the poor, violence and degradation, war and genocide continue unchecked. It isn’t only the Jesus of popular imagination, then, who expected something dramatic to happen and was disappointed. The “social gospel” may have helped to clean up some slums, to reduce working hours for women and children in factories, and so on. Wonderful. But homelessness and virtual slave labor are still realities in the modern Western world, never mind elsewhere. Has anything really changed?
- Wright inquires, “Faced with this puzzle, it is fair to ask: What difference might it make if the ‘middle’ of the gospels was integrated with the ‘outer’ bits? What would it be like if the cloak was no longer empty?”

4. One might even state it as an axiom: when the church leaves out bits of its core teaching, heretics will pick them up, turn them into something new, and use them to spread doubt and unbelief. But the proper reaction to this, whether it’s in the second century or the twenty-first, ought never to be simply to dismiss the heretical teaching outright and continue as before. The proper reaction is to look carefully to see which flank has been left unguarded, which bit of core teaching has been left out, where the canonical balance has not been maintained. Only then might one set about reincorporating that within a fresh statement of full-blown Christian faith.
- Where do you witness the church leaving out bits of its core teaching?

5. My case throughout this book, then, is that all four canonical gospels suppose themselves to be telling the story that Paul, in some of his most central and characteristic passages, tells as well: that the story of Jesus is the story of how Israel’s God became king. This is how, in the events concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the God of Israel has become king of the whole world. This is the forgotten story of the gospels. We have not even noticed that this was what they were trying to tell us. As a result, we have all misread them.
- Why does Wright feel we have all misread the four gospels?
- How might we address this?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How God Became King, by N. T. Wright

Chapter One

1.  Wright introduces his book with a recollection of a project from his days in high school involving a small Christian studies group.  “I was assigned the task of preparing and leading the second of these: Why did Jesus live?”  “I had stumbled, without realizing it, on a weak spot in the general structure of Christian faith as it has come to be expressed in today’s world— and, I suspect, for a lot longer than we might imagine. Here is all this material in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Why? What are we supposed to make of it all?”

- At what point in your early Christian development did it occur to you that faith was more than just the acquiring and reciting of certain beliefs and traditions? 
- What were some of your earliest questions/concerns, and what formative role did they play in your discipleship journey?

2. Wright continues his “Puzzle of a Lifetime” narrative with flashbacks to a Bible exposition to the student Christian Union at Cambridge in 1978, “The Gospel in the Gospels,” which he struggles to recall in much detail.  “The puzzle of Jesus’s lifetime - what was his life all about? - has crept up on me and become the puzzle of mine.”

“We use the gospels. We read them aloud in worship. We often preach from them. But have we even begun to hear what they are saying, the whole message, which is so much greater than the sum of the small parts with which we are, on one level, so familiar? I don’t think so. This is the lifetime puzzle. It isn’t just that we’ve all misread the gospels, though I think that’s broadly true. It is more that we haven’t really read them at all. We have fitted them into the framework of ideas and beliefs that we have acquired from other sources. I want in this book to allow them, as far as I can, to speak for themselves. Not everyone will like the result.”

- In your own words, how do you understand Wright’s concern?
- What is missing in our reading (or our not reading) of the gospels?

3. “My problem…is that the canonical gospels and the creeds are not in fact presenting the same picture.  The great creeds, when they refer to Jesus, pass directly from his virgin birth to his suffering and death. The four gospels don’t. Or, to put it the other way around, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all seem to think it’s hugely important that they tell us a great deal about what Jesus did between the time of his birth and the time of his death. In particular, they tell us about what we might call his kingdom-inaugurating work: the deeds and words that declared that God’s kingdom was coming then and there, in some sense or other, on earth as in heaven. They tell us a great deal about that; but the great creeds don’t.”

- How do you understand the origins and roles (then and now) of our Christian creeds?

4. “To this day, whenever people take it upon themselves to explore the divinity of Jesus, there is at the very least a tendency for the theme of God’s kingdom, coming on earth as in heaven, to be quietly lost from view.”  “The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God. It would be truly remarkable if one great truth of early Christian faith and life were actually to displace another, to displace it indeed so thoroughly that people forgot it even existed. But that’s what I think has happened. This book is written in the hope of correcting that distortion.”

- As Lutherans, how does the structure and implementation of our Sunday worship seek to address this potential distortion?

5. “Bultmann therefore read the gospels not as the story of why Jesus lived, not in order to find “the gospel in the gospels” in the way I have described, but in order to observe the early Christians expressing their faith by telling and retelling stories that appear to us to be “Jesus stories,” but that were, for the most part, “mythological” expressions of early Christian experience projected back onto the fictive screen of the history of Jesus. Bultmann’s whole project of form criticism, at least in the way he practiced it, was predicated on the assumption that if you could discover the “forms,” the characteristic shapes of the small anecdotes that make up much of the gospel material, you could thereby observe, as through a lens, the early church expressing its own faith. That, it was believed, was why the early gospel traditions were passed on: not to remember or celebrate something that had happened in the past (i.e., in Jesus’s public career), but to celebrate and sustain the continuing life of faith of the early community.”

- How, then, do the weekly Sunday reading and preaching of these gospels speak to and sustain our present faith community?