Monday, November 14, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Eight

1. Near the heart of my purpose in this book is to suggest that not only have we misread the gospels, but that we have made them ordinary, have cut them down to size, have allowed them only to speak about the few concerns that happened to occupy our minds already, rather than setting them free to generate an entire world of meaning in all directions, a new world in which we would discover not only new life, but new vocation.

- What factors contribute to our “making the gospels ordinary?”

2. We have lived for many years now with “kingdom Christians” and “cross Christians” in opposite corners of the room, anxious that those on the other side are missing the point, the one group with its social-gospel agenda and the other with its saving-souls-for-heaven agenda. The four gospels bring these two viewpoints together into a unity that is much greater than the sum of their parts, and that is mostly what Part III is about. In fact, what we call “politics” and what we call “religion” (and for that matter what we call “culture,” “philosophy,” “theology,” and lots of other things besides) were not experienced or thought of in the first century as separable entities. This was just as true, actually, for the Greeks and the Romans as it was for the Jews.

- Looking back at Wright’s historical explanation, how did the Enlightenment contribute to the formation of kingdom/cross Christians?

3. So what has been the Christian reaction to all this? How have those who habitually read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John responded to the challenge of modernity? In very mixed fashion.

- Review and discuss Wright’s appraisal of the churches’ four reactions.

4. So, to sum up this very long but necessary introduction. Judaism always assumed that the creator God wanted the world to be ordered and ruled by his image-bearing humans. The world, heaven and earth, was created as God’s temple, and his image-bearers were the key elements in that temple. But the world was out of joint through the failure of humans in general and Israel in particular, so God the creator would have to act in judgment and justice to hold them to account. And the sign of that coming judgment was that at the heart of the world God had placed his covenant people, gathered around the Temple, which was the microcosm of creation, to celebrate his true order and to pray for it to come on earth as in heaven.

- How does this context provide a fuller comprehension of the purpose of the four gospels?  What do we have in common with this context?

5. And it was, of course, to those first-century Jews that the evangelists saw Jesus coming with his message of God’s kingdom. As we turn now,
none too soon, to consider the themes of kingdom and cross, we note that for all the evangelists, as for Paul, there is no sense of the kingdom not after all having appeared. Yes, it has been redefined. Yes, there is still more to do, as long as evil continues to stalk the earth. But the early Christians all believed that with Jesus’s death and resurrection the kingdom had indeed come in power, even if it didn’t look at all like they imagined it would. The hope had been realized, even though it had been quite drastically redefined in the process. A new theocracy had indeed been inaugurated, because the Temple where God lived among his people had been radically redefined. A new empire had been launched that would trump Caesar’s empire and all those like it, not by superior force but by a completely different sort of power altogether. And the place where this vision is set out is, to the great surprise of many who at one level know these documents well, the collection of the four gospels we find in the New Testament.

-  How does this portrayal of the arrival of God’s kingdom in the four gospels give you hope in the midst of contemporary chaos and upheaval?

- Where do you encounter that kingdom and how does it sustain you?

Monday, November 7, 2016

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright

Chapter Seven

1. Come back, for more detail, to the first of our four speakers. The entire story of Israel, on one level at least, is the story of how Israel’s God is taking on the arrogant tyrants of the world, overthrowing their power, and rescuing his people from under its cruel weight. Think back quickly through the great stories. (These include the stories of Babel in Genesis; of Pharaoh in Exodus; of Isaiah and Daniel; Psalms 2 & 89.)

- Specifically, what do ancient & contemporary tyrants have in common?

2. But the hope persists, and psalm after psalm brings it to expression. The gods of the nations are but idols, but Israel’s God made the heavens. God reigns over the nations, God sits on his holy seat; the princes of the people gather as the people of the God of Abraham, who has subdued peoples and nations. God has established his city, and the powers of wicked pagans will not prevail against it. Again and again it comes, shaping the hearts and imaginations of God’s people even in the many centuries when these songs of praise and triumph bore no relation to the sociopolitical reality in which they were living. This is the world in which we are to hear what the gospels are trying to tell us about the story of Jesus seen as the focal point of the story of God and Caesar.

- What do these biblical stories have in common with our life stories?

3. This points forward to the larger power, Rome itself, which will close in at the end, only to be symbolically overthrown as the Roman guards at the tomb fail to prevent Jesus’s resurrection. Luke has Herod in Jerusalem at this time as well, in league at last with Pontius Pilate (23: 1– 12). The sense is the same: the powers of the world are waiting there, in the wings, mostly offstage, but ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. If this really is the story of God’s kingdom arriving on earth as in heaven, sooner or later there will be a confrontation. Again, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political psychology to know what the world’s powers will do to those who act and speak to bring about God’s kingdom. As well as all the other elements in the gospel story, we must recognize this for what it is, a telling of the story of Jesus as the clash between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world.

- Where do you witness this clash of kingdoms today?

4. If this story of Jesus is the story of Israel reaching its climax, it is inescapably political and will raise questions the Western world has chosen not to raise, let alone face, throughout the period of so-called critical scholarship. The post-Enlightenment world was born out of a movement that split church and state apart and has arranged even its would-be historical scholarship accordingly; and that same Enlightenment insisted that Judaism was the wrong kind of religion, far too gross, too material. Rejection, from the start, of a “political” reading of the gospels and of a “Jewish” reading went together. Fortunately, genuine history— the actual study of the actual sources— can sometimes strike back and insist that what a previous generation turned off this generation can at last turn back on. It is time, and long past time, to reread the gospels as what we can only call political theology— not because they are not after all about God and spirituality and new birth and holiness and all the rest, but precisely because they are.

- How do you understand Wright’s explanation of “political theology?”

5. The point about truth, and about Jesus and his followers bearing witness to it, is that truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed. Empires can’t cope with this. They make their own “truth,” creating “facts on the ground” in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice.

-  Where is this tragically happening today? How are we responding?

6. The four gospel writers, each in his own way, tell the story of Jesus as the story of the new and ultimate exodus. What our present fourfold exercise has done is to draw out the various dimensions of that new exodus and to highlight their significance. The gospels all insist that it was Jesus’s own choice to make Passover the moment for his decisive action. This, they are saying, was his own chosen grid of interpretation. And all four gospels together, once we have learned to listen to their four dimensions, bequeath to Jesus’s followers the task of being the people in and through whom the achievement of Jesus is implemented in the world. That is why the story told by the gospels is not only incomplete without two millennia of backdrop (the story of ancient Israel), which they assume we will know and which we in our generation often have to supply with considerable pedagogic effort. The story is also incomplete because it points forward to a future yet to come.

- How has this chapter further shaped your understanding of the role of the four gospels?