Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Challenge of Easter - N. T. Wright

Leap for joy

The Challenge of Easter
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 64

In Luke’s gospel we see the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus. Not long afterwards, Mary visited her relative Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with the child that would become John the Baptist. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, Scripture tells us that the baby leaped in her womb. Being suddenly filled with the Spirit, she exclaims, “Behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44 ESV). Someone might rightly wonder what this prelude to the Christmas story has to do with The Challenge of Easter by N. T. Wright?

Obviously, without the birth of Christ there would be no Easter story, but that is not my reason for reminding us of the joy surrounding two historic births. As I read this slim volume, and especially as I progressed into the practical applications of Christ’s resurrection, which Wright rightly sees as the beginning of God’s new order—along with the crucifixion, a pivotal event in history—my spirit like the baby in the womb was leaping for joy.

Why is it that reading N. T. Wright can make me leap for joy on the inside? Let me use his own words where he describes our work as Christians to provide somewhat of an answer: “Your task is to find the symbolic ways of doing things differently, planting flags in hostile soil, setting up signposts that say there is a different way to be human. And when people are puzzled at what you are doing, find ways—fresh ways—of telling the story of the return of the human race from its exile, and use those stories as your explanation.” In his books, Wright models this idea of expressing the truth in fresh ways. This, along with a winsome blend of wit, wisdom and his expansive views when I sometimes fail to see the big picture, is what I find so endearing about his writing.

In this book, it all starts with a look at the resurrection as a historical problem. Wright shows that from the beginning Christianity was not just a kingdom of God but a resurrection movement. He then goes into Paul’s theology of the resurrection as a two-stage movement: “The Messiah first, then finally the resurrection of all those who belong to the Messiah.” From there he moves to the gospel accounts where “John tells us quite plainly Easter day is the first day of the week…. Easter day is the first day of God’s new creation. Easter morning was the birthday of God’s new world.”

The last two sections deal with the practical outworking of it all. Being in the middle of “the beginning of the End and the end of the End, should enable us to come to terms with our vocation to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel, and in the power of the Spirit to forgive and retain sins…. We are like the musicians called to play and sing the unique and once-only-written musical score.”

Wright concludes by unpacking what it means to be “kingdom-announcers” and “crossbearers” as we model a new way of being human. Concerning the latter my spirit rejoiced at these words: “God forgive us that we have imagined true humanness, after the Enlightenment model, to mean being successful, having it all together, having all the answers, never making mistakes, striding through the world as though we owned it.”

In answer to the challenges of our day, he shares a beautiful way forward: “The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even, heaven help us, biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically rooted challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way into the postpost-modern world with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom.”

This book is excerpted and adapted from The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is.

Thinking about this book reminds me of a popular worship song that includes the thought that nothing is the same; everything has changed. Christ is risen! A new order has dawned. The path of those who through faith in Christ have become God’s children grows brighter and brighter till it reaches the full light of day. When I hear about Christ, the resurrection and all that entails, especially when it is expressed in fresh ways, my spirit leaps for joy.

Christianity & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas & Movements (Volume 3 – Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century)

Welcome to the world of philosophy

Christianity & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas & Movements (Volume 3 – Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century)
Authors: Alan G. Padgett & Steve Wilkens
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 388

As I read volume three of Christianity & Western Thought by Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens, I was haunted by a thought similar to the one that F. W. Boreham had when he shared a train ride with a well-known actor. Reflecting on his companion’s occupation, he writes, “Now if there was a world of which I knew absolutely nothing at all—a terra incognito—a realm that I had never invaded it was the stage.” Here, in this volume, I invaded the world of the philosopher and felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Though the authors serve as the most excellent of guides—incredibly conversant and at home in the world of philosophers and their thought—at times it was as if they were giving voice to ideas in a foreign language. It’s not their own words or thoughts that can be hard to decipher—they write clearly—; it’s the subject matter that can be challenging.

Fortunately, in their survey of philosophers in the march to postmodernity, they tell the story of their subjects, including a summary of their major works, which I found quite engaging. Even so, this works best as a reference that can be repeatedly consulted. As the authors continually show, western thought in the 20th century is widely divergent, which makes it hard to stay on track when reading this straight through.

This book, the third and final volume in the series, will be much easier for academics and those schooled in philosophical thought. Written from an unashamedly Christian perspective, but with scholarly detachment, this is not a book that will take the average Christian by the hand and make philosophy plain and simple. This is not a criticism of the authors, nor is it intended to discourage non-academics from giving this a try. It’s just an acknowledgement of the complexity of the material. The authors have done an excellent job of making it accessible. The patient reader of any background will find it rewarding.

I don’t know how many would share my perspective, but theology almost seems like child’s play compared to philosophy. It may be that I am just more wired for the former, and yet, one can quickly get over their head in theology and feel like they are in the outside looking in. This book focuses on philosophy and only touches on theology, but the two are far from strangers. The authors introduce individuals and thought that seek to answer vital questions and have implications for both disciplines: How can philosophy be scientific? What is human being? What about language and meaning? What about postmodernity?

Though some voices may seem nonsensical, it’s helpful to remember that each, in their own way, is trying to making sense of the world we inhabit. It’s important that Christians understand different worldviews if we hope to engage them meaningfully.

If like me you have an interest in books and search for them in places like thrift stores and garage sales, you will most likely come across books by Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and wonder who are these people? The thought of these influential figures is explored in detail in a chapter that delves more deeply into theology. The authors use the term “dialectical theology” to represent their movement, which registered “its discontent with theological systems that attempt to reduce Christianity to a series of timeless, logical truths about God.” Whatever one’s views of these men and their thought, this provides an account of their influence.

Is there such a thing as Christian philosophy? This argument is found in another chapter, which goes into Thomism, the thought derived from Thomas Aquinas.

Perhaps a little of the everyday applicability of philosophy can be seen in the authors’ summary of one philosopher’s thought on play and art: “When we are caught up in a great play, a musical performance or a moving film, we encounter the play of the artist in making a ‘world’ for us to experience; this is the manner in which art discloses the truth to us. In the play between the world created by art and our world, we see our life in a new way. The meaning of art, and so the truth that it mediates, come out of the dynamic play between art and spectator/audience.” Philosophy then can be a friend of theology when it helps, either directly or indirectly, to clarify meaning, mediate truth and enable us to see ourselves in new and better ways.

Even though I may get a little lost in the world of philosophical thought, anyone with an interest in this discipline will be well-served by this volume, and the series, if this volume is any indication.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Evil and the Justice of God - N. T. Wright

All shall be well

Evil and the Justice of God
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 176

Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright reminds me of the series of talks about Christianity that C. S. Lewis gave on BBC radio between 1941 and 1944. This began as a series of five lectures given at Westminster Abbey on the cross and the problem of evil. After 9/11 and talk about evil from George W. Bush and Tony Blair, “evil” became a hot topic. Wright later summarized his thesis on a television program that aired in the U. K. on Easter Day 2005.

Wright like Lewis, in this expanded version of his original lectures, is addressing a broader audience than just Christians. As a consequence, this is not a Bible study or a scholarly analysis of specific texts, though there is a little of that here. This is more of a philosophical treatise that tries to make sense of a difficult topic from a Scriptural point of view without getting too technical.

Having read a book by Wright previously, I appreciate his ability not only to recognize distinctions but to never lose sight of the big picture. He does not let the reader get lost in the details. Evil is a multi-faceted problem, but contrary to how it may seem, God is doing something about it. What He has done and is doing through his people is what Wright unpacks.

Unlike those who may come at the subject from a purely secular stance, Wright acknowledges, though he realizes the potential barriers in doing so, that there is a “supra-personal, supra-human” aspect to evil. Somewhat unconventionally he refers to the devil as “the satan,” which in Hebrew is Ha Satan, meaning “the accuser.” Wright prefers to use the “term ‘subpersonal’ or ‘quasi-personal’ as a way of refusing to accord the satan the full dignity of personhood while recognizing that the concentration of activity (its subtle schemes and devices) can and does strike us as very much like that which we associate with personhood.” Fortunately, Wright maintains a healthy balance; avoid the extremes of not taking this aspect of evil into account or being overly fixated with it.

You see this too in his refusal to define evil between different groups of people. Rather, he rightly sees that “the line between good and evil runs through us all.”

Wright sees that evil finally meets its demise at the cross of Christ. In all its various forms and manifestations, it climaxes in the death of Jesus, only to find itself exhausted through what was the pivotal event in God’s dealing with evil. “On the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil.” The full outworking of it has yet to be seen, but Wright enumerates the ramifications throughout the rest of the book.

Wright is excellent about making personal applications. “‘The problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is also a problem about me. And God has dealt with that problem on the cross of his Son, the Messiah.”

Where does this leave us? Wright summarizes it beautifully, “The call of the gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love.” The cross is not only the means but the model for what God wants to do by His Spirit in the world. “To imagine a community of beauty and healing is to take a large step toward seeing in our mind’s eye the world which God intends to bring about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the world toward which we are to direct our Spirit-given energies.”

He goes on to suggest five different ways or areas that we can be working to advance the signs of the new world:

1. Prayer
2. Holiness
3. Politics and empire
4. Penal codes
5. International disputes

The last three in particular, as may be obvious by the category names, involve furthering justice and serving to make the world a better place.

Phantom Tollbooth readers might appreciate what Wright has to say about the role of art, which includes the realm of music. “Art at its best not only draws attention to the way things are but to the way things one day will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. And when Christian artists go to that task they will be contributing to the integration of heart, mind and soul which we seek, to which we are called. They will be pointing forward to the new world God intends to make, to the world already seen in advance in the resurrection of Jesus, to the world whose charter of freedom was won when he died on the cross. It is by such means as this that we may learn again to imagine a world without evil and to work for that world to become, in whatever measure we can, a reality even in the midst of the present evil age.”

Lastly, Wright deals extensively with the importance of forgiveness. Forgiveness brings into the present what we are promised in the future, “namely that in God’s new world all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” He draws much on insights contained in Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, which helps makes sense out of how it can be right for God to bring about a situation where all is genuinely well, granted all that has happened and continues to happen. Again, the answer lies in evil being overthrown at the cross and “God’s creation of a new world which will bring healing rather than obliteration to the old one, under the stewardship of the redeemed. God’s offer of forgiveness, consequent upon his defeat of evil on the cross, means that God himself, the wise Creator, is at last vindicated.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Historical Jesus: Five Views - James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy

Is the Jesus of history different than the Christ of faith?

The Historical Jesus: Five Views
Authors: James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 312

For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “the historical Jesus,” James D. G. Dunn, one of five scholars sharing their views on the subject, offers a simple definition: “ ‘The historical Jesus’ denotes Jesus as discerned by historical study. Those engaged in the quest of the historical, those at least who have sought to clarify what the phrase ‘the historical Jesus’ denotes, have usually made the point that the term properly denotes the life and mission of Jesus as they have been ‘reconstructed’ by means of historical research.” This is a historical approach to Jesus rather than a faith approach.

Since the five scholars come from diverse backgrounds, and seek to use historical methods to discover what can be known about Jesus, the results vary widely, and can even be confusing and disconcerting, especially to evangelicals used to seeing Christ primarily through the eyes of faith. Again, believers have to keep in mind that this is an attempt to reconstruct Jesus through purely historical means.

The book starts with an excellent introduction by the authors on the history of this study. I thoroughly enjoyed their forty-five page overview that traces the beginnings of this quest to the present day.

“Jesus at the Vanishing Point,” written by Robert M. Price, a member of the Jesus Seminar, is easily the most controversial article. At the outset, Price tells readers that after having been a pastor of a Baptist church for half a dozen years, he is now a happy Episcopalian, rejoicing “to take the Eucharist every week and to sing the great hymns of the faith.” No problem there. What he never explains, in all of his argument for the “Christ-Myth” theory, is how he reconciles his religious practice with the idea that Jesus never existed. To be fair, it is outside the scope of his analysis, but I could not stop thinking about the implications. If Christ never existed, then He never rose from the dead. If that is the case, the apostle Paul tells us that our “faith is in vain.” Furthermore, Paul says, “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, if the resurrection is a myth, which it would be if Christ never existed, and if all we have is this life, Christians are strongly deluded.

How can Price celebrate a faith whose founder never existed? This is not to say that he fails to present arguments in his defense. He provides plenty of analysis, but I found it unconvincing.

My intention is not to denigrate Price or John Dominic Crossan, a cofounder of the Seminar and another contributor to this book. However, I want to address one of his thoughts. In relation to Jesus’ view of the imminence of God’s kingdom, he writes, “Jesus watched, learned and changed his vision of God.” In another place, where he partially quotes another author, he writes, “If ‘the future, definitive, and imminent arrival of God’s kingly rule was central to Jesus’ proclamation’ (p. 398), then Jesus’ central proclamation was quite simply wrong and misguided.” It would be better to recognize that his inability to reconcile a seeming contradiction does not mean that Jesus was wrong. If history can show that Jesus thought of himself as divine, how can Crossan imply that He was wrong, or that He needed to change his vision of God? Jesus could not be God if he was wrong about anything. I think history, rightly known and understood, will prove Jesus right.

On the positive side, I appreciated Luke Timothy Johnson’s thoughts on the limits of historical analysis, especially as applied to Jesus. Similarly, James D. G. Dunn’s discussion of oral history is helpful. Darrell L. Bock, from Dallas Theological Seminary, presents and defends evangelical views.

As for the format, each scholar has an essay, which in turn is critiqued by the other four. All of them are obviously well-versed, and they show no disrespect toward each other. Finer points are sometimes hard to follow because the analysis gets technical. Having the counterpoint arguments provides an additional opportunity to understand the main points. It also helps to separate the wheat from the chaff, which can be a challenge for the reader.

Christians have nothing to fear from historical inquiry, or any other type of inquiry. Sometimes the Christ of faith is obscured by religious dogma and our own blindness. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12a ESV). A quest like this can serve a useful purpose when it helps us to know more of the truth and see Christ better. There should be no disparity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

In reading a book like this, it helps to have already settled that the Bible is God’s Word. Otherwise, one can easily become confused and even misled by what is wrongly considered to be true. Being able to apprehend truth by faith can guard one from wrongly interpreting historical data. None of this should be taken to mean that Christians have a faith that can’t be verified in any way by factual knowledge. There is sufficient evidence to support that the Scriptures are true and reliable. Any investigation that actually gets at the truth will serve to confirm or enhance our understanding of what God has revealed in His Word.

Rock Gets Religion - Mark Joseph

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