Sunday, January 30, 2011

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church - N. T. Wright

Hope of the early church

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: HarperOne
Pages: 332

Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright feels like one of the most significant books that I have read. This may put me on thin ice with my evangelical, pre-tribulation rapture friends who might be aghast at Wright’s take on the subject.

Wright sees the rapture as a misunderstanding of two scripture passages attributed to the apostle Paul: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-54. Wright’s brief analysis is plausible but not necessarily irrefutable. I appreciate his reasoning even if I am not sure if he is correct. I knew there were Christians who didn’t believe in the rapture, but this is the first time that I can see why.

There are scholarly books on each side of the debate, but logic leads me to believe that two contradictory views cannot both be correct. The rapture will either occur or it will not. Reading Wright made me want to find an expert on the subject who could give me a definitive answer. There are two sides to an argument, and sometimes the first seems right until we have heard from another.

Fortunately, one’s belief about the rapture will not determine one’s destiny. I am glad that the deciding factor is our relationship with Christ. When we are reconciled to God through faith in Christ, our future is secure. Just as Christ rose from the dead, so we too will one day rise, which is what this book is all about.

The rapture debate is just a side issue. Wright believes in the second coming of Christ. He emphasizes that the Scriptures speak of God coming to us, rather than us going to Him. The separation between the physical and spiritual realms will be done away at Christ’s appearing. In His wake will be the new heavens and the new earth.

The bulk of the book is about the hope of the early church being a physical, bodily resurrection and how that relates to us today. Wright convincingly supports the idea that the earliest Christians had their hopes set on a physical resurrection from the dead. This is the substantive teaching of Scripture as opposed to just an immaterial existence in heaven, the belief that you go to heaven when you die. Wright acknowledges that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, but this is an in between state while we wait for the resurrection of our bodies.

I could not help wondering why in my 30 plus years of being a Christian I was taught so little about this. This hope caught me by surprise because so often the focus has been on receiving Christ so that you can go to heaven when you die. I would never want to minimize the importance of putting one’s faith in Christ for eternal life, but as Chuck Colson states in Christianity Today (December 2010), this is not the whole picture: “He (Jesus) was talking about the eschatological certainty that in the end, God’s reign will be made manifest. His message is teleological; it is to the world. It is not just to us as individuals: ‘Come to the cross and you can be saved.’ As wonderfully significant as that is for every one of us, and as grateful as I will always be for the night that Christ came into my life, it’s all part of a much larger purpose. I am being saved from my sin so that I may serve him in the building of his kingdom, the establishing of his rule. The really good news is that the gospel isn’t just about you or me. God has saved us as part of a larger plan, the coming of his kingdom.” Colson is arguing that the Good News has often been reduced to a personal self-help story.

One reason I enjoy Wright is because he expounds a gospel that is immense in scope, reaching to the world, encompassing Old and New Testaments, and revealing the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s story. It’s such a pleasure to gain an all-encompassing view through his scholarly and practical analysis that can appeal to academic and non-academic.

I can see from reading a recent article about the differences between what Jesus and Paul preached that Wright’s perspective is colored more by Christ’s preaching on the kingdom of God than Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith. I am sure that Wright would agree that these two perceived distinctives are not at odds, but it’s interesting to note some Christians tend to emphasize one or the other.

Wright’s emphasis is not to be confused with a “kingdom now” theology where Christians take over the present world. It’s more along the lines of making visible in myriads of small, practical ways the kingdom that Christ has inaugurated. Each act of love, every expression of truth, the creation of beauty and the rendering of service in His name are like signs pointing to this reality, which is becoming more visible in this world. Colson again provides a similar perspective: “In the interim, while we personally cannot usher in the kingdom (only God can do that), we can faithfully live as citizens of the kingdom to come. The Beatitudes, for example, give us a pattern of life for that coming kingdom that we can aim to live out now.”

I like how Wright emphasizes that nothing is wasted in God’s economy. We don’t have to look at the state of the world and think that there is nothing that we can do. It’s not a matter of just waiting idly until Jesus returns. We have the privilege of being ambassadors for a kingdom that began when Christ rose, will be consummated when He returns, but is even now breaking into the world as we live out, “your will be done on earth as it is heaven.”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Like fall, the colors are exquisite

When I’m With You
Artist: JJ Heller (
Label: Independent
Length: 10 tracks/35:42 minutes

With the world as her medium, JJ Heller creates with beautiful colors on When I’m With You. Warm and vibrant tones characterize love songs like the title track and “Boat Song.” “Tell It Again” and “Until You Came Along” had me wondering if God was the subject or her husband. It is the latter, but there is plenty here for those who savor relationships, both the human and divine.

This recording is a great antidote for the times in which we live, where good is bad and bad is good. It exudes goodness and childlike wonder. There is a gentleness that makes me “believe in love.” Boats and sky, trees and birds take their place in honoring love that blossoms. To employ the language of the psalmist, “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10 ESV). Heller’s relationship with God holds these things in harmony.

These whimsical sketches had me thinking of Katie Herzig. The rich spectrum of musical tones brought to mind the early work of The Innocence Mission. The thoughtful lyrics reminded me of Sara Groves. If I didn’t know it was Heller, I would think Groves was performing “Olivianna,” the story of one who has gone to a better place.

Theologian N. T. Wright has written often on the future to come, when all shall be made new. I think he would appreciate “Kingdom Come,” which expresses these things so succinctly. It is the theme of several of his books. Here it is a simple, worshipful look toward the future.

What adds to the beauty is the uncluttered production of Mitch Dane and Ben Shive. It’s an understated collection of pop with folk and rock influences. Heller’s voice is strong and clear, making it easy to hear the words.

Songs like “Control” and “No Fight Left” are an engaging look at an old theme: surrender. Even the cooler tints feel warm.

Heller has become a new favorite with this recording. Like the fall season, the colors on display are exquisite, enriching my life.

Heller gained national attention when her song, “Your Hands,” from Painted Red (2008) was used by a contestant auditioning for the FOX TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance?” A radio station manager, who happened to be watching, decided to play the song for his audience. The station was inundated with calls from listeners who resonated with what they heard. The song was picked-up by nearly 60 Christian adult contemporary stations, including K-LOVE, the largest Christian radio network in the US.

“Your Hands” stayed on Billboard Magazine’s Christian Songs chart for 24 weeks, peaking at #13. Painted Red peaked at #12 on Billboard’s Folk Albums chart.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Outlaw - Mark Chesnutt

A tribute to country music outlaws

Artist: Mark Chesnutt (
Label: Saguaro Road Records
Length: 12 tracks/45:41 minutes

On Outlaw, Mark Chesnutt pays tribute to the songs that “brought him to the dance.” “I cut my teeth on this kind of music,” Chestnutt said. “It’s an opportunity for me to pay tribute to some of my biggest heroes in country music.”

This Texan enjoys a special kinship with some of the performers and writers who made these songs popular. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, along with songwriters Billy Joe Shaver and Guy Clark, all come from Texas. Rather than permanently move to Nashville, Chesnutt chose to keep Beaumont, Texas as his hometown.

The tracks are a mix of Chesnutt’s neotraditional style that alternates between honky-tonk and ballads. The lyrics may not be as familiar, but the chorus on Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” is immediately recognizable. It’s an impressive song that Chesnutt performs to perfection. He gives Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country” (recorded by Waylon Jennings) a grit that Young’s version never had. Another standout is “A Couple More Years,” previously done by Willie Nelson, and recorded here as a duet with Amber Digby.

The production, musicianship and vocals are impeccable throughout. The songs live up to the album title with plenty of stories about women, partying and a hard lifestyle. That’s not to say that this doesn’t have its tender moments. Kristofferson’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier” and “Freedom to Stay” (recorded by Waylon Jennings) are beautifully rendered love songs.

Chesnutt can honky-tonk with the best, but his reverent interpretations of classic ballads moved me the most. You can hear the pathos in the closing “Desperados Waiting for a Train.”

Outlaw is Chesnutt’s fourteenth studio recording. Along the way, he has earned four platinum and five gold albums plus fourteen #1 singles. This modern-day outlaw shows no signs of slowing down with this heartfelt work.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Kerrie Roberts

Soulful, ministry-minded pop

Kerrie Roberts – Self-titled debut (
Label: Reunion Records
Length: 10 tracks/39:43 minutes

Kerrie Roberts’ self-titled debut is a ministry-minded collection of soulful pop. Don’t get the wrong idea. These are well-crafted songs that don’t suffer from being message-driven. Roberts gets excellent support from talented producers and musicians. It’s just that Roberts, who has a hand in writing every track, has a heart to console and encourage those weighed down by life. Encouragement may be an overlooked ministry, but it has never been more vital.

Hope gets expressed in thoughtful ways. It’s a little like taking the lyrics of Cindy Morgan and combining them with the vocals of Jana Long (Avalon) and Nicol Sponberg (formerly Selah). All three of these women could serve as wonderful mentors.

The music varies. “No Matter What,” released as a single, has a programmed hip-hop rhythm, which works well. There are hints of this elsewhere, but Roberts also uses pop, rock, soul, gospel, inspirational and even club music. Speaking of the latter, “Outcast,” is a sassy dance song about self acceptance in the face of being rejected as not good enough by the in-crowd. Cindy Morgan shares writing credits.

“Love Comes Down,” produced by Brown Bannister, has a small gospel choir that gives it extra punch. The closing, “Savior to Me (Sing Glory),” is a song of worship.

Lyrically, the words are subtle enough to appeal to non-Christians and could serve as a bridge to faith. The encouragement to never, never, never give up (as John Wesley put it) is universally appreciated.

This pastor’s daughter succeeds in her stated purpose: “I want every song to leave people with a sense of purpose – a call to action, a realization of truth, a promotion of hope and healing.”

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