Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Suprised by Hope, A Review

I know many of you have read this book by N.T. Wright, and I know many have not. I do not typically write reviews on here, but I think this book merits a longer thought than what I would post on Facebook or Twitter.

Wright's premise is fairly simplistic, but also in many ways groundbreaking. Namely, Wright argues that the central aspect of the gospel message that should shape our thinking about how God has worked in the world, is working in the world, and will work is summed up in one word: resurrection.

A word that I struggled for years to even spell correctly is the focus of this brilliant and challenging book.

Wright argues that the Christian teaching of resurrection is firmly planted in the common view of final resurrection found only in Judaism in the ancient world. This view, though rejected by paganism, was central to messianic hope and understandings of the end of the age. Resurrection, bodily resurrection, of the dead, some to ruling life on this earth, and others to some form of elimination/punishment was central in the mind of Judaism.

Wright further argues that the only major difference between Judaism's teaching on resurrection and that found in Christianity is the crucial event of Jesus' own resurrection. Judaism did not believe anyone would resurrect before the absolute end, until God set the world right. It is in this moment that I first find pause to consider whether Wright is correct in this statement.

My first question is simply this: did all Jews really reject the possibility of resurrection before the final resurrection of all the dead? My reason for this question is simple: some thought that Jesus himself was John the Baptist. Was their belief that he was reborn, resurrected, or reincarnated? I don't know, but it makes me question the rigidity with which Wright makes his claim.

Secondly, I find this fascinating, because in many senses Jesus is resurrected at the end. "It is finished" was uttered. What once was the norm--sin, death--are now defeated and on their way to being eliminated forever. Christ's resurrection, in many ways, ushered in the last days. Christ's resurrection begun the new creation.

This point is perhaps the most controversial claims of Wright's book: heaven is only a pit stop on the way to a New Earth (a renewed earth in Wright's estimation). I do strongly agree with this sentiment, as it helps us to read Revelation 20-22 without having to do a exegetical dance around why we are still on earth at the end. God's plan, as Wright puts it, was never to separate humanity from the body he created for them (and created "very good" I might add!), but to renew/fix/restore what was broken by Adam and Eve. God's plan was to restore the cosmos to what it was intended to be: fully His!

Wright's detailed analysis throughout the book hits a flat note when addressing the unrepentant. Following his brilliant analysis of purgatory, Wright spends less than five pages discussing the issue of hell and final judgment. Frankly, his words betray him at this point; he has no intention to ever teach on hell. Why? I can only conclude that it is too unpalatable for him. Wright does not discuss with any detail, any carefulness at all the passages that discuss judgment or hell. He follows up a great study of purgatory and sheol with one of the laziest sections of a book I've ever read. Needless to say, I was disappointed.

The most important section of Wright's book, the "so what?" section, was overall quite brilliant. He encourages us to think bigger about how we usher in now the kingdom that started with Christ's resurrection and is finally established fully at his parousia. What is the big issue facing our world today? As much as I like his challenge, I do not fully agree with his conclusion. World debt, while a huge issue, is still only a signpost to something much bigger. Namely, the big undercurrent causing problems with our world today is a refusal to submit to Christ as King. When we do that, our financial patterns change.

I really wish Wright would have examined Acts to discuss what it means to be a member of the Kingdom of God now, while living in a time of "already, not yet." How do we live Christ's rule today? Perhaps by devoting ourselves to what they did in Acts 2:42, by willingly and joyfully suffering for our faith as in Acts 4, 7, and more. Perhaps the answer isn't in some modern thought process as much as living faithfully, anticipating Him in this way, and allowing big things to happen as a result of God being God, and us being as faithful as we can be.

Overall, it is a must read. If you have not read it, stop reading what I'm writing and go buy it. For real, it is that good.

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