We’re working our way through N.T. Wright’s brand new book, How God Became King. Yesterday, we reviewed chapter 1, in which Wright begins to lay out the problem as he sees it, that many Westerners miss the real meaning of the four gospels.
In chapter 2, Bishop Wright approaches a similar problem from the opposite direction. If most conservative Christians have approached the gospels through the framework of the creeds, thereby emphasizing Jesus’ birth and resurrection at the expense of Jesus’ actual life, then liberal believers and non-believers in the West have tried to emphasize Jesus’ life at the expense of his birth and his resurrection.
I’m not sure how attuned to skeptical biblical scholarship we all are, but the general stream through the last couple hundred years has basically been this. We all know miracles don’t happen, says the modern scholar, so let’s cut those pieces out of the gospels and then we’ll really know who Jesus was. So what we’re left with is either an itinerant teacher who comes up with witty aphorisms and cute fables, or a sandwich board toting apocalyptic looking for the end of the world, or a failed insurrectionist who was looking to oust the Romans from the Promised Land, or some combination thereof.
These liberal streams believe that was the real Jesus on which the gospel writers hung all sorts of bizarre religious baggage to validate their own respective church communities several decades later. They believe Jesus never could have conceived of anything like the church (of any era) and would have been horrified had anyone actually begun worshiping in his name.
But, says Wright, this perspective misses the point just as well as the conservative perspective. Neither does justice to what the gospels have laid out for their readers.
Attacking the modernist approach Wright is somewhat less charitable than in chiding the conservatives one chapter earlier. He writes,
At the heart of “the Enlightenment” was a resolute determination that “God” – whoever “God” might be – should no longer be allowed to interfere, either directly or through those who claimed to be his spokesmen, in the affairs of this world. Once “man had come of age,” there was no room for theocracy. … But the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven. They were written to stake the very specific claim toward which the eighteenth-century movements of philosophy and culture, and particularly politics, were reacting with such hostility. (33-34, emphasis original)
That word, “theocracy,” will undoubtedly raise the hairs on the backs of many a neck. But Wright is clear he’s not referring to a state church or anything akin to Christendom. He’s writing of theocracy in the most literal sense. In and through Jesus, God has actually become king of creation. This point the rest of the book will surely tease out.
Well there we are. The good bishop has made it clear that no one in the West has been reading the gospels rightly in the last 300 years. And perhaps we’re ready for his answer in some detail. But it seems we’re in for a bit more crystalization of the problem before us, since chapter three is entitled “The Inadequate Answers,” which I hope to address tomorrow.
Again, two quotes worth leaving you with.
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 doubts and unbelief. … Another axiom … : when the church leaves out bits of its core teaching, it will inevitably overinflate other bits of its core teaching to fill the gap. (32-33)