So we’re continuing to power through N.T. Wright’s How God Became King and we’ve completed the first two of four sections. The first portion was an attempt to pinpoint the problem of the way Western Christianity has and has not read the gospels (see chapters 1, 2 & 3). The second section dealt with four different “speakers” we must adjust to hear the gospels rightly (chapters 4, 5, 6 & 7). we move now to the third section, in which Bishop Wright seeks to lay out the heart of his claim. The question is just how God has become king in the gospels. Yes, it was through Jesus, but what were the means or the method?
Except … Wright takes a little detour in chapter 8. This fourth section is entitled “The Kingdom and the Cross,” for in it Wright seeks to demonstrate the ways in which the gospel writers consistently meld the kingdom of God – God’s righteous rule over the entire creation – with the cross, with all its shame and sorrow. But first he pauses to illustrate a fresh problem in the Western church, that we have tended to elevate one side or the other. We tend to take either the kingdom or the cross, seldom both.
In his own words, “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” (159). Yet these two elements (and so much besides) are securely joined in the message of the gospels. We ought to recover the tension that lies in the middle.
Wright then goes on to discuss the typical modern scholarly opinion that Jesus announced a kingdom that never actually arrived, that Jesus had failed in his attempt to found a fresh movement. But, argues Wright, this misses the whole point. In fact, the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed did arrive in and through him, but its appearance was always going to look completely different than what most expected. Indeed, the kingdom Jesus announced has been alive and well and expanding right under everyone’s noses these two millennia, but it is peculiar in that it always seems to take the shape of a mustard seed or a field in which the good grain and the weeds seem to spring up together. Funny.
While that is how skeptical scholars have typically read things, Christians, for their part, have generally reacted in equally unfortunate ways. We too tend to disregard the great impact the gospel stories could have on every aspect of our world. We tend either to (1) disregard the world because we know we’ll all escape to heaven anyway (not completely true), or (2) we confine ourselves to the church world and let the rest of the world run itself, or (3 & 4) we label one side of the political aisle or the other “Christian” and follow that. (By the way, it is interesting to be reading this book and see Newsweek’s cover story this week. Make your own call on that one. Or read my opinion.)
But, argues Wright, the New Testament is thoroughly infused with the notion that God’s kingdom did indeed come in power and that it simply must affect every aspect of the society. And yet, it looks nothing like kingdoms, empires, and nations of this world. It does not utilize the same means, and its effects may for some time go completely unnoticed. What has been established, in essence is a true theocracy. God is king. And His method of governing and the effects of His rule will topple even the greatest empires, including that of the Roman Caesars.