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Book Review

Current issues in the biblical spotlight

Tom Wright’s material is never disappointing, and this book is no exception. A bit different from most of his output, it is Surprised By Scripture: Engaging With Contemporary Issues by N.T. Wright (SPCK, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-281-06985-9).    

It is different in that it is a series of essays, mostly given originally as lectures in the USA, and adapted and updated for reading. The ‘Surprised’ in the title reflects the fact that, in examining what Scripture has to say on the topic he had been asked to address, the author often found himself surprised by what he found.

As a Brit, I found it fascinating to see how Wright (himself a Brit, though a widely-travelled one) has been able to look at the American scene with an objectivity that is at times charming but also occasionally quite scathing—in the nicest possible way!

The topics are varied, including the historical Adam; the science/religion divide; the ordination of women; theodicy; the resurrection of Jesus; the end times; and Christianity and politics. As in all his writing, Tom Wright brings to each topic his vast understanding of Scripture and clear grasp of the Western world’s cultural and philosophical background, and of course his usual bold and honest exegesis of the relevant Bible passages.

It is not light reading, but if you wish to know what the Bible has to offer to the discussion of contemporary issues, you will find it helpful. And like Tom Wright himself, you will probably be surprised.

[As I read this book in Kindle format, the numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

…the massive influence, often unrecognized, of the particular philosophy we associate with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. I have come to the view that, unless we glimpse the roots of what today is taken for granted in our world, we will not understand why we see problems the way we do, and will not appreciate what the Bible might have to say about them.  (48)

In science/religion debates, or evolution/creation debates, it is all too easy for the scientists or evolutionists to state their position in Epicurean terms, and for the Christians or creationists to follow suit.  (250)

…the great irony that often those who are most opposed to Darwin when it comes to reading Genesis 1 are in fact most deeply in thrall to him, or to the wider application of his theories, when it comes to social and international policy.  (296)

The Genesis account is a highly poetic, highly complex narrative whose main thrust has nothing to do with the number of twenty-four-hour periods in which the world was made, and everything to do with the wisdom, goodness, and power of the God who made it.  (325)

The whole project of Jesus is a new-temple project , which is why the Jerusalem Temple and then the pagan temples become so problematic in the gospels and Acts; it is the project, in other words, in which heaven and earth are brought together at last, with God’s sovereign rule extending on earth as in heaven through the mission of Jesus, climactically in his death and resurrection, and then through the similarly shaped and spirit-driven mission of his followers.  (401)

Though the Western tradition and particularly the Protestant and evangelical traditions have claimed to be based on the Bible and rooted in scripture, they have by and large developed long-lasting and subtle strategies for not listening to what the Bible is in fact saying. We must stop giving nineteenth-century answers to sixteenth-century questions and try to give twenty-first-century answers to first-century questions.  (427)

In the Bible all authority belongs to God and is then delegated to Jesus.  (440)

The whole Bible is about God establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven, completing the project begun but aborted in Genesis 1-3. This is the big story that we must learn how to tell. It isn’t just about how to get saved, with some cosmology bolted onto the side. This is an organic story about God and the world.  (454)

All too often the word biblical has been shrunk, so that it now means only ‘according to our tradition, which we assume to be biblical’.  (487)

The Bible is not about the rescue of humans from the world but about the rescue of humans for the world, and indeed God’s rescue of the world by means of those rescued humans.  (502)

For Paul it’s clear: the whole world is now God’s holy land.  (533)

[Re 1 Cor 15:20-28]  Paul’s whole point is to pick up from Genesis the notion of the calling of Adam and to show that it is fulfilled in the Messiah.  (548)

Jesus is the beginning, the firstfruits, the true Image, the Temple in whom all God’s fullness was pleased to dwell. He is Israel’s Messiah, who fulfils Israel’s obedience on the cross and thereby rescues both Israel and the whole human race. He does for Israel what Israel couldn’t do for itself, and thereby does for humans what Israel was supposed to do for them, and thereby launches God’s project of new creation, the new world over which he already reigns as king. This is the great narrative, and we need to learn to tell it.  (610)

The message ought never to be simply about ‘me and my salvation’. It ought to be about God and God’s kingdom. That’s what Jesus announced, and so should we.  (626)

Resurrection in the first century meant people who were physically thoroughly dead becoming physically thoroughly alive again, not simply surviving or entering a purely spiritual world, whatever that might be.  (686)

Take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, and all you lose is four chapters of the gospels. Take away the resurrection and you lose the entire New Testament, and most of the second-century fathers as well.  (732)

Because the early Christians believed that resurrection had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed also that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness. If Jesus, the Messiah, was God’s future arriving in person in the present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him in the power of his spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in the light of that future.  (747)

Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism. It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, and new creation can happen.  (941)

Paul is a theologian of new creation, and it is always the renewal and reaffirmation of the existing creation, never its denial.  (1002)

[Re Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet]  As is clear from the use of the phrase elsewhere in the New Testament (for instance, Paul with Gamaliel), to sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student and picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; in that very practical world, you wouldn’t do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to become yourself a teacher, a rabbi.  (1062)

One of the things you learn in real pastoral work as opposed to ivory-tower academic theorizing is that you simply can’t take a community all the way from where it currently is to where you would ideally like it to be in a single flying leap.  (1090)

[Re 1 Cor 11 and headcoverings]  Paul’s main point is that in worship men should follow the dress and hair codes that proclaim them to be male, and women the codes that proclaim them to be female.  (1136)

Christianity has allowed itself to embrace that dualism whereby the ultimate destiny of God’s people is heaven, seen as a place detached from earth, so that the aim of Christianity as a whole, and of conversion, justification, sanctification, and salvation, is seen in terms of leaving earth behind and going home to a place called heaven.  (1239)

The whole point of the Christian gospel is that with the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the spirit, God’s future has come forward to meet us in the present; what God intends to do at the last has already broken into the world the way it is.  (1383)

If someone came to you and said he or she was having real trouble resisting temptation and was always falling helplessly into sin, but that it didn’t matter because one day God would provide a new body that wouldn’t be capable of sinning, so why not wait for that, I hope that you would respond with a sharp dose of inaugurated eschatology.  (1399)

Jesus is not far away; he is in heaven, and heaven is not a place in the sky, but rather God’s dimension of what we think of as ordinary reality. This is an essential feature of biblical cosmology, and the failure to grasp it leaves many Christians puzzled about how to put together the biblical picture of eschatology…  Heaven is not a place in our space–time continuum, but a different sphere of reality that overlaps and interlocks with our sphere in numerous though mysterious ways. It is as though there were a great invisible curtain hanging across a room, disguising another space that can be integrated with our space; one day the curtain will be pulled back, the two spaces or spheres will be joined for ever, and Jesus himself will be the central figure.  (1428)

…1 Thessalonians 4, where generations have taken Paul’s wonderful mixed metaphors as though they were meant literally. After all, in the next chapter Paul declares that the thief is going to come in the night, so the woman will go into labour, so you mustn’t get drunk but must stay awake and put on your armour.  (1474)

‘When Christ shall come,’ we sing in a favourite hymn, ‘with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.’ What we ought to sing is, ‘When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and heal his world, what joy shall fill my heart.’  (1504)

The church is never more at risk than when it sees itself merely as the solution bearer and forgets that every day it must say, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’, and allow that confession to work its way into genuine humility even as it stands boldly before the world and its crazy empires.  (1821)

Just because we observe evolution, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a god who is active within that process as well as beyond and above it.  (1916)

The Bible tells the story of the world as having reached its destiny, its climax, when Jesus of Nazareth came out of the tomb on Easter morning. The Enlightenment philosophy, however, tells the story of the world as having reached its destiny, its climax, with the rise of scientific and democratic modernism. These two stories cannot both be true.  (1990)

Genesis offers us, right up front, not one creation story but two. Genesis 1 and 2 are not strictly compatible–at least, not if you try to take them as left-brain, rationalistic narratives about what happened. They are not, and are not intended to be, what we would call scientific accounts. Part of the point of there being two of them is to alert the reader–and sadly many readers in the last two centuries have not taken the hint!–to the fact that they are poetic images, narratives replete with metaphor, stories designed to help us grasp with our right brains what creation is for.  (2066)

Philosophies and worldviews...abhor a vacuum. You can push God, or the gods, upstairs out of sight, like an elderly embarrassing relative. But history shows again and again that other gods quietly sneak in to take their place. These other gods are not strangers. The ancient world knew them well. Just to name the three most obvious: there are Mars, the god of war, Mammon, the god of money, and Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love.  (2191)

Western culture assumes that the answer to the world’s problems is to drop bombs on someone. I said in 2002, and I have said ever since, that unleashing our modernist military machine on the putative sources of terror in the Middle East was just going to make everything much, much worse, and I have seen nothing in the last decade to make me think I was wrong.  (2270)

‘Now that we live in the twenty-first century … ,’ people say, as though a change in the calendar meant an automatic updating of moral systems and assumptions. A moment’s thought shows how ridiculous this is, but people still say it, and what’s worse, they think it.  (2234)

Ultimately, the different modes of knowing suggested by wisdom boil down to what one might call love.  (2293)

Jesus’ first followers believed not only that he was truly alive again but that he had, as it were, gone through death and out the other side, leading the way into a new mode of being in which the power of love would defeat the love of power, in which creation and beauty would win out over death and decay, and in which God would become present to people of every shape and type, offering healing and reconciliation, a new start, a new life, a new way of life.  (2337)

…a phenomenon about which I have been increasingly concerned: that much evangelical Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic has based itself on the epistles rather than the gospels, though often misunderstanding the epistles themselves.  (2409)

The saying about ‘render unto Caesar’, which is still regularly employed to insist on the separation of God and public life, tells in fact heavily in the opposite direction, not least through its contextualization within Jesus’ kingdom announcement.  (2470)

The New Testament reaffirms the God-given place even of secular rulers, even of deeply flawed, sinful, self-serving, time-serving, corrupt, and idolatrous rulers like Pontius Pilate, Felix, Festus, and Herod Agrippa. They get it wrong and they will be judged, but God wants them in place because order, even corrupt order, is better than chaos.  (2530)

Our present glorification of democracy emerged precisely from that Enlightenment dualism, the banishing of God from the public square and the elevation of vox populi to fill the vacuum, which we have seen to be profoundly inadequate when faced with the publicness of the kingdom of God. And we should take seriously the fact that early Jews and Christians were not terribly interested in how rulers came to be rulers–that is, the process by which they came to power – but they were extremely interested in what rulers did once they had obtained power.  (2575)

When Kofi Annan retired as general secretary of the United Nations , one of the key points he made was that we urgently need to develop ways of holding governments, especially powerful governments, to account. That is a central part of the church’s vocation, which we should never have lost and desperately need to recapture.  (2590)

Since Jesus’ way of life is the path of self-giving love, that mission and service can never be about imposing a would-be Christian policy or ethic on an unwilling or unready public, but rather allowing Jesus’ way of bringing his kingdom to work through us and in us. The church at its best has always sought to transform society from within.  (2615)

Jesus is lord of the world, so all truth is his truth; let’s go and explore it with reverence and delight. Whether you look through the telescope or the microscope, whether you study texts or traditions, whether it’s oceanography or palaeography, you are thinking Jesus’ thoughts after him.  (2659)

We often read John through the darkened spectacles of nineteenth-century pietism and thereby miss the bright, sharp Johannine light on the church’s social and political witness.  (2716)

The church’s vocation of speaking truth to power has been taken over by two systems that aren’t up to the job [official opposition parties and the media]. We urgently need the voice of Christian wisdom to approve that which is excellent and to call to account that which isn’t.  (2745)

The puzzle of apocalyptic, for any serious Christian, any thoughtful reader of the New Testament, is whether, and if so how, apocalypse can be rescued from the ‘left behind’ school of thought, whose adherents anticipate the rapture in which they will be snatched up to heaven, leaving this world behind once and for all.  (2824)

Here is the challenge , I believe, for the Christian artist, in whatever sphere: to tell the story of the new world so that people can taste it and want it, even while acknowledging the reality of the desert in which we presently live.  (2898)

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