Surprised by Scripture is a series of essays prompted by various lectures he was asked to give over a period of several years. In them Wright examines contemporary issues facing Christianity, like science/religion, (a)historical Adam, women in ministry, environmentalism, and the “new evil”. In his introduction Wright notes that the “surprise” is likely to be on the part of his readers/hearers; most of the surprise on the part of the author seems to have worn off by the time it was written. Surprised or not, the book is thoroughly sourced from Scripture, and attempts to restore the early-Christian worldview in which the Scripture was written, rather than the must-be-literal modernist approach that is frequently used. It is quite an eye-opening book. Without summarizing each essay individually (please see the notes for copious details), Wright has several recurring themes that create his framework of thinking.
The first theme, oft repeated, is that Western culture is based on Epicureanism. In 1417 the works of Lucretius were rediscovered, wherein he asserts that the universe is just a chance collision of atoms. The gods, if they exist, are far away and do not interfere with the world. Therefore, the logical consequence is that you should enjoy yourself (he notes that hedonism is usually counter-productive). This philosophy did not do so well with the 95% of Romans who were poor, but by the Enlightenment many more people were having the means to enjoy life. For them Lucretius offered a philosophical reason to rebel against the controlling monarchies—if there is no god, then kings don’t have divine right to rule. Likewise, we don’t need to be controlled by the Church and its view of a demanding god.
Epicureanism divides the world into sacred and secular: the religions can do their spiritual thing in private, but it doesn’t belong in the rest of the world where Reason and Science rules. In Europe the Epicurean divide is more internal and cultural, but the United States enshrined the divide in the Constitution, separating Church and State in an attempt to prevent the religious wars that many of the original colonists had fled from. But broader than dividing spiritual and public life, Epicureanism also divides religion, philosophy, and art from reason as ways of knowing the world, and asserts that Reason is the true way of knowing. Hence Science is important in modernity, while the intuitive ways of knowing are marginalized. So not only does Epicureanism marginalize religion, but also philosophy and the arts. We can see this today; it is not clear culturally why art is important, and so while we kind of intuitively know that art is important somehow, it has become something of a specialty interest for those who happen to enjoy “the Arts”.
So Epicureanism set the stage for where we now find ourselves. Evolution is not actually a new idea with Darwin, it is at least as old as Lucretius, and it is a logical consequence of the assumption that everything a chance arrangement of atoms. When Reason is the only valid way of knowing the world, then logically Religion is obsolete and dying out. And given the steady advance of science/technology, human rights, and general well-being, clearly Epicureanism has a claim to being right. But the fact that religion is not actually dying out is some evidence that something in the Epicurean philosophy is incorrect. Likewise, the fact these human rights came from Christianity in the first place is suggestive. Furthermore, the Progress of Modernity is not even really true, as a lot of people are not well-off, and in some cases the West actively prevents them from solving their problems (as with third-world countries with effectively unpayable debt to Western countries incurred by former dictators, debt which the West refuses to forgive despite the impossibility of the debt being repaid).
The second theme is that the message of the Gospels and Romans is not how to get saved and avoid the destruction of the world. The message of the Gospels is that God created the material world and said it was good. He created men and women in his image, to bring order out of the natural chaos of the world, just like God himself brings order out of chaos. We rebelled, and God could not continue his plan of creation until he solved that problem, which was finished at the Cross. The Gospel of John takes pains to parallel Genesis 1: they both start with “in the beginning”; God finishes creation on Friday, and on Friday Jesus says of the atonement “it is finished”; God rested on the seventh day and Jesus rested in the tomb on the seventh day. On the first day of the week, John notes, Jesus rose from the grave; it was the inaugural first day of God’s new-creation project, which restarts the original plan. Genesis 1 describes the making of a temple, with the image of God being men and women, appointed to be God’s hands and feet creating a space where both the material and the immaterial (“heaven”) overlap and God is with Man. With his resurrection, Jesus restarts that plan, and now the Holy Spirit indwells men and women, giving them new hearts and the mind of Christ, to once again make the whole earth Eden, and filled with the knowledge of the glory of God. In fact, the Bible doesn’t describe heaven as our destination; Revelation talks about a new heaven and new earth that is to be our home.
The first theme is the cause of the conflict the Church has with society. The Church is in natural conflict with the world system, because Jesus claims the whole world as his, because he bought it with his blood. But because the Church has mostly bought into the Epicurean idea that it should stay out of the public space, it is ineffective at addressing the issues. Instead of saying that all areas are subject to Jesus and describing what Jesus’ values are, the Church simply tries to take the opposing view of society. But that completely ignores the main issue: Jesus is Lord, and he is Lord of all issues.
The second theme is the framework for thinking about the issue. We were created to help God with his creation project, and as new creations, that is still our job.
So what is the Christian view on the environment? The Epicurean view is that the world is full of resources to exploit. But as co-laborers in bringing a new Eden, we know that the world is good, and we know that we are merely stewards of it, not possessors. To properly bring about new Eden we need to value the world, and study it to figure out how it works so that we can steward it effectively. While environmentalism isn’t an end in itself, we are called to use and steward the environment so that it flourishes.
How do we deal with the problem of evil? The classical questions the theoretical question of why there is evil in the world, but these days people are more interested in the “new problem of evil”: why are there tsunamis which kill lots of people and why are there people like terrorists in the world? The Epicurean approach tends to ignore evil is to ignore it kind of like watching a movie about gangsters, and then be surprised when the gangsters occasionally come out of the movie into the theater. “We are not to suppose that the current world is the way God intends it to be at the last.” (125-6) God created the world good, but between the rebellion of Satan and human rebellion, the creation project is unfinished. Adam and Eve were supposed to implement Eden in the chaos outside the garden, but they rebelled so the chaos is still there. But with Jesus’ atonement for our rebellion and his resurrection restarting the creation project, our task is to bring order to the chaos, just like God brought order out of chaos when he created the world.
Surprised by Scripture has been a very mind-opening and liberating book. I was feeling kind of bored with church—singing songs in God’s Presence and hearing a lecture is good and all, and the prophetic words and miracles are good, but it seemed very limited, as far as what’s out there in the world, and without much vision. Maybe it’s just that I’m task-oriented and church is largely people-oriented. At any rate, Wright’s vision of us new-creations participating in God’s new-creation project of redeeming creation to its original design is very broadly scoped. Everything I enjoy has an essential place in the new creation: science is the study of God’s creation; hiking is delighting in God’s creation; art is a way of knowing, as it were, the beauty of God and his creation and everything he imagines for the future. The new-creation project gives me permission to enjoy the good things in creation and vision to partner with God in making it more amazing.
This new-creation perspective also makes the Good News sound like actual good news. The message “you’re a miserable sinner, but if you follow Jesus you’ll be forgiven and then you get to go to heaven when you die”, which, while true, does not provide much hope and excitement, or much to live for while I’m still alive. Getting to be part of the new-creation project sounds really exciting.
This book is clearly the product of a thoughtful scholar. It is succinctly argued but develops a strong argument while also quickly examining some problems with competing arguments. The conclusions that Wright comes to on the contentious issues he discuses are generally not the ones that American Protestants espouse, but Wright’s framework is a whole lot richer and delights in God’s material world more than the Church tends towards. At the same time, some of Wrights positions are harder actually live out—whereas the Church is largely content to stay out of politics (or simply sides with one party), Wright advocates speaking truth to Power on both sides, which is never comfortable. Wright makes a great case that the Bible is not a manual for ensuring that your soul spends eternity in heaven but that the Bible describes God restarting his creation plan for us to partner with him in creating a garden where God and man dwell. This is a much richer Gospel, and seems more in keeping with the flavor of the New Testament. I hope that if he has not already done so, Wright will write a book that coherently describes the new-creation plan, rather than this somewhat disjointed volume of essays, but this book still offers a clear and life-changing perspective on the Gospel, the Kingdom of God, and our role as Christians. Furthermore, it is robust enough to stand the test of time, remaining insightful even when contemporary hot topics have changed. I highly recommend this book for any Christian looking for “more”.