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”.
Ch. 1: Healing the Divide betweeen Science and Religion
- The creation/evolution debate is a lot stronger in the U.S. than in Britain, where it is not really a big issue. The Snopes trial was such a big deal in the U.S. because it touched on a long pre-existing rift in American culture, and one that affects the U.S. more strongly than Europe.
- Western culture is steeped in Epicureanism, which is the philosophy that the universe is just a product of chance collisions of atoms. It was popularized by Lucretius around 60 BC in his poem “On the Nature of Things”. The logical consequence of this philosophy is to enjoy yourself, although Lucretius points out that hedonistic enjoyment tends to be counterproductive. Since 95% of Romans were poor, this philosophy did not do very well. Lucretius was rediscovered in 1417, and Epicureanism did well in the Enlightenment, since personal wealth was increasing the number of people able to enjoy life, and it’s philosophy provided philosophical justification for rebelling against the controlling monarchies (no divine right of kings if there was no God that created everything) and the controlling Church.
- Evolution isn’t a new idea at all.
- The U.S. enshrined Epicureanism in its constitution: religion and state are separated. Here, too, we were trying to get away from a controlling king and a controlling State church.
- Epicureanism sets the state for the conflict that erupted between science and religion. Epicureanism charges that there is no God who reaches into the universe and does things (like miracles), and Christians answer the charge by saying “yes there is, and He does”. But it goes deeper than that, into the very assumptions of the country, things like individualism and the belief that excellence will naturally rise to the top. Similarly, the modernist view reflects Epicureanism by observing that we have learned a lot and bettered the human condition by means of science, so obviously there is no God (which does not at all follow from the first). So science versus religion also brings in a lot of cultural and political opinions that have nothing to do with the stated topic.
- But the Christian answer that God does indeed reach in belies the Epicurean assumption that God is outside to begin with.
- The Creation story—a poetic account not at all concerned with the number of 24 hour periods—would be understood by ancient readers as God building a temple. He creates the earth and everything in it, and then he creates the image (a temple always has an image of the god), only in this case the image is us. So instead of an Epicurean worldview where God is outside and reaches inside, Genesis portrays God’s world and our material world intersecting and overlapping. God is not outside reaching in, he is intersected and overlapped with us. Creation sings of the glory of God because it is already full of the glory of God.
- The first narrative of the Bible (Genesis to Exodus) is God creating a temple, but we rebel, and he starts the project over with the Israelites and comes and dwells in and with us. This process repeats itself, and God comes and dwells again in the temple in Jerusalem. Ultimately God, comes as Jesus, ultimately in and with us, fixes the problem of evil, and makes us his temple, dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit.
- “The whole project of Jesus is a new-temple project, which is why the Jerusalem Temple and then the pagan temples became 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, climatically in his death and resurrection, and then through the similar shaped and spirit-driven mission of his followers.
- The problem isn’t trying to integrate faith and science somehow, it is figuring out what this new-temple project looks like in our lives.
Ch. 2: Do We Need a Historical Adam?
- “The first [theological driver of the need for a historical Adam] supposes that if people let go of this position, they are letting go of the authority of scripture. ... In dispensationalism in particular, a flat, literal reading of Genesis is part of a package that includes the rapture, Armageddon, saving souls for a timeless eternity, and so on”. (26-7)
- The second driver is the idea that we know before we begin that the Bible, and especially the Gospels and Romans, are concerned with how we get saved. This is part of both Catholic and Protestant, liberal and conservative thinking.
- The authority of scripture [addressing the first driver]:
- Jesus said “all authority in heaven and earth is given to me." So the Bible doesn’t actually have the authority, Jesus does. But the Bible is how the authority of Jesus is mediated, by showing who Jesus is.
- What is God’s authority for? His original plan in Genesis was to rule over Creation through obedient humans. Adam failed, Israel failed, but Jesus succeeded. And the Bible is how Jesus’ followers are equipped to be the obedient humans facilitating God’s rule over Creation.
- “classic orthodoxy has routinely forgotten that the central message of the gospels, as of Jesus himself, was that through him and his work and his death and resurrection, the living God was becoming king on earth as it is in heaven. If we aren’t getting that message out of the Bible, we aren’t reading the Bible itself but rather allowing our traditions to echo off the surface of a text that is trying to tell us something else.” (30)
- The Bible does not try to be an answer book; in fact, it tries to be the opposite. The Bible forces us to wrestle through the issues, and in so doing, become mature and able to decide rightly; if the Bible just gave us the answers, we would not become mature enough to make the decisions ourselves. “The Bible is there to give you the questions and the agenda, to shape you into being the people with courage and skill to answer those questions and follow that agenda. 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.’” (31)
- Rev 5: the crowd signs that the Lamb was slaughtered to make them a kingdom and priests to serve our God and reign on earth.
- Paul discussion of Adam [addressing the second driver]:
- Romans is not about getting saved, it is that the entire world is now God’s holy land.
- Rom 5:17: “If by the trespass of the one, death reigned in the one...” and we expect “how much more will life reign through the one” but in fact Paul says “how much more will those who receive [the grace and covenant] reign in life through Jesus the Messiah.”
- When Adam sinned, he not only participated in the death endemic to creation, but he no longer ruled; death ruled.
- 1 Cor 15:20-28: Paul is referencing Ps 8 and 110, and saying that Jesus is already reigning where Adam was supposed to be.
- Paul’s point is that Adam’s calling has been fulfilled by Jesus.
- In Genesis, God is creating a temple, which is how the Jews (and everyone else in the Near East) understood God’s sphere to intersect with man’s sphere. The central part of a temple is the image of the God, which in the case of Yahweh is mankind. But the image of God isn’t in our genetics or some secret sauce that makes us different from the animals; it is in our calling, which is to be a royal priesthood, reflecting God’s glory and wisdom into the earth [royal] and reflecting the praises of creation back to God [priesthood].
- The Temple was central to the first-century Jewish worldview.
- “through his true image bearer, Jesus the Messiah, he has rescued humans from sin and death in order to re-inscribe his original purposes, which include the extension of sacred space into all creation, until the earth is indeed filled with God’s knowledge and glory as the waters cover the sea. God will be present in and with his whole creation; the whole creation will be like a glorious extension of the tabernacle in the wilderness or the temple in Jerusalem.” (36)
- Genesis parallel’s Israel: people are placed in a garden, instructed on how to let God rule through them (tending the garden for Adam, Torah for Israel), warned that disobedience will result in expulsion, they disobey and are expelled. Neither Adam nor Israel could do this, but the second Adam accomplished it through obedience on the cross.
Ch. 3: Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?
- There are different kinds of “belief”. Science examines repeatable events. History examines events that only happen once. There is also “belief” of the meaning “I believe my wife loves me.”
- Historical analysis of the Resurrection:
- “Resurrection” in the ancient world meant “bodily resurrection, where a dead body came back to life”. It didn’t mean any sort of spiritual resurrection. Also, nobody in the ancient world thought that dead bodies came back to life; they had plenty of evidence on that point.
- By the first century, the belief that God is the world’s creator and that he makes things right, led most Jews to believe in a resurrection. This was a bodily resurrection of either God’s people or the entire world.
- Christianity has a number of mutations in its belief from the very beginning that are very strange, given that they founders were Jews and held a Jewish worldview:
- There is no spectrum of belief on the Resurrection in early Christianity, unlike Judaism, which ranged from a bodily resurrection (Pharisees) to no resurrection (Sadducees).
- Resurrection was central to Christian thought, but peripheral to Jewish thought. It was talked about, but many long works never mention it. But Christian thought makes no sense without the Resurrection. Christianity still works if you take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, for instance, but without the Resurrection, most of the New Testament and the second-century Church fathers would go with it.
- Christians were very specific about the form of the Resurrection: it was a physical body, but it had new properties. This “spiritual” body was Spirit-animated, and therefore incorruptible. Judaism, by contrast, was vague and undecided about what was going to happen.
- Jews thought the resurrection was an event that would happen at the same time to many people; Christianity split it into two: the prototype event happened to Jesus and would happen to everyone else in the future. This idea shows up nowhere else outside of Christianity.
- Christians sought to anticipate the final resurrection in their personal holiness and in transforming the epreeseent.
- Christians used resurrection in a metaphorical form, in baptism and holiness (Rom 6, Col 2-3), as well as in the concrete form of the future resurrection.
- Christianity associated resurrection with the Messiah. Nobody in Judaism expected the Messiah to die; the Messiah was supposed to fight the pagans, cleanse the Temple, and bring God’s justice to the world. Jesus did not appear to do any of that, and he was crucified on top of it, which is pretty much the death-knell for a Messiah.
- As a sub-point, because Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. “Death is the last weapon of the tyrant; the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated.” (51)
- The Easter stories also have some unusual characteristics:
- They differ in the details. This is a feature of eye-witness accounts. In “October 1946 Karl Popper gave a paper at Wittgenstein’s seminar in King’s College, as written up in the book Wittgenstein’s Poker. Several highly intelligent men—men who would modestly have agreed that they were among the most intelligent men in the world at the time—were in the room as Wittgenstein brandished a poker about and then left abruptly, but none could quite agree afterward as to what precisely had happened.” (52)
- The Old Testament is absent from the Easter stories, even though everywhere else in the Gospels quotes or structures the account to allude to the Old Testament. This suggests that the accounts are very old, before the storytellers had time for biblical reflection.
- Women were the principal witnesses. Women were not credible witnesses in the ancient world; nobody would have made them up. 1 Cor 15 is a male-only form of the account, and it clearly must be a later re-telling of the original account.
- Daniel said that the resurrected people would shine like a star, but Jesus doesn’t. He looks like a normal body, except that he can go through walls and is not always recognized. And then he goes through the thin curtain between our space and God’s space. This idea of a resurrected body was completely new to anyone.
- Nothing is said about the future Christian hope. Everywhere else Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype for our future resurrection; if the stories were later inventions they would have included this feature.
Ch. 4: The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women
- Gal 3:28: Paul is writing to contradict those who want to enforce Jewish customs on the family of God. There is one family, not two. It is not circumcision (a male marker) or descending from Abraham that qualifies someone as in God’s family but rather having Abraham’s faith. All are equal in Christ.
- Wright feels that the proper translation is not “... there is no male nor female” but rather “... there is is no ‘male and female’”, quoting Genesis and saying that God’s family doesn’t have distinct groups like male and female (as far as our status in Christ is concerned).
- (Paul is also not saying what the gnostic gospels say. The Gospel of Thomas ends by saying that Mary will be saved if she becomes male; this is definitely not what the NT says)
- Although the twelve apostles were male, there were many women leaders in the early church. Rom 16:7 mentions a women named Junia as an apostle. The women that saw Jesus resurrected were apostles to the apostles. The woman who anointed Jesus did a priestly action and Jesus acknowledges it as such.
- Mary: “sitting at the master’s feet” is a set-phrase meaning being a student of the master. So Mary sitting at Jesus feet is not simply avoiding housework, she is studying under him, with the men, which was forbidden in Jewish culture, but Jesus says it is good.
- Ken Bailey: women were not seen as a threat, and during the Crucifixion they came and went expecting to be unhindered. In fact, he notes that this is still the case in the Middle-East. In the violence in Lebanon, when the men were hiding, the women would go grocery shopping and take the kids out unhindered. But in the persecutions in Acts, Saul of Tarsus puts women in prison, too, which indicates that they were seen as a threat, that they were leaders of the church.
- 1 Cor 14: women should be silent in church and ask their husbands later. Ken Bailey: in modern times, the men and women sit separately and the lesson [in the mosque?] is given in classical Arabic. The men have learned classical Arabic, but the women only speak the local dialect, so they get bored and start talking among themselves and the speaker has to repeatedly call for quiet. Since Paul’s concern in 1 Cor 14 is for order in the church, this explanation fits well with his theme.
- Head coverings: it might be that the women had taken too much liberty with Paul’s teaching that there is no male and female, or that only prostitutes did not wear hats. Wright thinks that Paul’s point is that men should be men and women should be women, and look and act appropriately as men and women. If women are generally supposed to wear a hat to a religious service, then they should wear a hat in church; it would be inappropriate for a woman to wear a bikini to church, even though it would be acceptable at a beach.
- When Paul says the man is “head” of the woman, the word means “source” as in “source of a river”, and refers to Genesis. He is not saying in this passage that men have authority over women.
- 1 Tim 2 (women not teaching men):
- Verse 12 can be translated as “I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as thee new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.” (80) Timothy was probably in Ephesus when Paul wrote the letter, and Ephesus had Diana’s temple. Naturally all the staff of the temple were women, so women teaching men was common in Ephesus. This also explains why Paul needs to say that women shouldn’t dictate or boss around the men. Paul is saying that the Diana’s cult is not the model for the Church.
- Verse 8 says that men should pursue prayer and not be like the stereotypical Ephesian man who is angry and arguing. Verse 9-10 says that women, likewise, should not be like stereotypical women pursuing only jewelry and beautiful clothes; instead she is to contribute to society (“good works” is the set-phrase for giving to the poor, doing/building things that benefit the city (“pillars of society” sort of thing), contributing to the arts, etc.)
- Adam and Eve: both women and men should learn. After all, the first woman was deceived, so women not learning doesn’t end well. And it’s not like men have a leg to stand on, because Adam sinned deliberately, and the OT is pretty harsh about people who do that.
- Childbirth: “saved through childbirth”, that is, “protect throughout the childbirth process”.
- This passage is not intended to make mousey, quiet, subservient women, but to make both men and women into the most they can be.
Ch. 5: Jesus is Coming—Plant a Tree!
- Since long before the Reformation, Western Christianity has embraced a separated heaven/earth dualism and focused on making sure you leave Earth behind and get to Heaven. This is not the early Christian view, which was that Jesus was going to come and restore the earth to what it was intended to be.
- If you think that the earth and matter is unimportant or even bad, then obviously you want to enable as many people to exit from it as possible, and you aren’t going to be very interested in making sure the earth runs well. Why change the oil in a car that is going to go over a cliff?
- There is a spectrum within Christianity ranging from one end, where God improves the present earth until it becomes what he intended (which implies that the Christian should be about improving society, etc.), and the other where God throws it all away in favor of a superior, spiritual home.
- Rom 8:18-27 is the climax of Romans to that point. Since we “know” that Romans is about salvation, we miss 8:19-23 which appears to be a digression about creation groaning. However, these verses are absolutely central to Paul’s thinking.
- The “glory” being revealed in us is not luminescence, but the authority and power invested in us as stewards. The creation (including us) has been enslaved and is waiting for the stewards to be revealed that free it from the corruption that is part of its slavery. The chaos of nature is not nature’s natural state or its own fault; it has been enslaved because of us.
- Considering our only purpose on earth as obtaining salvation completely misses the point.
- In parallel to the Israelite Exodus, God is preparing an Exodus of the whole world from slavery. God’s holy land is no longer limited to Palestine, but to the whole world, saying in Rom 4 that God’s promise of land to Abraham refers to the whole world. (As see Ps 72 and some of Isaiah). In the first Exodus the Spirit dwelt among Israel in cloud and fire and they created a temple/tabernacle; in the second the Spirit’s fire resurrects that body and we become the temple.
- Western Christian tradition has ignored what Paul said, considering Heaven to be our inheritance (at the end of the Exodus). Paul is saying here that the restored, fulfilled earth is our inheritance.
- Obviously, this implies that we care about the earth (including society) now. In fact, elsewhere Paul says that what we do now will somehow be preserved and show up in the new creation.
- The Second Coming:
- The biblical view of heaven is that it is God’s dimension of the same reality as we are in. It overlaps with our dimension, it is not removed to some distant location. So Jesus coming isn’t like a physical arrival from a distant place.
- 1 Cor: Jesus defeats corruption and decay in his royal appearing (parousia)
- Rev 21: here the church is coming from heaven to be married to Jesus.
- “Salvation being kept safe for you in the heavens” (1 Peter): it’s metaphorical. Saying “your dinner is in the oven” doesn’t mean that you eat it in the oven, it means that is its storage place, to be eaten normally at the table.
- John 14: Jesus going to prepare a dwelling place: “dwelling places” (monai) is a lodging house, a temporary residence until you continue on the journey. Heaven isn’t our destination. When Jesus said the thief on the cross would be with him in paradise, that’s the Persian word for a beautiful garden, which was also associated with the place where the dead reside before the resurrection.
- 1 Thess 4: Paul isn’t talking about some rapture, he is using a lot of mixed metaphors to describe the royal appearance of Jesus. When Caesar came to a city (which parousia was used to describe), the citizens came out to meet him in the countryside and then escorted him to the city. This is the opposite of the rapture image of Jesus swooping down to gather people to him; instead, we are welcoming him.
- John 18:36: “my kingdom is not of this world” doesn’t mean that God’s kingdom is not in the world, but that it does not originate from this world order. The evidence is that if his kingdom was from this world, his followers would use violence. (Ironically, Christian nations have proclaimed Jesus’ kingdom to be spiritual and then used violence to build their worldly kingdom)
- 2 Peter 3: “the heavens and earth will be burned up with fire and the works on it will be found.” The best manuscripts have “will be found/discovered” as opposed to simply burned up, meaning that the fire will burn up the evil and corruption of the world and reveal the fulfillment of the justice and goodness God has been planning.
- The earth is not evil and God is going to fulfill his plan of creation. The NT assures us that what we do in our partnership with him in this world will survive, even though we do not know what that will look like.
Ch. 6: 9/11, Tsunamis, and the New Problem of Evil
- We tend to ignore evil until it hits us in the face, and then we act surprised. We look at the world like we look at the waves at the beach and a gangster movie in the theater, but are surprised when the waves turn into a tsunami suddenly (e.g. natural disasters) or the gangsters come off the screen and threaten us as viewers (e.g. terrorism).
- Older presentations of the problem of evil are more theoretical: if there is a god, why is there evil? (Or, for atheists, if everything is random, than how come there is so much good and beauty?)
- Historical discussions of evil:
- The Lisbon Earthquake on All Saints Day 1755, which happened when everyone was in church, when the buildings crumbled and killed many people, was a starting point for the discussion. The people were in church, but that didn’t save them; it meant there wasn’t the easy answer.
- Enlightenment thinkers (Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel) tried to deal with the problem of evil, as did Marx and Nietzsche later.
- The popular view on evil is Progress: everything is getting better and better, but you can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs. This comes from a “combination of technological achievement, medical advances, Romantic pantheism, Hegelian progressive idealism, and social Darwinism”. “It’s our article of faith. Progress is winning.” (112)
- We know evil is out there, but it is more convenient to ignore it. The West knew al-Qaeda was a danger, but ignored it. Countries around the Indian Ocean knew about tsunamis, but didn’t invest in early warning systems. “We all know that sexual licentiousness creates terrible unhappiness in families and individual lives, but we live in the twenty-first century, and we don’t want to say that adultery is wrong.” (112-113)
- Since we have a naive view of evil, we have immature reactions to it, such as Bush II’s axis of evil, the good “us” (Americans, Israel) and the evil “them” (Arabs, N. Korea) and “us” needs to punish “them”. (The reverse is also immature: the West is guilty in all regards and therefore protestors and terrorists are justified in their actions.)
- Dividing into “us” and “them” doesn’t solve the problem of evil. Not only is it hard to draw the line, but it sets up second-order evil as “us” attacks “them”.
- Post-modernism doesn’t help: “it remorselessly highlights the problem of evil, while avoiding any return to a classic doctrine of original sin by denying that three is really anybody there in the first place. Humans themselves deconstruct; you can’t escape evil in postmodernity, but there is nobody to take the blame.” Likewise there is no way out and no path for restoration. (114)
- The Bible is consistent in saying that God is in the process of setting the world right, although Haggai notes that this will involve some shaking. “Scripture seems to be trying to say that creation is good but incomplete, and human evil has somehow stalled the project of creation in its incomplete mode, so that humans need to be put right and the world needs a good shake.” (115)
- The Bible talks about a lot of evils: evil nations oppressing God’s nation, the powerful oppressing the poor, people using money or power to oppress, people in general failing to live as image-bearers. Even the people that God works through don’t look all that great: Abraham, Israel, the monarchy, the Pharisees offering rules and the zealots (ancient “freedom fighters” aka terrorists) and the leaders of Israel corrupt and Israel to the point that she says ‘we have no king but Caesar'.
- God is so committed to his new-creation project that he works within it to bring healing and restoration.
- Isaiah 53 says that this will culminate in God’s servant who has God’s spirit, and it’s going to cost God a lot. And even though God’s solution, Israel, has become part of the problem, God is still working from within creation to finish it by taking the injustice of the world on himself.
- Our theories of atonement have been too shallow, seeing the Cross as personal atonement and enabling God to take us out of the world to heaven, and kind of sidestep dealing with the problem of evil. But the Gospels don’t really talk much about atonement. Instead, they tell the story of how evil climaxes, how God’s people colluded with an evil empire to kill God, and so all the powers of darkness had freedom to do their worst to Jesus.
- “... as one old evangelistic tract put it, the nations of the world got together to pronounce judgment on God for all the evils in the world, only to realize with a shock that God had already served his sentence.” (123)
- The Cross is not an explanation of the problem of evil, it is God’s response to the problem of evil: to take it upon himself.
- We are called to implement God’s solution
- James and John want political power (be seated next to Jesus), but Jesus says that in the world’s system rulers lord it over those they rule, but in Jesus’ system, the leaders are those who serve everything, and that the chief ruler actually came to be a ransom for many.
- Jesus rebukes James and John’s resolution of a situation in the way of the world (calling down fire from heaven), and shows the opposite resolution: he forgives those who crucified him.
- In order to not become part of the problem like Israel before it, the Church cannot presume itself to be the bringer of the solution and attempt to impose its solution on the world—this is what James and John wanted to do.
- “What, after all, would it look like if the true God came to deal with evil? Would he come in a blaze off glory, in a pillar of cloud and fire, surrounded by legions of angels? Jesus of Nazareth took the total risk of speaking and acting as if the answer to the question were this: when the true God comes back to deal with evil, he will look lik ea young Jewish prophet journeying to Jerusalem at Passover time, celebrating the kingdom, confronting corrupt authorities, feasting with his friends, succumbing in prayer and agony to a cruel and unjust fate, taking upon himself the weight of Israel’s sin, the world’s sin, Evil with a capital E.” (125)
- Evil is confronted with love, and love consumes the evil.
- The answer to the problem of evil is:
- “We are not to suppose that the current world is the way God intends it to be at the last.” (125-6) (In fact, it is likely that our evil somehow is connected to what happens in the natural world)
- Gospels don’t show God as removed from the world, pulling the strings from a distance. Instead, God’s response to the problem of evil is to get in the world and to be with his people. “We must tell the story in terms of the God who was with his people in the midst of the mighty waters, the God who was swept off his feet and out to sea, the God who lost his parents and family, the God who was crushed under falling concrete and buried in mud. And then we have to learn to also tell the story in terms of the God who rescued others while not saving himself, the God who worked night and day to recover bodies and some still alive, the God who rushed to the scene with all the help he could muster, the God who gave lavishly to help the relief effort.” (126)
- We repent of the way of James and John and instead walk Jesus’ way of love.
Ch. 7: How the Bible Reads the Modern World
- Stoics thought that god and the world were the same thing; Epicureans thought that god didn’t interfere with the world, so just find the best way to enjoy life.
- Epicureanism took hold in the Enlightment because people wanted to revolt against the bully in the sky; choose their own political system rather than kings with divine right to rule; science and technology advances. However, none of these require that you choose Epicureanism: there could be a more biblical theology than the current one; one can get rid of tyranny and still accept that God may have values and constraints in democracy; one can observe things like evolution without rejecting the idea that God could be involved in the process. In fact, Chinese and Muslim societies had some of these same things and did not choose the Epicurean path.
- Within the West,
- The West did choose Epicureanism, and it is especially pronounced in the US, and has resulted in a lot of the conflict between Christians and secularists. Obviously if the debate is frame God or not-God, Christians choose God, but they still argue within the terms of that framework, instead of arguing that that binary framework is artificially restrictive.
- Our brains have right part that produces a high-level picture (and involves language, art, music) and a left part that deals with facts, numbers, and calculation/logic. We flourish best when both parts are in balance. But secularism values the left part above the right part, and has gone further, saying that the left part is the sole authority.
- Secular analysis of the Bible tries to fit it into the secular worldview, which being Epicurean means that miracles are ruled out. So secular biblical analysis cuts the Bible down to secular size. But even the Church talks about miracles as when God—who is usually outside, not interfering—interferes.
- The Enlightenment sees the climax of history as the “development successful development of progress” (136) via science and technology that the modern era has created. “We have seen the future, full of hope and prosperity and justice and peace, and if we haven’t quite implemented it yet, it must be because not everyone has quite got the point ... (sic) so those of us who have got it are under an obligation to force it upon them.” (136) This is how the Romans of Jesus’ time, thought, how Britain thought in the 1800s, and how the West—especially America—thinks today.
- The assumption that we’re all on a path to more “freedom” (whatever that is) “leads easily to the supposition that all non-Western nations are really liberal democrat butterflies simply waiting for someone to unzip their present chrysalis. Then, when we help them remove their dictators, we can’t understand why they don’t become like us.” (137) But this idea is a myth—the same Epicurean thought produced the very bloody French Revolution, the Gulag, and Auschwitz.
- The Bible sees the climax of history as Jesus’ resurrection demonstrating that God’s creation-renewal project has been started.
- The problem is that the Epicurean climax and the biblical climax are mutually incompatible, so of course the Epicurean human-success story must try to stamp out the “dangerous ideological claim” of Jesus the king.
- The Church has forgotten the whole message and whittled the resurrection down to God and I, how to get saved and get your life turned around. Which is there, but misses the main point.
- This is also why North America has such an emphasis on dispensationalism: once the emphasis is off the resurrection, it needs to be placed on the end times where everything will be good.
- Epicurean secularism has pitted left brain against right brain.
- The Bible challenges this whole set of assumptions
- Genesis 1:
- This is a sequence of six steps of building a temple (where God resides). In this temple heaven and earth are separated but not split and detached. Heaven is connected to earth.
- Where the image of the god would be, in the center, is where Man is—made in the image of God. We are God’s caretakers of the earth.
- There is not one creation story, but two. (The fact that they are somewhat left-brain incompatible is intended to alert the reader that these are poetic stories, not rationalist accounts.)
- Rabbi Sacks: “science takes things apart to see how they work, but religion puts things together to see what they mean.” And this putting-together process often involves stories.
- Both the Old Testament and New are stories that form a larger story, that God is repairing and renewing his world that has gone wrong. Just in the Old Testament the story is incomplete, and the early Christians interpret Jesus’ story as “this is where that original story was always going.” (143)
- The Old Testament shows God’s anointed bring all the warring nations under him. Nobody was expecting the Messiah to do that through self-giving love, and it goes against the imperial narratives of conquering the world through coercive force.
- The other narratives are parodies of the biblical one: the Roman narrative was that Rome had grown from a humble start to an imperial power that the gods had given the responsibility to bring peace and justice to the world. The Enlightenment parodies the story [by humans conquering the world?], as Marxism parodies biblical society and Freud parodies biblical inner-life.
- It is essential for us to learn to live within the biblical story, instead of retreating somewhere.
- People assume that science is one way of absolute knowing, and that the Bible offers another way of absolute knowing. This is not correct.
- Knowing is not just collecting information, but is a vocation of bringing that information into the world so that it works with God’s design.
- There is more than one kind of knowing, but the Enlightenment says that only rational, scientific knowing is valid and that philosophy or literary knowing is inferior.
- The knower is not isolated but the knowing takes place within a community of knowers. It is not possible to get a rationalistic, unbiased view. In fact, knowing is supposed to be done out of love for the subject being known.
Ch. 8: Idolatry 2.0
- Secularism tried to separate the gods from life, just like it separated arts/religion from science/knowing. But nature abhors a vacuum; we worship the old gods, we just call them something different.
- “Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud [claimed] to reveal the motives that lie hidden beneath the outwardly smooth and comprehensible surface of the modern world. It is all about power, declared Nietzsche. Everything comes down to money, said Marx. It’s all about sex, said Freud. In each case these were seen as forces or drives that were there whether we liked it or not; we might imagine that we are free to choose, but in fact we are the blind servants of these impulses. (152)
- Sex (Aphrodite): we have gone from virtually no pornography or broken families in the 1950s to thinking sex is the answer. We deny children a secure upbringing in in our pursuit of erotic love.
- Money (Mammon): we load countries down with debts they cannot pay and still insist that they pay it. None of the recent financial scandals or panics have diminished our faith in Mammon, and we still try to prop up the system.
- War (Mars): we think war to punish or overthrow regimes will result in peace, yet so far it never has (apart from WWII, and even there, we were responding to attacks against us). We admire Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which did work, but don’t emulate it.
- We think we have separated religion and politics, and limited religion to praying and hoping for a good afterlife, but only the modern West really thinks that, everyone else, past and present has integrated the two.
- Epicureanism has separated knowledge: there is scientific knowledge and integrated knowledge (philosophy/arts/religion), but we have split them. In the biblical view knowledge is not breaking things down to figure out how they work so that we can exploit them. It is learning about something that we love, so that we can steward it well.
- In the Bible, knowing is combined with wisdom. Wisdom brings together art and science, architecture and engineering, philosophy and politics. Biblically, you need wisdom to become a complete, mature human.
- Biblical wisdom has three steps, summarized by “fear of the Lord”. It means reverence and awe of the creator who sustains you, not trembling fear of a far-away bureaucrat (which is what our Epicureanism has made God into).
- We reflect God’s care and wisdom back into the world, because we are made in his image, and that’s what he does with the world.
- Biblical knowing+wisdom recognizes that the world is interconnected, not composed of individual things we can exploit.
- Humble: we don’t know everything, so we are always seeking correction and better knowledge.
- We’ve split love, too.
Ch. 9: Our Politics Are Too Small
- In 1987, theologian John Bowker observed that “all the world’s major trouble spots had an irreducible religious component and that the reason none of our politicians could fiugre out what to do was that none of them had studied religion (let alone the Bible) in college.” (164) He was prescient.
- The West does not think that God belongs in the public sphere (i.e. politics) because the Enlightenment took Him out to solve the problem of religious wars. Then democracy replaced the voice of God with the voice of the people.
- People like Dawkins keep repeating that religion should have died by now like the Enlightenment theory said it would, but so clearly the theory is wrong.
- The political issues of today have devolved into a shouting match between secularists and fundamentalists, but there is no solution in either of those sides; they are both not even talking about the right things.
- The Gospels tell the story of how God is launching His new-creation project, one requirement of which is that Jesus die and be resurrected.
- People have either focused on the social component of Jesus feeding the poor, etc. and refuse to talk about the resurrection, or they focus on the resurrection exclusively so that the rest is a long preamble (maybe with the side-effect of showing Jesus is God) and refuse to talk about Jesus’ social concerns.
- The Gospels refuse to be deconstructed. Both the resurrection and the social works / speaking truth to power are essential. Resurrection with public action doesn’t inaugurate any new-creation program, and social works without resurrection is at best stories about faith.
- Jesus makes a point of saying that the rulers of this world act one way, but we are supposed to the way of the Kingdom because the Son of Man gave his life as a ransom for many. But, the rulers of this world are in place for a reason, to resist chaos, because even corrupt rule is better than chaos, where might makes right and the widow and orphan get exploited.
- So if you want to say that we need to obey the rulers, that is fine and Jesus did say that, but however much you say we need to obey them is the same level of accountability you need to hold them to.
- In Greek democracy and the Roman Republic, rulers were held accountable for what they did in office even after they left. In our system, the worst that happens is that they don’t get re-elected.
- The Gospels give hope that God is doing his new-creation project, and although we won’t get there ourselves, He will eventually make everything right.
- We need to hold rulers accountable for ruling with righteousness and justice, which is what they were called by God to do.
- Even academics pick two narrow views: Gospels as social project, or Gospels as salvation recipe. We need to have a world-heaven integration, because the intersection of the two is the goal of the new-creation project.
- In Acts 2, the persecuted church prays Ps 2, which is very political: the nations of the world will be taught from the wisdom of the David-on-the-throne. Now this is fulfilled in Jesus, and the Church is tasked with bringing this about.
- The Church is how God is fulfilling His new-creation project, so not only is politics included, but there is no separation of the world within the church and the outside world.
- The early Christians explicitly affirmed secular rulers as being in place by God to defeat chaos. They turn this to control, but that was not the idea.
- “We in the contemporary Western world have all but lost the ability, conceptually, to affirm simultaneously that rulers are corrupt and must be confronted and that they are God-given and must be obeyed.” (176)
- The rulers are actually not just stopping chaos, but they are charged with anticipating that Jesus will eventually right all wrongs and start bringing this in place now.
- Jesus said that the Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin, which He does by the church doing justice and mercy, doing beauty and relationship. The rulers know this ought to be flourishing under their rule, but it isn’t. “Part of the underlying aim of this is then to encourage readings of the Bible that, by highlighting the publicness of God and the Gospel, set forward reforms that will enable the church to play its part in holding the powers to account and thus advancing God’s restorative justice.” (179)
Ch. 10: How to Engage Tomorrow’s World
- “Jesus fulfilled Israel’s age-old hope, but not in the way anyone expected or wanted.” (182)
- Jesus claims that the world is his; we cannot merely “navigate between competing pressures”.
- “But since Jesus’ way of life is the path of self-giving love, [the Kingdom’s agenda of 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’s 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.” (183)
- The early Church had figure out what living out the Kingdom meant—what counted as compromise, where to draw the line—especially in the face of sometimes hostile political forces.
- In Col 1:15-16 Paul says that Jesus created all powers and authorities, by and for him. Paul wasn’t concerned with the mechanisms of government, whether it was a two party system, or a big-budget multimedia affair to get elected, but rather on whether the system served God’s purposes.
- “The church is not simply a religious body looking for a safe place to do its own thing within a wider political or social world. The church is neither more nor less than people who bear witness, by their very existence and in particular their holiness and their unity (Col 3), that Jesus is the world’s true lord, ridiculous or even scandalous as this may seem.” (186)
- The early Christians weren’t trying to carve out a little place to practice their religion in peace; they were proclaiming the Jesus was Lord, including over Caesar. The Enlightenment model that the Church has bought in to is to retreat to practicing religion in private. The Church proclaiming that Jesus is Lord over presidents and prime ministers would be breaking that Enlightenment detente, which may be why things are so polarized in the US.
- Maybe our current problems are the result of the Church drifting on the prevailing winds with only a few distinctives like sexuality and family, and then wondering why the devil (as an angel of light, of course) has come to claim those, too. The Church hasn’t addressed our rampant individualism, our ideas of justice (for example, we won’t free poor nations from debts made by corrupt dictators, but when a banking crisis hits we will reset the debts of rich corporations), our approach to poverty, or our propensity for war to make peace.
- Jesus doesn’t claim that other authorities don’t exists. They do—he made them. But they are under his authority.
- Would Christians really want to be part of a community like Paul describes in Col 3:12-17, where we are tender-hearted and put up with anything, forgiving each other, and on top of it loving them?
- Over the past 300 years the State has been gradually nationalizing what the Church started and did for centuries.
- The Church started hospitals and schools to embody the love of Jesus. People liked the idea that everyone could be educated and healed, not just those with money. We’ve let the State take them over and then tells the church to be spiritual in private, and not weigh in with ideas about things like assisted suicide or genetic engineering or how to teach art.
- The Church (and the prophets before) has always claimed the right to speak truth to power. Frequently words were not eloquent enough and it took the bodies of martyrs. In the Enlightenment model, the Press claims this position. But as representatives of God, it properly belongs to the Church, it is one of our vocations.
- John 16:8-11 describes what will happen when the Holy Spirit comes.
- He will show the world its sin, through the world witnessing the better way that God’s people live, that shows up the world’s way as “sordid and shabby”. (Sadly, we tend to have a holier-than-thou attitude.)
- The Church speaks up about the areas where the world’s justice is favoring the rich and powerful and oppressing the poor and weak, and in so doing reveals to the world what justice really looks like. The bishops of the early church were known for championing the poor and the weak (much to the annoyance of the rich and powerful).
- The Church passes judgement on the world for its use of Satan’s threat (and use of) violence and death as a means of control
- There will be much resistance to reclaiming this ground both from inside and outside the Church.
Ch. 11: Apocalypse and the Beauty of God
- Three intertwined questions:
- “Apocalypse” isn’t a traumatic, “left behind” ending of the world, where the faithful get to leave the dying world for a better place (leaving them no incentive not to help exploit the current place). So what is an apocalypse?
- What is the role for art? Modernism has no real place for art, no use for it in daily life, other than enjoyment (if you’re happen to enjoy the arts). What role does the artist, dancer, sculptor have in Christian life?
- In Isaiah 6 the angels say that the whole earth is full of God’s glory, but in Isaiah 11 we see the lion laying down with the lamb in the future, and both Isaiah 11 and Habakkuk 2:14 saying the earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of God. So is the earth filled with God’s glory now or in the future?
- The earth is full of God’s glory, but it also is full of a lot of evil, too. The new-creation project is God with us redeeming creation to be full of his glory, of justice, of joy and beauty.
- Apocalypse is the future breaking into the present.
- Art is likewise a window into the future world that overflows with God’s beauty, joy, justice, and glory.
- The beauty of the Temple was a promise of what the whole world would get, and it inspired poetry and dance.
- If this picture is only in terms of the present world it becomes sentimental, and if it is only in terms of shame/horror it becomes brutalism.
- The artist portrays the beauty of the present, but also the fulfilled glorious beauty of the future. (A sculpture created by artists in Mozambique after their civil war—with weapons we sold them—created a beautiful tree of life made out of modern weapons, evoking many themes, including swords to plowshares).
- In whatever our calling is, we image the beauty of the future.
Ch. 12: Becoming People of Hope
- John’s Gospel echoes Genesis 1. It references Gen 1 at the start, with “In the beginning”. In Gen 1, God created Man in his image on Friday, and on Friday Pilate brings Jesus before the people saying “here is the man”. By the end of Friday Jesus says “it is finished”; just as God finished creation, Jesus finishes redemption. On the seventh day, God rested, and Jesus rested in the tomb. On the first day of the week (John 20:1, 19), Jesus is resurrected and begins the new creation. The tomb is empty because it is the first day. God finished his work of creation, Jesus finished his work of redemption, now the Holy Spirit is beginning his work of new-creation, and Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples (just as God breathed into the man and woman in Gen 1).
- “As the Father sent me, so I send you” and breathes the Holy Spirit. The mission of the Church is to be to the world what Jesus was to Israel.
- Jesus meets us where we are at. Thomas refuses to be taken in and demands proof, so Jesus gives it to him, even though it would be better if he had believed. We are to do that for the world. We are to live lives of such character and good deeds that people know who Jesus is.
- One project, young people went to a dark alley in a not-so-good part of town, and painted it and hung flowers. People were suspicious and thought the city government might be doing it and charging them for it, but it was free. Wright went back later on and found that the people had continued making improvements to the alley, planting things and having barbecues with each other, in the area they used to be afraid to go.
- John refers to Mary Magdalene with her public, Greek name Maria, but when she pours her heart out to Jesus thinking he was the gardener, he uses her Aramaic name, her personal name, what her dad called her when she was a girl, Miriam. And then she becomes the apostle to the apostles.
- Jesus asks Peter “do you love me more than these?” (presumably in reference to Peter saying he wouldn’t deny Jesus even if the others did) and then just “do you love me?” Both times Peter says philēo, not agápē. So Jesus meets him where he is the third time, “Peter, are you my friend?”
- Each time Jesus says “feed my sheep”, not “Peter you really messed up and we’re going to need to see six months of improvement before you can be trusted with further ministry.” “All Petrine ministry begins at this point, with the free forgiveness off those who have failed.” (216)
- “It is love that believes the resurrection. It is, conversely, the resurrection of Jesus that wakens love—love for him, love for one another, love for God’s world. This is the message of Easter. This is the message of hope.” (217)