Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Challenge of Jesus

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus


Recently, I have been exploring on the relationship between the synoptic problem and Christian eschatology. After Part II, I decided to take a break, let my thoughts jell, and stop pontificating and start researching. I was surprised by the lack of immediately available information, as far as I could tell, on this specialized topic. So, when Mark Olson challenged non-believers to read Wright's book, I gladly accepted.

Mark's invitation included this statement: "On a personal selfish note, I really do want to hear what a 'differently' biased person might say when reading this." Here's where I qualify. As a former believer, a one-time adherent to the Christian faith, I have a strong affinity for all things Christian; my understanding of Christianity is both from an insider's an an outsider's perspective. So, unlike some "strong atheists" or persons of different faiths, I have no automatic, knee-jerk responses to Christian arguments; to some degree, I can see where Christians are coming from, because I've been there.

That being said, Wright's book is readable, interesting, and surprisingly poignant in parts (which I'll discuss later), and condenses a wealth of information into bite-size chunks. Written for laypersons, and not extensively footnoted, it is perhaps a jumping-off point for scholars. My disappointment relates to its target demographic: Christian believers. The book is a call for recommitment to the quest for the historical Jesus, reconciliation between opposing historical-critical camps, renewal of dialogue among Christians about the true meaning of the Gospels. As an insider-outsider, I can easily navigate through the faith-talk looking for intellectual insight, but I would imagine such language off-putting for a "true" nonbeliever.

Getting the Gist

How can we understand Jesus--his identity, his mission, his meaning? Wright's answer is simple on the surface, but staggeringly complex in application. Wright asks his readers to imagine themselves as "average Galileans," situating our minds in a proper 1st-century context. In this way they should truly understand what Jesus meant to his listeners, recognizing that he came at a unique moment in history, and for a unique purpose: to inaugurate the kingdom of God.

By extension, then, the Church's role is not to blindly work out "What Would Jesus Do" by parsing parables, but to be a divine agent provocateur and beacon of Godliness, as Christ was for the Jewish community.

Through this "average Galilean" set of spectacles, Wright manages to verify all the central claims of orthodox Christianity. (Skeptics will note that Wright's purpose, as noted before, is not apologetic; look elsewhere to find his arguments defended at length.) However, Wright intends to puncture half-truths of contemporary theology, not least of them a Gnostic heritage of the Enlightenment.
Western orthodoxy, not least within what calls itself "evangelicalism," has had for too long an overly lofty and detached view of God. It has always tended to approach the christological question by assuming this view of God and then fitting Jesus into it. Hardly surprising, the result has been a docetic Jesus.

At the close of the historical analysis, Wright challenges his readers to put education into action. His ethical claims, however, are so broad as to be almost vacuous. Sure, he calls for Christians to be a vanguard, leading the culture through the post-postmodern era, and to model "humaneness"--but he has no words on specific divisive issues like abortion, divorce, or homosexual practice--perhaps because of their inflammatory nature, or because he has commented on them elsewhere (look here or here or here to read up on his consistently conservative position). Wright calls for the Church to be a light--but seems to downplay the importance of lighting from within.

Seeing Through Glasses, Darkly

We now come to the primary critique of N.T. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus. The proper way to read the Gospels, Wright claims, is to adopt the mindset of an average first-century Galilean. Do this, and Jesus's cryptic parables, ruminations on the kingdom of God, his death and resurrection will make sense--and, furthermore, will end up, in a new way, confirming all the things Christians have believed through the centuries.

I will not disagree with Wright's basic strategy: our best hope of understanding Jesus is to realize that most (if not all) of his words were not intended for us; we should not "read into" the text. I also agree that Jesus's words and actions fit into a particular cultural, historical, and literary context, and to ignore this is to distort their meaning and significance. But is literary precedent equal to meaning? Wright often slides the two together.

Consider his treatment of Mark 13, sometimes called the "Little Apocalypse."
The whole chapter is to be read, I suggest, as a prediction not of the end of the world but of the fall of Jerusalem.... [T]he language of the sun and moon being darkened, and so forth, is regularly used in Scripture to denote major political or social upheavals... and to connote by the use of this language the cosmic or theological significance that they ascribe to these events.

The language in Mark 13, then, about the Son of Man coming on the clouds should not be taken with wooden literalism--as, of course, generations both of critical scholars and uncritical believers have taken it.... The phrase about "the son of man coming on the clouds" would not be read, by a first-century Jew poring over Daniel, as referring to a human being "coming" downward toward the earth riding on an actual cloud.
Look at Wright's claim: Daniel uses "son of man coming in the clouds" to mean this, therefore Jesus must use the phrase in the same way, because... well, because. Contrast this with the transition from Luke to Acts, its sequel.
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Is this a "literal" taking-up, or a metaphor for disappearance? Onward to part two:
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Now, is it "wooden-headed literalism" to assume that a cloud is a cloud, and that the disciples actually stood there looking into the sky? Why wouldn't the angel say, "This same Jesus will come back, but not exactly the same way he left?"

Wright may be correct--perhaps Mark 13 isn't about the return--but he is certainly wrong to dismiss an apocalyptic reading of the passage by stating that "first century Jews wouldn't think of Jesus going up into heaven"--because, if Luke is to be trusted, first-century Jews stood there watching as he did just that.


Post a Comment

<< Home