A Little Farther Down the Path: The Day the Revolution Began

On Wednesday, March 1 (Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent) I published a blog post that outlined the plan for my Lenten discipline this year. That plan called for a series of fourteen blog posts, each one dealing with a separate title from my shelf of new books to be read (or, in a couple of cases, to be finished). If you haven’t read that introductory post, which includes a list of all fourteen titles, you can find it here.

Fourteen books in seven weeks, and I almost made it. I published posts on the first twelve. Regarding the last two, here is the text of my Facebook post for Monday, April 17, the day after Easter Sunday and the end of Lent.

I finished the reading I had committed to completing during Lent, but I still have a blog post to publish on each of the final two titles. My grandson was under the weather a few days last week, and grandpop duties (and privileges) took precedence over blog post writing. I will publish those two posts (and maybe another one to survey, summarize, and wrap up the series of fourteen books), and then I’m going to go dark for a month. I need some time to think about some stuff and maybe make some fairly major decisions. I only wanted those of you who read my blog to know that I will finish the series a few days late. Peace.

Well, it’s more than a few days late, but I have not forgotten my public pledge to write two more posts referencing the final two of those fourteen titles. In fact, I privately determined that I would publish nothing else on my blog until I had made good on my Lenten pledge.

N.T. Wright

With this post, then, I am examining (after a fashion) the thirteenth title on the list, The Day the Revolution Began, written by New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and currently Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. This was the book that triggered my thinking about undertaking this project.

It was also the only one of the fourteen that I wanted to write about on a specific day and date. Given that the book’s title refers to the day Jesus was crucified, I really wanted to publish the post dealing with this book on Good Friday, April 14. Alas, I did not make it. Once I had missed that self-imposed deadline, then, and in light of the complexity of the subject matter, it was easy to keep putting off the writing until I felt a bit more confident in dealing with the book’s thesis.

I once asked a friend if he had read a certain book by N.T. Wright. “Yes,” he said. “But only twice so far, so I’m not really prepared to discuss it yet.” I know exactly what he meant. I felt the same way after the first two or three books I read by N.T. Wright. Although I have now read at least seven of Wright’s many books, I felt that familiar sense of inadequacy invade my thinking as I considered how to approach this post, and before you could say “Platonized eschatology,” I had let more than a month pass without publishing the promised post.

I hope I have not frightened you away from digging into Wright on your own. Although he is a skilled and well-trained theologian, much of his writing is designed, not for other scholars, but for all of us “regular folks” who love God, the Bible, and the church. He is challenging, both as a thinker and as a writer, but the benefit is well worth the effort required to grasp his ideas.

This will not be a review in any formal sense. I am simply not equipped, theologically or intellectually, to offer a critique of Wright’s thesis in this book. That is not to say I will never be ready to do that, only that I am not doing it here. What I do want to attempt, however, is a summary of that thesis so that you can understand the major point Wright is making and, perhaps, be so intrigued by it that you will read the book for yourself.

For the most part, I am going to allow Bishop (now Professor) Wright to speak for himself in quotes I will draw from the text. For example, in considering the message and purpose for the book, Wright notes, on page 34…

The cross was the moment when something happened as a result of which the world became a different place, inaugurating God’s future plan. The revolution began then and there; Jesus’s resurrection was the first sign that it was indeed under way. That is what the present book is about.

Then further, on page 43…

John 3:16 (in the KJV) says “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” The popular (teaching) I have described… can easily be heard as saying, instead, that God so hated the world, that he killed his only son. And that doesn’t sound like good news at all. If we arrive at that conclusion, we know that we have not just made a trivial mistake that could easily be corrected, but a major blunder. We have portrayed God not as the generous Creator, the loving Father, but as an angry despot. That idea belongs not in the biblical picture of God, but with pagan beliefs.

Then he expands that idea on page 147 (and elsewhere)…

We have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of “salvation” (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore).

In a nutshell, Wright believes that, over the years and generations, Christians have twisted and misinterpreted the original sense of purpose for the crucifixion of Jesus. They have focused on “personal salvation” and the deliverance of the “saved” out of this evil world and into God’s presence in “heaven.” As a consequence, they have foisted onto the world and the Christian community the “three-layered mistake” he spoke of in the preceding paragraph. The corrective? Well, he writes on page 197…

Despite his repeated hints, none of Jesus’s followers initially regarded his death as anything other than a complete disaster. Nobody knew, on the evening of the first Good Friday, that any of this sequence of thought, from victory over the “powers” to dealing with sins, might even be thinkable. But once Jesus had been raised from the dead, and once his followers had thought their way through the great scriptural stories that alone could make sense of such a thing, they knew the revolution really had begun. And, in knowing that, they knew that the same revolution had caught them up in its wake. What Jesus had decisively launched they must determinedly continue. And that brings us, in conclusion, to ourselves.

After supporting his thesis through a survey of pertinent passages in the Pauline letters, Wright applies it to the contemporary Christian community. On page 358 he writes, “Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross. Everything else follows from this.”

Then, on page 364…

We need one another, and we need pastoral care and direction within the church. Sometimes we need, for our own sake and the sake of the work in which we are engaged, to sense afresh just how dark and deep the power of sin really is and to know afresh what it means to be delivered from it. At other times, focusing on sin all the time might actually become neurotic or even self-indulgent, when we should instead be looking outward, working to bring healing and hope to the world. All Christian pilgrimage is a matter of rhythm and balance. This will vary according to different personalities, different churches, and different social and cultural situations. We need one another’s help to attain rhythm and balance and keep them fresh. But within the Body of Christ as a whole we need to keep our eyes fixed on the larger picture and discern our individual vocations, replete as they will be with healing possibilities for us as well, within that.

And further, page 366…

The victory of the cross will be implemented through the means of the cross. One of the dangers of saying too easily that “the Messiah died for our sins” is to imagine that thereafter there would be no more dying to do, no more suffering to undergo…. The opposite is the case, as Jesus himself had always warned. The victory was indeed won, the revolution was indeed launched, through the suffering of Jesus; it is now implemented, put into effective operation, by the suffering of his people. (cf. 2 Cor. 6:4-10)

And this, page 374…

It is after all generous love, Jesus-shaped love, that draws people into the Christian family in the first place, not the complex crossword puzzles of subtle theologians. But what a book like this may be able to do is to explain to confused onlookers how the larger picture fits together, so as to avoid the risk that love itself may be subverted by other influences. In particular, it may explain how the mission of the church is organically and intimately related to the great events at the heart of the faith.

At several points, Wright offers his own summary of the book’s message, as here, on pages 407-408.

The point of view I have been putting forward, rooted in the New Testament, is a long way from what most Western Christians, and Western non-Christians for that matter, imagine to be the meaning of the cross…. What I am saying, based on the revolutionary meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion, is that “life after death” is a quite different thing from what most Western Christians have imagined, since the ultimate future is a life after “life after death,” in other words, the life of the resurrection and the ultimate new creation.

And here, page 409…

Christian theology… has everything to gain and nothing to lose by abandoning its Platonized eschatology, its moralized anthropology, and its paganized soteriology and embracing instead the vision of new heavens and new earth with renewed humans rescued from the power of sin and death to take their proper and responsible place, here and now and in the age to come, within that new world.

This is a book that cannot, must not, simply be read, comprehended, appreciated, then put back on the shelf. It cries out to be pored over by serious Christians, discussed thoroughly, and then implemented in the church with profound implications for the surrounding culture. If that were to happen, and if Wright is correct in his interpretation of the meaning of the death of Jesus, then, as he himself writes…

The message for us, then, is plain. (T)he Creator calls (us) to a genuine humanness at last, calls and equips (us) to bear and reflect his image. Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now.

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2 thoughts on “A Little Farther Down the Path: The Day the Revolution Began

  1. Thanks again, Brother Eric. You really do know how to whet the appetite with such crisp and clear slices through a complex work. I’ll have to include this one on my shelf within easy reach. You are a blessing, and this is a ministry. Keep on!

    • Thanks again for the encouragement, Gerald. I had already begun to think about including a review like this as a weekly feature, maybe on Fridays, when I get back to regular blogging. With your comment in mind, I will think about it even harder. Peace.

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