This is the first post in a series examining N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Today we're looking at the Preface and Chapter 1: All Dressed Up and No Place to Go?
On both the dust jacket and in the preface, Wright claims that most
Christians – let alone non-Christians – are mistaken about the
Christian understanding of hope, life after death, and resurrection. In the preface, then, Wright briefly sketches the two principal thrusts of Surprised by Hope:
The first chapter – All Dressed Up and No Place to Go? – looks at the variety of contemporary beliefs about the afterlife, none of which matches up with classical Christian teaching. Wright touches on the beliefs of other religions (putting to rest the idea that "all religions are the same"), and also looks at popular beliefs in reincarnation, the immortality of the soul, and the Buddhist/nature religion hybrid in which the soul "is absorbed into the wider world, into the wind and the trees" (pg 11). Wright reveals a diverse landscape of belief which lacks consensus nor bears any likeness to Biblical and early Christian understandings of the afterlife. This discussion sets the stage for Chapter Two: Puzzled About Paradise? in which he will examine the confusion among Christians about these matters (and we'll examine Chapter Two right here on Monday, September 8).
The Lutheran Zephyr reflects:
I admit to some distracted writing, as I'm also listening to the GOP convention right now (and I'll refrain from commenting on our GOP brethren's convention for the time being). But to be honest, there's not too much meat to chew on in these first few pages, pages which also preview Wright's ability to eloquently and repeatedly reiterate his theses.
Nonetheless, Wright has laid out his goals – to examine the Christian belief about death and "what lies beyond it," and to address how this belief impacts the way we can live and minister now. This conviction that our belief about the future affects our life now is central to his argument and, indeed, to Christian eschatology.
– pg. 6
Wright's analysis of society's diverse beliefs about the afterlife should be familiar to us all. At many a hospital deathbed I heard loved ones describe the deceased's presence in heaven, or witness to the presence of the deceased's soul – recently departed from the body – in the room or in the world. These are commonly held beliefs, and should be treated with care and love . . . but they do not match up with the witness of Scripture or the Christian tradition.
It will be interesting to see not only how Wright articulates Christian belief about these things, but how he suggests the church should go about the task of re-articulating these beliefs in a compassionate, pastoral manner. For the task of theology is not chiefly a pursuit of intellectual curiosity or academic discipline, but rather a servant of the pastoral and evangelical imperative to bear grace, truth, comfort – that is, the Good News of Jesus Christ – to the world, and particularly to those who suffer.
Please join us on Monday for a brief discussion of Chapter 2 of Wright's Surprised by Hope. See you then.