Life Gets in the Way of “Hope”

Surprised
I've been pretty excited to blog chapter by chapter through NT Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  However, my initial plan to review a chapter every Monday and Thursday has run smack into the wall of life.  Since I first announced my intention to blog this book I have been unexpectedly busy with assignment/first call process happenings (no other details to share at this point); sending our oldest daughter to her first year in elementary school; going to the doctor's office a few times for our ear-infected 10 month-old; holding down the fort while my wife has made several visits to her sister who is pretty sick but getting better in a hospital about a hour from here; following the Phillies' run toward the post-season (thank God for XM Satellite radio that allows me to listen to the Phillies in Fairfax!); celebrating our oldest daughter's first lost tooth; frolicking outside on the first full days of fall; and then there's the tasks of church work; and so on . . .

For those of you who are reading along, I apologize.  The book blogging will return hopefully later this week.  But life has intervened, and as much as I enjoy this blog and this particular blog project, it takes a back seat to more important things, such as sick kids, pennant-race baseball, and a loose tooth.

Surprise By Hope: Neither Progressive Nor Damned

This is the fifth 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 Chapter 5: Cosmic Future: Progress or Despair?

Surprised
This is the briefest chapter since Chapter 1, and appropriately so.  Chapter 5 serves as an introduction to Part II: God's Future Plan.  After spending more than 70 pages looking back at the basics of early Jewish and Christian belief, the cultural context, and the historical basis of Christian belief and practice, we now move "back to the future" to look at how those early Christians understood their future and the future of the world.

These days, we tend to look to the future through one of two sets of lenses.  First, there is the progressive set of lenses.  When we put these glasses on, we see the world and human society gradually getting more sophisticated, more "developed" (technologically and economically), more, well, progressive.  I've heard this in my own life – whether in terms of social justice or personal rights, many will suggest that we are progressing.

What Wright points out, however, is that the "progressive" lenses fail to see (or make sense of) the clear and present examples of our failure to progress.  Sin and evil continue to wreak havoc on the world, from disease to war to global warming to poverty to genocide and various -isms which degrade and dehumanize people made in God's own image.  If we believe the myth of progress, what do we make of those clear examples of our failure to progress – particularly our global moral failures?  A progressive view of the world and human history cannot adequately account for sin and evil.

The other set of lenses through which we often view the world is that which sees the world as rapidly approaching damnation.  This view suggests that the world is "going to hell in a hand basket" and our best bet is simply to grin, bear it, and sure as heck hope that something better awaits us on the other side.  This world view devalues the created world, viewing it as corrupt and fallen.  And though the notion that Creation is fallen has firm footing in Christian thought, this worldview has a weak understanding of redemption.  Rather than hoping for and expecting a redemption of the whole world, this damnation worldview sees the world as temporary and sees eternity – a spiritual, other-worldly realm – as the destination for faithful souls.  Valuing the spiritual nature over the created nature, then, leads to a disregard for creation and an unholy, self-centered spirituality.  Wright begins to outline how this body/soul dichotomy is rooted much more in Plato than in anything found in the Bible.

Wright details the problems in these two worldviews, setting us up for Chapter 6: What the Whole World's Waiting For, where we read these lines on the chapter's first page:

The early Christians did not believe in progress . . . But neither did they believe that the world was getting worse and worse and that their task was to escape it altogether . . . They believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter (page 93).

The Lutheran Zephyr responds:

I was grateful for a short chapter . . . :-) 

Seriously, I found this chapter helpful, if for no other reason than it identifies the short-comings of the two dominant views of the world.  I can't accept either that we're progressing or that the world is inherently evil.  I see the brokenness of our society and world today, and cannot claim that we've progressed along some sort of moral scale over the past several centuries or millenia.  Our ability and propensity to commit sin is as great as at any time in human history – only now, we have more powerful tools than ever.  And yet, within this world I see a God-given value in people, creatures, societies, cultures . . . I see in this world a place God chose to call home, a people God selected as his own, a human condition God gladly took on for himself.  How can I just throw that under the bus and hope for some other worldly spiritual utopia?  Was/is all this for naught?

But nor do I believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle.  It seems that there must be another answer, another way.  This chapter whets the appetite in anticipation of what that other answer, what that other way is . . .

Please join us early next week as we look at Chapter 6: What the Whole World's Waiting For.  Until then, have a great weekend.

Surprised by Hope: The Resurrection Changes the Whole Story

This is the fourth 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 Chapter 4: The Strange Story of Easter.

SurprisedThe first time I read Chapter 4, The Strange Story of Easter, I didn't underline much or make many margin notes.  And as I re-read the chapter this evening – granted, an evening marked by sick-child-induced fatigue – I can still say that I am not greatly moved by much of it.  What gives?

Much of the chapter argues in some detail for the historical reliability of Jesus' resurrection.  If you haven't ever given much thought to this topic, this chapter is a must-read.  [Having read Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus: This Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels I didn't need any more convincing – perhaps explaining some of my boredom with this chapter.]  In the previous chapter Wright argued that the accounts of Jesus' resurrection are so unique when compared to contemporary belief systems, that something had to have happened.  In this chapter he fleshes out that supposition.

He starts out the chapter by naming four aspects of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection that point to the story's early dating and thus, to its historicity.  Contra arguments that the Gospels were written – created? – 50+ years after Jesus, Wright suggests that though they were first written down in the 80s or 90s, the Gospels' resurrection accounts "go back to very, very early oral tradition, which was formed and set firmly in the memory of different storytellers before there was any time for biblical reflection" (page 54).  The four characteristics of the Gospels that he highlights as witnessing to their early origins are somewhat complex, and I'll leave you to evaluate them on your own (see pages 53-58). 

Having established the historicity of the resurrection accounts, he then goes on to detail how Jesus' empty tomb and his post-resurrection appearances are "the only possible explanation for the stories and beliefs that few up so quickly among Jesus' followers" (page 63).  That is, as Wright has said elsewhere, something must have happened for this early Christian community to forge such a unique set of beliefs and practices within the broader setting of Judaism. 

In assessing the historical reliability of the resurrection, he first shows that the early Christians had words to describe various spiritual and supernatural encounters.  Their consistent use of the word resurrection, however, coupled with the radical shift in belief and practice of the early Christians, suggests that something really unexpected (ie, resurrection) happened.  He briefly examines and responds to various skeptical questions about the resurrection (pages 58-63), not in an attempt to prove the resurrection but to show the inadequacy of the supposed "historical" or "scientific" arguments against resurrection.  Again, his points are complex and don't lend themselves to a quick summary here, so I'll leave you to evaluate his arguments.

In his questioning of the academic arguments against resurrection lies the most valuable part of this chapter – his redefinition the terms of discussion.  He calls out our culture's rational skepticism as a worldview inherently skewed against the notion that the dead could be raised. 

"What is at stake is the clash between a worldview that allows for a God of creation and justice and worldviews that don't. . . . What the Easter stories do – and what, I argue, the whole existence of the church does, from the very first days onward – is to pose a huge question" (page 69).

That is, if we accept his argument for the historical reliability of the resurrection accounts found in the Gospels, we are left with the question of how to make sense of it all, with the task of developing a worldview that "transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science" (page 71).  That worldview is faith.

Faith of this sort is not blind belief, which rejects all history and science.  Nor is it simply – which would be much safer! – a belief that inhabits a totally different sphere, discontinuous from either, in a separate watertight compartment.  Rather, this kind of faith, which like all modes of knowledge is defined by the nature of its object, is faith in the creator God, the God who promised to put all things to rights at the last, the God who (as the sharp point where those two come together) raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving evidence that demands an explanation from the scientist as well as from anybody else" (pages 71-72).

This radically real, radically historical, radically in-this-world, in-your-face God gives us a radical new hope and bestows on us – through faith – a radical new worldview, quite different than that of the dominant culture.  Again, by believing – if we do – that Jesus raised from the dead – we believe that death no longer has any power, and we threaten an entire social and political system derived, in some way, on the power of death.

"Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word.  The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world" (page 75).

That final claim merits further scrutiny – especially in light of
the power of human sin – but the message is clear – in Christ we have
more than a guru.  We have the power of God in this world, a God who changes
reality and inaugurates a new creation.

The Lutheran Zephyr responds:
This is some good stuff, for sure.  Having previously been convinced of the historicity – the reality – of the resurrection, I found much of this chapter to be tedious, personally.  But for those haven't thought seriously about the resurrection – as I hadn't, until I read Johnson's book just over a year ago -  Wright's arguments in this chapter make a compelling case for a very real, very flesh and blood, very radical resurrection.  And if that happened . . . well, that changes everything (this is where it gets exciting).  It sets in motion an era of New Creation, the dawning of a New Kingdom, a new way of life for people of faith.

I have often questioned the relationship of Church and State on this blog, arguing for greater separation.  The concern is that the church has become too well established in the power structures of our society and government to act as a faithful counterpoint to it. 

So too with our culture's power structures of thought.  Have we so fully accepted the prevailing intellectual structures and assumptions that we no longer are able to believe the in the essential and founding truths of our faith?  Perhaps we need to separate ourselves from a full and unquestioning embrace of that Englightenment skepticism and return anew to the life-giving witness of the Gospels which tell us – reliably – that God is making a New Creation.  Right now.

A New Creation?  Right now?  That'll shake things up . . .

– – – – –
Read the chapter for more details, as my late-night summary is surely lacking.  And return here later this week for a look at chapter 5, Cosmic Future: Progress or Despair?

Surprised by Hope: Yup, Resurrection Involves Our Bodies

This is the third 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 Chapter 3: Early Christian Hope in its Historical Setting.


Surprised
This chapter can be summarized in a simple sentence: Resurrection is real.  To extrapolate that sentence into two subpoints, we can say,
  1. The early Christians believed in an afterlife that involved a resurrection of the body (ie, not a vague spiritual afterlife).
  2. The resurrection of Jesus really happened. 

Bishop Wright argues in the opening pages of this chapter that, though the accounts of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection might not perfectly match up with each other, "something must have happened" (page 35).  He details the unique nature of early Christian accounts of, and widely-held beliefs in, the resurrection and argues that such stories and beliefs must have been rooted in a historical event (yes, this is a challenging argument to make, and one that doesn't deserve to be summarized in two sentences written by a sleeply Lutheran blogger).

More to the point, however, Wright details the early Christian belief in the resurrection, placing it in its Jewish context and comparing it to contemporary pagan belief.  Christians didn't "invent" resurrection.  Many Jews at the time – the Sadducees notably excluded, however – believed in a future resurrection of the body (we catch a glimpse of this when Martha, Lazarus' brother, says, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." [John 11:34]).  Christians and Jews believed that they would rise from the dead on the last day.  That is, they believed resurrection to be 

"a two-step narrative in which resurrection, meaning new bodily life, would be preceeded by an interim period of bodily death . . . Resurrection meant bodies" (page 36).

Wright here again emphasizes that resurrection was not a euphemism for a vaguely-defined afterlife.  "We cannot emphasize this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word resurrection as a virtual synonym for life after death in the popular sense" (page 36).  Resurrection is surely not just life after death, but a very specific – and unique – understanding of what that post-mortem life looks like.  Resurrection was not about "heaven," but about a new, incarnate, bodily life.

"When [early Christians] did speak of heaven as a postmorten destination, they seemed to regard this heavenly life as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body . . . Paradise is, rather, the blissful garden where God's people rest prior to the resurrection" (page 41). 

Wright goes on, then, to outline several ways in which early Christian belief in the resurrection differed from the Jewish belief.  I won't give away all his points, but will note here just a few that jump out at me:
  • The early Christians believed that "The Resurrection" began in the person of Jesus, but would continue/resume on the Last Day for everyone else.  No where in earlier Jewish belief was there anything comparable to this two-stage resurrection.  All other related belief in the resurrection assumed a one-time, end-time resurrection.
  • For the early Christians, resurrection became a central belief and a central element in describing hope, faith, and the Gospel.  Jews believed in the resurrection, but it was not a central or crucial element of faith.  For Christians belief in the resurrection was central and colored how the whole story of faith was told.  "Take away the stories of Jesus' birth, and you lose only two chapters of Matthew and two of Luke.  Take away the resurrection, and you lose the entire New Testament and most of the second-century fathers as well" (page 43).
  • Christian belief in a bodily resurrection – ie, belief that death has no ultimate power, for we will be raised again – robs those whose power derives from the ability to inflict death.

"Death is the last weapon of the tyrant, and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated.  Resurrection is not the redescription of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it" (page 50).  

The Lutheran Zephyr reflects:

In this chapter Bishop Wrigth makes clear the Christian belief in a bodily resurrection, attempting to slay any lingering notion in the mind of the reader that Christians believe in a spiritual journey of the disembodied soul following bodily death.  And we see in this chapter then – particularly in the final point referenced above – some of the here-and-now implications of belief in the resurrection.  We'll get more of that here-and-now implications in the coming chapters.

If we take the resurrection seriously, how does this belief impact our our ministry to the grieving, to the suffering, to people of faith in their everyday lives?  I fear that when we teach – or even dispassionately abdicate to – a belief in a disembodied afterlife, we neglect the gift of our own incarnation or that of our Lord's, and we miss out on the true power of Christ and the very real application of the Gospel to our lives and world.  Disembodied spirituality doesn't care about embodied nature, people, experiences.  But incarnational faith recognizes the God-blessed gift of bodies and all that go along with them . . .

These reflections are a work in progress.  Please, join in the conversation.

Next posting in this series will be on Monday, Sept 15 – Chapter 4, The Strange Story of Easter.

Surprised by Hope: Most Christians Don’t “Get” Resurrection

This is the second 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 Chapter 2: Puzzled About Paradise?

Surprised
In Chapter 2 Bishop Wright mounts a forceful critique of the state of contemporary Christian understanding or appreciation of the classic doctrine of resurrection.  He outlines how current Christian practice – buffeted by over a century of sentimentality, hymnal, and liturgical reformulations – largely fails to reflect and convey Christian understanding of heaven, hope, and the resurrection.  In particular Wright takes on two notions that find little – if any – support in the Bible: the so-called "immortality of the soul," and the existence of a heaven "up there" and a hell "down there."  

In regards to the "immortality of the soul," Wright notes that 

until at least the late eighteenth century, many tombstones and memorials were inscribed with the Latin word resurgam, which means "I shall arise," indicating that the now-dead person believed in an intermediate sleep to be followed by a new bodily life at some future point (pg 16).

Drawing on the creed – I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come – Wright begins to describe traditional Christian belief about death, namely that upon death the deceased enters an intermediate state, a period of waiting, for the return of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead (about which I blogged here almost a year ago).  No mention of entering heaven, no mention of an eternal spiritual journey, no mention of leaving one's body behind – notions that are common today.  Citing several pieces of popular literature – including Maria Shriver's What's Heaven? – Wright briefly details how contemporary Christian belief is more akin to a Buddhist, Hindu, or Platonic ideas of life and death than it is to traditional Christian or Jewish ideas.  "The idea [of a long spiritual journey] after death is itself now frequent, though again it has virtually no warrant in the Bible or early Christian thought" (page 19).

In regards to heaven and hell, Wright writes:

Many Christians grow up assuming that whenever the New Testament speaks of heaven it refers to the place to which the saved will go after death . . . But the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn't work that way.  "God's kingdom" in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God's sovereign rule coming 'on earth as it is in heaven.' . . . Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life – God's dimension, if you like.  God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever (page 18-19).

Christian hope is not a hope for a spiritual escape from the clutches of flesh, blood and world into a spiritual haven, but rather for heaven and earth to be joined, for a New Creation to spring forth, for new – incarnate, flesh and blood – life to be given.  Christianity is an incarnate religion centered on an incarnate God who comes to us in flesh and blood so that we would have life and have it abundantly.  "[T]he robust Jewish and Christian doctrine of the resurrection, as part of God's new creation, gives more value, not less, to the present world and to our present bodies" (page 26).  

This chapter is a preview of what will come in greater detail in subsequent chapters, and he says much more than I've reviewed here.  He also touches on Christian understanding of "soul," the pastoral problem of funeral parlors, our culture's penchant for denying the pain of death and the grief of the bereaved, the impact of cremation on Christian belief in resurrection, and the mixed legacy of 19th and 20th Christian hymnody . . . resulting in a rather poor assessment of the state of Christian belief and practice:

Frankly, what we have at the moment isn't, as the old liturgies used to say, "the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead" but the vague and fuzzy optimism that things may work out in the end (page 25).

The Lutheran Zephyr reflects:
I'm still working out the format for these reviews, as the synopsis of Chapter 2 is much longer than the synopsis I wrote for the Preface & Chapter 1.  

This chapter is still largely one designed to "set the stage" for the detailed arguments to follow, a secondary or tertiary introduction to the greater work.  Yet what spoke to me most strongly in this chapter is the pastoral concern reflected in that final quote cited above – what comfort, what confidence, what certain hope do we have when we claim that death is peaceful (when experience largely tells us otherwise), souls are eternal (a suggestion that values souls over God's gift of created bodies), and ultimate destiny lies in lofty clouds rather than tangible existence?  

As Wright claims over and over again, what we believe about death and the afterlife has huge consequences for how we live our life before death.  The classic Christian belief in bodily resurrection and a real, tangible New Life in a New Jerusalem – a New Creation as opposed to the continuation of some sort of disembodied spiritual existence in a far-off place – invites us into richer and fuller lives now, into concern for the created beings of our neighbors and environment now, into experiencing God's holy, abiding, incarnate presence now – for these are foretastes of the very real, incarnate, tangible feast to come.

Please leave your comments, and join us on Thursday for Chapter 3.  Thanks!

Surprised by Hope: Belief About Afterlife

Surprised
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:

At the first level, the book is obviously about death and about what can be said from a Christian perspective about what lies beyond it . . . At the second level, then, the book is about the groundwork of practical and even political theology – of, that is, Christian reflection on the nature of the task we face as we seek to bring God's kingdom to bear on the real and painful world in which we live.

– pages xi, xiii

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.

From Plato to Hegel and beyond, some of the greatest philosophers declared that what you think about death, and life beyond it, is the key to thinking seriously about everything else – and, indeed, that it provides one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all.  This is something a Christian theologian should heartily endorse.
– 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.