24 April 2015
Gospel truth: why Jesus is simply good news
A short while after Tom Wright drops in to see us at the Evangelical Alliance in London, a huge box arrives on my desk. Kindly donated to the Alliance library by SPCK, the box contains all 18 volumes of Wright's New Testament for Everyone series. And it brings home to me just how much of a theological heavyweight he is.
Author of more than 50 books, the former bishop of Durham is now research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews.
"I grew up in a Christian home – in a very understated middly-Anglican way," he says. "And from an early age I was overwhelmed with the sense of God loving me enough for Jesus to die for me. I have memories of that when I was seven. So there's never been any question. There was no great moment in which I said 'oh my goodness, I've got it all wrong up till now and I've seen the light'. It was just a matter of discovering what was there in the world in which I already lived. And in a sense everything since then has been more of the same."
But after half a century of being sure o fGod's existence and certain of his Christian faith, are there ever times when he doubts, I ask. He says no, but adds: "There are all sorts of things in the Bible that surprise or shock me. I have a long and a short list of things I want to ask Zechariah what they meant.
The one that comes back again and again of course is the genocide and slaughter of the Canaanites. One feels the force of that. Is that how it had to be?"
There many theologians of thinkers who have tried to explain why a loving God would command genocide. But for Wright, that's a question we won't be able to give a satisfactory answer to in this world. "There are cheap answers and I don't like cheap answers, so you kind of live with those questions. If this is somehow strangely God's story then it's a story that we only really know in retrospect from seeing the cross.
"And if we recognise that the cross is God's story as well as our story then we realise that the whole thing is deeply mysterious. That when faced with the concepts of wickedness and suffering that God hasn't just said 'ok'. He's come into the middle of it Himself. That's not hugely helpful when reading the books of Joshua and Judges and Samuel. But there is a sense within the biblical narrative that the writer knows full well that this is less than the best. We must live within the story rather than have a neat package in which we've sorted out all the bits and pieces."
Wright has stopped in on his way to the launch of the Lumo Project – a groundbreaking, multi-language biblical film resource that aims to change the way we study and engage with the life of Jesus through the four gospels, through four feature-length films.
He's hopeful that the films will provide the means through which a new audience can engage with the person of Christ. But which Christ? So often it seems that the Church has different concepts of who Jesus is. Have we got the right one?
Wright says: "Certainly in the UK there are quite different Christian narratives about Jesus. There is a traditional one that I suspect if you press the button for broadly evangelical groups it would come out as 'Jesus is the son of God born of a virgin who in order to save our sins died and rose again so that we could have fellowship with God'.
"You would then have a kind of a puzzled liberal push back which asks: 'well what was all that he said about the kingdom of God?' and how can we be sure that all those things really happened and maybe Jesus was just a good Jewish boy who would be horrified to think of having had a religion founded in his name. And there are Christians who go to church who genuinely ask those questions and are genuinely annoyed when evangelicals respond with: 'Ah, you've just got to believe it and then it will be alright'. I see that as a kind of a dialogue of the deaf. When I was bishop of Durham I spent quite a lot of my time trying to interpret Christians who had the one narrative to Christians who had the other and trying to find some way between."
For Wright, it's really important that we recover the first century narrative of Jesus, which the gospels are telling, but which is often forgotten. This is the subject of his latest book Simply Good News.
"It's the story of how God became king. This is the kingdom of God coming to earth as in heaven. Not as anyone imagined it would be like. The early Christians were quite clear that what had happened involved are definition of a kingdom of power as well as a fresh vision of God. And that's basically a very Jewish story. There's this problem with Christian Jewish relations, which is located exactly at this point. Jews for centuries have looked at Christians and said: 'You changed the narrative. You're telling a spiritual story about a spiritual experience and about going to heaven. Our story is about God caring about injustice in the world and coming to do something about it.' Part of the answer is that from the beginning Christians have always said that Jesus would come again and sort it all out, which sort of just postponed that bit, as it were. But what the Western Church has really forgotten is that that actually began when Jesus died and rose again. And this is about new creation having already begun and us being called to share that. In the Western tradition we've broken the gospel up into little bits and just taken the bits that fit the truncated narrative that we have rather than seeing the story whole as what it really was. In other words we've put the good news into a back story of our making rather than the back story that the first century disciples had."
As evangelicals, we believe we're the good news people – passionate Jesus followers. But so often the rest of society doesn't see evangelicals as good news: occasionally it's the opposite. I try and get some wisdom from Professor Wright about his definitions of the boundaries of evangelicalism. What does it mean to be an evangelical?
"I think it's the wrong question," he says."Because it assumes that if only we could finally discover what an evangelical is then we could measure one and other by whether we shape up to that or not, which has all the wrong resonances. That implies that if only we could get a proper 18th century definition of what an evangelical is then we could then tell who's in and who's out. Immediately you would have nonsense going on. Instead I would ask the question like this: what are the tasks that God is calling the Church to in tomorrow's world? What resources are there in the evangelical traditions to enable us to be equipped for those tasks? What problems might there be latent within some evangelical traditions that would stop us doing those tasks? And how can we wisely try to fix those problems? Including maybe learning from other traditions."
Simply Good News by NT Wright is published by SPCK in June.