Book review: How God Became King, by N.T. Wright
A couple of weeks ago I received in the mail a copy of NT Wright’s latest book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels from a pastor friend at the Beaches Vineyard in Jacksonville, Florida. We lived in Jax for five years while I was doing a lot of time driving a submarine underwater and Mardi was doing (most) of her paediatric training.
It wasn’t until I had sent an email thanking my friend for the book that she told me to look inside the front cover … it was a signed copy. She had recently been to an event NT Wright spoke at, and had asked him to sign a copy for me.
It’s hard to explain how much a gift like this means to me, here in Kenya … to be connected to recent theological scholarship, to friends back “home”. What a lovely thought.
I was asked to write a short review of the book by a few people, so here goes.
Wright’s book is written for an educated audience, but not a scholarly academic one. As such, I’d call this book “readable” and not too dense. He cites his sources very little and gets away with some broad generalisations he might not be able to in a setting subject to peer review.
That having been said, it could be considered to be a ‘scholarly’ work, as Wright is a leading theological scholar, and has a first-class mind. In this book, he repeatedly skewers what he considers to be the shortfalls of some current theological scholarship.
In his words:
“Despite centuries of intense and heavy industry expended on the study of all sorts of features of the gospels, we have often managed to miss the main thing that they, all four of them, are most eager to tell us. What we need is not just a bit of fine-tuning, an adjustment here and there. We need a fundamental rethink of what the gospels are trying to tell us.” (Wright, inside cover of dust jacket)
The basic thesis of the book is this: the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are not properly understood today as the works that they were written to be: the story of how the God of Israel became king of the whole world. That in Jesus, the kingdom of God was inaugurated not just through his death and resurrection but also his life, and that through this “inaugurated eschatology”, God has staked his claim as king.
Wright uses the imagery of surround-speakers to make his point that there are four main “melodies” being put out by the four gospels. In his view we have to equally adjust the volume of these four speakers to properly hear what the gospels are trying to tell us. The four “speakers” in the gospels are:
• The story of Jesus as the fulfilment, or climax of the nation of Israel
• The story of Jesus as the story of Israel’s God coming back as he had always promised
• The story of the launching of God’s renewed people
• The story of the clash of two kingdom’s: God’s and Caesar’s (and the spiritual forces behind Caesar’s)
Wright suggests that the implications of turning up the volume on all four of these speakers for our 21st century vision of God’s kingdom include:
- The gospels insist that the kingdom truly was inaugurated by Jesus in his active pubic career, during the time between his baptism an the cross.
- The kingdom is radically defined in relation to Jesus’ entire agenda of suffering, leading to the cross.
- The kingdom that Jesus inaugurated, that is implemented through his cross, is emphatically for this world. The way we have normally discussed atonement theology simply won’t do. Our questions have been wrongly put, because they haven’t been about the kingdom. They haven’t been about God’s sovereign, saving rule coming on earth as in heaven. Instead, our questions have been about a ‘salvation’ that rescues people from the world, instead of for the world. “Going to heaven” has been the subject (ever since the Middle Ages, at least, in the Western church); “sin” is what stops us from getting there; so the cross must deal with sin, so that we can leave this world an dog to the much better one in the sky, or in ‘eternity’, or wherever. But this is simply untrue to the story the gospels are telling–which, again, explains why we’ve all misread these wonderful texts. Whatever the cross achieves must be articulated, if we are to take the four gospels seriously, within the context of the kingdom-bringing victory. (p. 240-242)
In a word? It’s a brilliant book. Mind you, I am biased towards most of what Wright says in this book, partly due to the influence of my stream of the church (the evangelical, charismatic Vineyard Church), and the prevalence of “kingdom theology” in my theological leanings. Additionally, I am biased away from dispensationalism and fundamentalism, and the dualistic, semi-Platonic, semi-gnostic worldview of both of those traditions. Think “rapture” and “going to heaven when you die”.
But really, my entering biases aside, it’s an excellent book. Wright articulates concepts, in a readable style, that not very many theologians are saying, particularly not theologians who are not just theorists but also practitioners of their faith (e.g. in a church or pastoral setting). Particularly not in my own stream of the church (evangelical), where it seems at times that most New Testament theologies skip the gospels entirely (except to briefly pause at the death of Jesus) and go to Paul’s writings, where it is felt that the “real theology” is found.
And now for a lengthy quote from the book, to illustrate how Wright, after 30 years of being both a theologian and a pastor/Bishop in the Anglican church, has a uniquely “theory to practice” focus. If you’re not moved by this, have someone check your pulse:
The Temple in Jerusalem was not simply a “religious” building in our modern sense … As is now widely acknowledged, our modern distinctions between “religion” and all sort of other things–“politics”, “aesthetics,”, “culture”, “economics”, and much besides–would have made little sense in the ancient world in general. It would have made no sense in Judaism in particular. Not only was the Temple the centre of the whole national life. It was, Jews believed (as many ancient people’s believed about their temples) the place where heaven and earth themselves interconnected and overlapped. It was therefore the place to which one might go for healing, forgiveness, and the renewal of fellowship with Israel’s God. It was also … the place in which God established his power base.
… all four evangelists make it abundantly clear that we are to understand both Jesus’ kingdom and his death in relation to the Temple–or rather, in relation to the fulfilment of the Temple’s role in Jesus himself and his upstaging of it in his last great symbolic actions. It is now becoming more widely recognised, I think, that the synoptic evangelists present the Last Supper as a “new temple” moment. Jesus, having pronounced God’s judgement on the old Temple in his eremitic action and then his discourse on the Mount of Olives, now fathers his friends around him to celebrate a “Passover meal with a difference,” a meal that not only looked back, like all Passover meals, to the exodus itself, but forward to the new exodus that Jesus was about to accomplish …
… Jesus himself is the new Temple at the heart of the new creation, against that day when the whole earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. And so this Temple, like the wilderness tabernacle, is a temple on the move, as Jesus’ people go out, in the energy of the SPirit, to be the dwelling of God in each place, to anticipate that eventual promise by their common and cross-shaped life and work.
All this, I submit, generates a vision of the cross and its achievement to large and all-embracing that we really ought to stand back and simply gaze at it. All the “theories” of “atonement” can be found comfortably within it, but it goes far, far beyond them all, into the wild, untamed reaches of history and theology, of politics and imagination. We have, alas, belittled the cross, imagining it merely as a mechanism for getting us off the hook of our own petty naughtiness or as an example of some general benevolent truth. It is much, much more.
It is the moment when the story of Israel reaches its climax; the moment when, at last, the watchmen on Jerusalem’s walls see their God coming in his kingdom; the moment when the people of God are renewed so as to be, at last, the royal priesthood who will take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love; the moment when the kingdom of God overcomes the kingdoms of the world. It is the moment when a great old door, locked and barred since our first disobedience, swings open suddenly to reveal not just the garden, opened once more to our delight, but the coming city, the garden city that God had always planned and is now inviting us to go through the door and build with him. The dark power that stood in the way of this kingdom vision has been defeated, overthrown, rendered null and void. Its legions will still make a lot of noise and cause a lot of grief, but the ultimate victory is now assured. This is the vision the evangelists offer us as they bring together the kingdom and the cross.
I recommend this book for any Christian willing to think deeply and well, regardless of your theological leanings.