N.T. Wright writes faster than I can read. Having relished a few of his other works, I sat down with his new How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, (HarperOne, 2012). I’m not finished and I’ve been trying to hold off on a blog about it, but oh well.
Wright and Scot McKnight are two scholars easily identified in evangelical circles. They openly criticize the boiled-down view of Christian faith as “I believe in Jesus as my personal Savior and when I die, I get to go to heaven.” It’s the Christianity associated with the “sinner’s prayer” at revival meetings and youth rallies. This description fits what McKnight calls a “soterian” view of the Gospel. (See his The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited [Zondervan, 2011].)
To be clear: neither Wright nor McKnight have any intention of laying aside the central need of personal relationship with God, nor any of the justification theology around which evangelical doctrine builds. The problem is reductionism, of ignoring vast portions of what the Bible says through the Gospels. Wright laments how we’ve taken these enormously rich and bold claims – full of world-changing vision – and have made them positively ordinary. We’ve taken the justice of God and reduced it to personal justification – for individuals to be saved from the penalty of sin – and we lost sight of the larger aims of God for the whole cosmos. Being a “biblical Christian” thus does not mean for many what it should mean, were we not to interpret out of sight vast tracts of scriptural material.
Using the metaphor of four electronic speakers, as in quadrophonic sound connected to your iTunes, Wright shows how one or the other has been either turned down too low or turned up too high. One example from the chapter “The Clash of the Kingdoms,” in which he explains the famous statement of Jesus to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caeser’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” We have misunderstood this statement as the advice to “Stick to your own patch,” (as in separation of church and state, see p. 148). After some reflection on historical background, Wright says,
What is important is that the quizzical saying…indicates that Jesus is refusing to collude either with the pro-Roman party in Jerusalem or with the would-be violent revolutionaries. His comment can be taken either way. And that’s not just a trick. It’s a way…of breaking open the either/or in which his hearers were stuck and pointing toward a deeper reality. Perhaps it’s time for God–whose image is on every human being and whose “inscription” is written across the pages of creation and the story of Israel–to receive his due. (150)
In other words, it is about politics. It’s about King Jesus’ politics.
You may or may not agree with Wright’s rendering of this passage. He even gets into his own translation of the Greek. What strikes me about Wright’s approach through the whole book is that the old evangelism-social justice competition that goes on among United Methodists is rendered utterly useless.
Reading Wright thus makes me think of my United Methodist family. At the risk of too much generalizing, I still think we operate from within the divided history of – on the one side – the Social Gospel movement (which tended to downplay one set of Christological claims in order to focus on the ethics of the Kingdom) and – on the other side – a revivalist, holiness Methodism (my “tribe”) with a “high” Christology focused on individual salvation and personal holiness. Lots of us don’t like this division and wish we could leave it behind,
If for no other reason, I commend How God Became King to United Methodists to find deep scriptural warrant for laying to rest this old worthless division.