I originally bought How God Became King when it was on sale for Kindle nearly three years ago. At the time I was at the end of a long NT Wright kick and picked it up. Last week it was released as an audiobook and I decided to re-purchase it in that format (
not whisper synced unfortunately).
Part of what drove me to pick it up again is the recent public discussions of the Benedict Option and several private discussions about poorly catechized Christians. I vaguely knew that How God Became King was at least in part about how Wright viewed the creeds (even though I wasn’t sure what that meant.)
The problem Wright is addressing in How God Became King is that we usually tell the story of Jesus, especially when we use the creeds, by saying that Jesus was born (became incarnated) and then died and was raised again. The incarnation becomes important only for the ability for Jesus to die and be raised again.
Wright’s concern is that we have used the creeds to interpret the gospels, or just as problematically, used the creeds as our sole syllabus for determining what should be taught about Jesus and the Christian faith. Section one of the book is mostly introduction to the problem (and if you have read much Wright, a lot of repetition.)
Section two uses a central metaphor of four speakers. In order to hear properly the speakers must be in balance and tuned. Wright thinks that two speakers are turned up way too loud, one is turned too low and one is in the attic and completely unplugged. The too quiet speaker is the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel. Jesus apart from the story of Israel turns the Old Testament into a series of character studies, laws and poetry. The Old Testament then become interesting but less important because of the cultural distance and doesn’t really matter to a New Testament church.
The second speaker, which is too loud, is story of God coming back to his people as he always promised. This speaker focuses on God’s promises and prophecy, but because the first speaker is too low, does it in a way that removes the historical people of Israel and helps Christians of other times and places think that all of those Old Testament promises were actually primarily for the modern Christian and not for a historical Hebrew audience.
The third speaker, which is also too loud, is reading the gospel stories as the launch of a God’s renewed people. To be clear, Wright is not saying that this is not real, but that when the gospel as the launch of God’s renewed people is over-emphasized it distorts the messages of the gospel.
As a note, the main theme of the book is that Jesus came to begin his reign as king of this earth. So as Wright explaining Jesus as King throughout the book, he keeps saying that while Jesus’ death and resurrection is also for our sins as individuals, it is not only for our sin. More importantly for Wright, Jesus’ death and resurrection is the way that Jesus becomes king. But King of a kingdom of a different sort than what anyone could have predicted. What is important about this, is that Wright is not, as more than several have charged, dismissing the reality of sin. Wright emphasizes the reality of sin and the brokenness of the world as a result of that sin not only in this book but throughout his writing. However, because a whole stream of Christianity has emphasized Jesus dying for our personal sins as the entirety of Christ’s work, any detraction from that, can be seen as denying, or at least minimizing the role of sin in the world. Wright is not attempting to deny sin, but to refocus our understanding of Jesus as King and Messiah.
The fourth speaker, which in Wright’s metaphor is not just too low, but unplugged and stored away in an attic somewhere, is the story of Jesus’ kingdom clashing with the kingdom of this world, in this case the kingdom of Caesar.
This fourth speaker I think is a good illustration of how Wright uses hyperbole, sometime to the detriment of his message. There is a whole moment right now of ‘Jesus is Lord means Caesar is not’. And this is just one example. In part because I have read so much NT Wright, I think his propensity to understate where the historic themes that he believes that he is re-discovering have been all along, is grating. I really do value Wright’s ability to bring many of these themes to a popular, or at least to a broad academic and clergy audience. These are necessary corrections, but in his overemphasis of the correction, there are many that dismiss him because he writes like he is talking about something that no one else has been talking about for generations.
And as I almost always say, NT Wright is repetitive. If you have read any of his previous works, then you will hear repetition here. That is a necessary part of his method. That may be irritating for the frequent Wright reader, but I think it is part of what is necessary. It may seem odd that I think he needs to be repetitive, but I think that he needs to be less hyperbolic, because both are part of how he believes that we need to be changing the paradigms of how we read scripture. But it is a matter of style that I am disagreeing with, not content.
My last note is that the final chapter is about how we should understand the Creeds and the message of the four books of the gospel. Wright thinks we need both creeds and gospel. The creeds helps build some boundaries on how we read the gospel (reading the gospels so that Jesus is not divine or God or the father is not the creator is not creedal and therefore not an accurate reading.) But Wright also believes that it is the gospels not the creeds that should be the starting point for how we teach and catechize those that are new to the Christian life. The gospels, not the creeds are the dominant and primary voice of what it means to be a Christian. And I think that is also useful for me.
As I have been thinking about what it means to be a Christian when orthodox Christianity is no longer culturally dominant, I think catechesis becomes very important. We can no longer assume basic understanding of scripture or knowledge of the story of Christ. My bias was to start with the creed. I still think that the creeds are important and necessary. But Wright has made his case for me that it is the four books of the gospels that need to be primary.
- The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion
- After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters
- For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church
- Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes is Good
- Surprises by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues
- Scripture and the Authority of God (Second Reading)
- The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential
- Small Faith–Great God
- Paul in Fresh Perspective
- The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is
- Simply Christian
- Evil and the Justice of God
- Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did and Why He Matters
- The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of the Crucifixion of Christ