Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues by NT Wright

Summary: Wright at his best tells a new narrative about an old story. In this book too many issues cut short the narrative.

I am an unabashed fan of NT Wright.  I have read most of his popular level books (except the commentary series) and a few of his more academic oriented books.  I appreciate his focus on calling people to a fresh look at scripture and his ability to take scripture seriously while maintaining real academic quality.

But on the whole I was disappointed by this book.  It is a re-working of articles that have previously appeared elsewhere.  Most of them were commissioned by US journals or from chapters in books that were for US audiences, so as a Brit, he is most of the time consciously writing for the North American Evangelical audience.

His basic argument, like most of Wright, is that given historical realities of the original writers and audience, we modern readers tend to be missing the intended point of the original writers.

As with most Wright he needs to go through a fairly long narrative to be able to help the reader understand his point.  And I think that is why his full length book treatments are better than these shorter issue based chapters.

The problem is not so much the individual chapters, but that in almost every case, he has a better response in a full length books (and he frequently tells the reader that there is more to the story if you want to pick up another one of his books.) So his first three chapters on science and religion, the historical Adam and the resurrection were all better handled by his book Scripture and the Authority of God.

The fourth chapter, The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women, is actually one of the two issues in the book that was new to me (although he says he has brought up several of the issues before in his commentary series.)

The fifth chapter is theoretically about environmentalism, but is really a short version of his Surprised by Hope book about eschatology.

The sixth chapter is the only chapter that I think might be better as a chapter than the book.  Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God was decent, but in this chapter he does a better job of summarizing by saying, we cannot solve the problem of evil.  Instead, God has chosen to give us scripture, not as a way to intellectually solve the problem of evil, but as a way to remind us that God is with us through difficult times.

Several of the later chapters are more political and this is where likely a number of bad reviews will focus.  Wright has a very good defence of why a scriptural church is a political church.  And Wright also is theologically consistent with his politics.  The problem for many readers is that those politics do not match well with our US political systems.  So Wright is ‘conservative’ about sexual issues, ‘liberal’ about environmentalism, international debt and immigration policy, and off the political map in regard to terrorism.  He is against both the anabaptist retreat and attempts of re-creating Christendom.   As I have said in regard to his discussion of politics in other books, I think he is theologically right about most of his points, but he is not a great economist, political historian or political theorist.  (And I agree with him in a large number of his political stances.)  I just think that there are a variety of political responses that are consistent with his theological position and because of his lack of skill outside the the New Testament Wright glosses over (or is maybe unaware) of some of the political or economic alternatives to his political choices.

If there is a main theme in the book it is that we are now all Epicureans.  It is the focus of the chapter on Idolatry, but comes up multiple times throughout the book. Essentially this is not unlike what some others describe as modern Deism. But Wright believes that Epicureanism is actually a better description.  The short description of Epicureanism is that it is a believe that the gods don’t really care about us or at least don’t have much influence over our daily lives, so we might as well live for pleasure because that is something we can do.

The rest of the chapters not mentioned are basically the same.  Good topics, fairly well handled by Wright, but always feeling a bit too rushed and too thematically squeezed into the book.  On the whole, I would just suggest that you read Wright’s others books and skip this one, unless you are really interested in his take on Epicureanism or Women in Ministry.

Personally, I think you should start with Scripture and the Authority of God, then read Surprised by Hope and Simply Jesus and expand from there as you have time and interest.

Surprised by Scripture Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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