The N.T. Wright Stuff
Things feel rather hopeless these days for a lot of people. The economy is horrific, many are out of work, the weight of existence bears down in customary fashion… And yet in this period of Lent–as Christians quietly prepare themselves for the remembrances that are Good Friday and Easter, hope seems to break through the bleak landscape. Christ is hope; Christianity is, if it is anything, a belief in hope. So often we Christians get sidetracked and come across as dour, judgmental, “get me out of this earth and take me to heaven” downers… which is why more and more people (especially young people) just tune it all out. Why believe in a religion that forsakes this world and looks forward to its demise and an otherworldly heaven? Is not this world worth anything? Why was it even created?
Thankfully, more and more Christians are realizing, preaching, and speaking a Bible-based theology about a more hopeful, Gospel-is-good-news-for-the-world Christianity. And the charge is being led by people like N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, author of countless books, and all around brilliant man of God.
I recently decided that N.T. Wright is my favorite living preacher/theologian. I had held Bishop Wright in high regard for several years, read several of his books, even remixed some of his sermons with Thom Yorke songs. But until a few Saturdays ago, I had not heard N.T. preach in person. Wow. After seeing him speak off-the-cuff about Paul for three hours at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, seeing the energy of the packed-out congregation of a diverse array of Christians, and busily nodding in agreement at nearly every turn, I became convinced that no other contemporary voice of Christianity speaks as much truth as eloquently and humbly and purposefully as this man does.
One of the most refreshing things about N.T. Wright–and perhaps his biggest, most revolutionary contribution to Baptist-bred evangelicals like myself–is his emphasis on the fact that the final end toward which Christianity points is not heaven but actually the new earth–the new creation which rights all the wrongs and injustices of the fallen creation and brings God’s plans for the world to final, perfect culmination. Heaven exists, and is important, but it is not the end of the world. As Wright points out, the Bible doesn’t really talk much about “going to heaven when we die,” but spends plenty of time talking about the kingdom of God and his designs on renewal and restoration which the resurrection of Christ foretells.
Wright believes the resurrection of Christ is the beginning, end, and everything of the Christian faith. He talks about this beautifully in his book, Surprised by Hope, which I highly recommend (and which he plugged on The Colbert Report last year). The New Testament (particularly Paul’s stuff) outlines clearly a theology of resurrection (passages like I Corinthians 15) which Wright believes has been somewhat lost on many contemporary evangelicals.
Another thing I like about Wright is his insistence that this whole great story is not primarily about us. It’s about God’s world and his purposes for it (of which we are a part, but not the center). Christianity is not about our individual “decisions” to do this or that, or to be “saved” as one individual hoping to escape hell. Rather, it is about how we participate as the church FOR the world, reflecting like mirrors the goodness and glory of God’s future kingdom (which is both “now and not yet”). God saves us so that he can use us to bring the world to rights; he wants us to be his image-bearers in the world, for his glory. Thus, as noted in I Cor. 15:58, we can’t just sit back and relax in the hope we have in Christ. We have to labor in the work of the Lord, and it will not be in vain.
I also like how N.T. Wright emphasizes the relationship between earth and heaven. So often Christians err on emphasizing one over the other. But Wright takes very seriously the Lord’s Prayer when it says “Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” Not “in heaven as it is in heaven.” Heaven and earth are not poles apart, some sort of Gnostic separation in which the physical and spiritual, earth and heaven are forever fated to be in conflict and war. Heaven and earth are different, says Wright, but they are made for each other in the way that male and female are made for each other. “And when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forward; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.” God’s sovereignty in the world, Wright suggests, is that of a creator reclaiming his creation. He is going to return to set the world to rights–a job already begun in the resurrection and continued by us, the church, who have work to do to embody this future hope which the resurrection has already exclaimed to all creation.
It’s all about hope. It’s all about Easter. The church must take up the task of fostering hope at any and every level, born out of the reality of the resurrection and the “surprising hope of the gospel, the hope for life after life after death.”