NT Wright has become a favorite theologian of mine for several reasons ever since I was first exposed to him in seminary. His theological work is tightly related to his scholarship in biblical studies, which he taught for many years. This makes him helpful as a teacher for the Church because teaching in the Church is generally the ministry of the Word. Wright refuses to turn biblical stories into either Christian Aesop’s fables on the one hand whose true value is in the moral or principle rather than their place in the overarching narrative, or into mere examinations of the relative likelihood of their historical veracity on the other hand, treating them as textual relics to be studied rather than a Divine Word to be heard and done. Instead, he works rigorously to read them on their own terms from their own setting, while at the same time listening for and reflecting on the theological importance for them in the life of the Church.
So, I am excited to be reading and blogging his recent work Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. I’ll do my best to present his views in each chapter clearly and succinctly, interact with them some myself, then get out of the way. I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I think I will.
To begin, Wright asserts in the preface that many people, Christians included, do not know “what the ultimate Christian hope really is.” Therefore, “hope comes as a surprise, at several levels at once.”
1. “At the first level, the book is obviously about death and about what can be said from a Christian perspective about what lies beyond it.”
2. “At the second level, then, the book is about the groundwork of practical and even political theology–of, that is, Christian reflection on the nature of the task we face as we seek to bring God’s kingdom to bear on the real and painful world in which we live.”
Then, in chapter 1, “All dressed up and no place to go?”, he begins with a series of snapshots to set the stage: public grief at Princess Diana’s death in 1997, controversial statements about the afterlife from a famous soccer coach that sounded defaming of persons with disabilities, a small group of people gathered for a funeral in which the body has been cremated, public uncertainty and questions in the wake of large scale disasters–9/11, the 2004 Asian tsunami, the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005, etc, and an all but abandoned community once rich with natural resources, now a desolate sign of “postindustrial blight.” The common thread in these snapshots is the implicit question of where hope may be found, if at all.
Wright wants to address two questions “tightly together” that have otherwise been addressed apart: “First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?” (p. 5)
In this book, I anticipate him developing a common theme in his lectures and other work, that Christian hope is less about escaping from the world and up to heaven and more about “God’s new creation, for ‘new heavens and new earth.'”
To set the stage just a little further, Wright points out as evidence of widespread confusion in the wider world, that there is a great diversity of belief regarding ultimate hope among the world’s religions and belief systems. Further, “the main beliefs that emerge in the present climate seem to [Wright] of three types, none of which corresponds to Christian orthodoxy.” (p. 9)
1. “Some believe in complete annihilation; that is at least clean and tidy, however unsatisfying it may be as an account of human destiny.” (p. 9)
2. “The funeral practices that have grown up, or reappeared, in our own day exhibit the same kind of confusion.” (p. 11) What does “gifts for the dead” in the form of pictures, stuffed animals, spare glassess, and/or false teeth being placed in the coffin, reflect in terms of belief, if anything?
3. “Finally, at the popular level, belief in ghosts and the possibility of spiritualistic contact with the dead has resisted all the inroads of a century of secularism.” (p. 12)
Unfortunately, confusion and ignorance are not only indicative of culture at large, but of the Church as well. A little more unpacking our confusion in the next chapter and we’ll be ready to start our study of hope in the Christian Scriptures.