Thanks to all you wrote notes in appreciation of our last BookNotes newsletter where my review I attempted to model enthusiastic appreciation for a book that I have fundamental disagreements with. Perhaps this hermeneutic of generosity (in contrast to the often proposed “hermeneutics of suspicion”) makes me look wishy-washy or passive aggressive but I think we really can find wonderful benefit in a book even if one disagrees or finds unhelpful parts of it. That was my take on The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr. Other reviews that are written by true fans have done some lovely, positive reviews of how it has helped and challenge them. A few have written strong critiques. It felt right for me to express my frustrations and concerns in the context of a happy appreciation for much of Fr. Rohr’s ministry and many of his teachings. Thanks to those who said they value that sort of approach. We have plenty of this handsomely made, much-discussed book in stock, on sale. Order from us using the link below and get $99 worth of free digital content as described in our review.
Today’s review of the brand new The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (HarperOne; $28.99, sale price $23.19) cannot be as thorough as that last one – unlike the Richard Rohr book, I didn’t have an advance copy to work with so I’ve only dipped in for a few hours yesterday and again today. But I’ve read enough to tell you that I am confident that it is in my top few books of the year. And it is certainly one that we recommend unreservedly.
We have it now on sale at a good 20% off and for those who act now we will throw in a free copy of a rare British import by N.T. Wright. Yep, we’ll give you New Heavens, A New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope in the Grove Press booklet series – almost a $10 value – for free. We only have a limited number of these little gems so we will offer it only for the next three days, or until our supply runs out. (That is, that offer for the free book expires October 12, 2016.) After that, the book is still on sale, but we won’t be able to send out the other for free.
That will be a very helpful booklet to read alongside this major work and a good reminder of the themes in Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne; $24.99) which is one of the most important N.T. Wright books and one that certainly is among his most favored. So many people said it really, really helped them understand Christian faith and its real world relevance.
In some ways The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion is a follow up to Surprised by Hope. Its basic project is to examine how the New Testament teaching on the cross of Christ is properly understood within the context of the goal or outcome of that violent death; that is, what’s the point? Yes, yes, the cross is prelude to resurrection, but, for what? One can believe in the centrality of the cross of Christ and affirm the bodily resurrection as the creeds and orthodox churches all have and still get that question wrong.
(By the way, I don’t know too many Adult Ed classes or Sunday School groups that want to tackle Surprised by Hope; it is a hefty book, even though it isn’t as academic as his big fat “Christian Origins” series. Happily, there is a truly marvelous DVD curriculum on Surprised… in which Wright does a great job explaining the basics of the book, all in very creative and colorful settings. Send us an email if you’d like to order that. I’ve used it more than once and it has generated fantastic conversations and good learning.)
And a wrong answer to that question of what the death of Christ was for almost always leads then to less then Biblical and often convoluted and unhelpful ways to explain the meaning of the cross, the nature of our justification, the very vision of what faith is about.
Wright has used the apt example of a child doing one of those connect the dots drawings. They may get all the dots just right and connect them to every other dot. The dots are connected. But if they aren’t connected in the right way they end up with a different sort of picture than the one that was intended. How one connects the dots will determine if one comes up with a jumble, or maybe a nice picture, but a wrong one.
Another way he sometimes says this is that some other theologians and popular preachers and authors and church traditions provide “the right answers to the wrong questions.”
To wit: we must not only get the theories of atonement Biblically-accurate, we must not just read all the related Biblical texts and read them well, we have to put them in connection to the bigger story the author is intending, we have to see the work of the cross within the right picture. The Bible is, we know, a mostly coherent narrative, an unfolding drama from Genesis to Revelation, creation to new creation. It is that big picture – what fancy pants scholars call the meta-narrative – that frames any given episode in the Bible and any particular teaching about it. Jesus’s own understanding of his death and resurrection, the testimonies of the eyewitnesses and gospel writers, and the sophisticated explication by Paul and the other writers of the earliest church (set as they were within their own time and place and context) all are to be understood as pointing to the climax of the Biblical narrative, the Big Event that is understood within the bigger story of creation, fall, covenant, Israel, incarnation and the announcement of the Kingdom.
Yes, the cross is the center of the Biblical story. But why? How does that work in the Scriptural meta-narrative? As a younger Christian my teachers in the faith captured this in the phrase “promise and fulfillment.” And what is the promise? Nothing short of restoration of creation, a cosmic healing, good – great? – news of renewed sky and land, new heaven, new Earth. We must understand the death and resurrection of Christ – and any subsequent theories or explanations or understandings of the atonement and how redemption is accomplished within this Kingdom vision.
(By the way, Wright’s last book was written at a popular level and without studying atonement theories or justification or the particular role of the crucifixion, he told this bigger picture wonderfully well. It was a nice summary called Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good [HarperOne; $24.99.]) If this is all really new to you or you haven’t read anything about any of his books, it is a great one with which to start.
So, oh man, this big picture, whole-life discipleship, creation-regained, transforming vision stuff preaches well. I love Wright, as he is a world-renowned scholar who can teach like an expert professor, knowing much about history, theology, and Biblical studies, but he is also a pastor and preacher. He also has served as a parish priest and an Anglican Bishop. Tom knows how to take his academic work – published in some exceptionally hefty volumes that are widely debated in the scholarly world of conferences and journals – and make it more accessible. And can he ever turn a phrase and use a helpful illustrative story! Even this 440 page book reads easily and is packed with inspiring challenges and fresh ideas that are made compelling — if in a reasonably subdued British manner.
And Tom loves his hymns. He makes his points often by citing sacred music or old Anglican hymns (or some from the more American revivalist tradition) often in beautiful and helpful ways. Or, effectively, as he shows that bad thinking is embedded in some of these beloved songs and we end up being shaped by unbiblical ideas less from bad preaching than from bad singing! And how right he is!
BIG, URGENT QUESTIONS TO SUSTAIN FAITHFUL DISCIPLESHIP
And so, this remarkable book is serious, obviously thoughtful, even demanding at times. But anyone who knows even a little bit of theology and a bit of the Bible will be able to follow it. His goal couldn’t be more urgent – he wants to really know what happened on the cross, how the earliest Christians understood it, and how did Paul, especially, explained it? And how does it relate to the Resurrection? And what difference does getting all this just right make for our daily lives, our faith, our churches and our mission in the world?
N.T. Wright insists we cannot get any of that fully right for long without knowing well the kind of the truth that his book is attempting to express. We may intuit our way into earnest faith and lively churches and exciting ministry but sustainable, culturally-engaged, Biblically-faithful reformation is going to take a solid foundation of good Biblical theology.
So we have to get the cross and its meaning right.
OUR CROSS IS TOO SMALL
Do you remember hearing about (or even reading) a famous book from 1958 called Your God Is Too Small? My friend John Armstrong wrote a marvelous book called Your Church Is Too Small (by which he means your view of the church.)
Well, Wright doesn’t say this (or at least I haven’t come across it yet) but the back cover proclaims “Our Cross Is Too Small.” As ugly and harsh of an event as it was, as controversial and complicated as theological discussions of it can be, we ought not diminish or make small the role of the cross. We should understand its extraordinary significance and all that it accomplishes and all that it points us to. We call it Good Friday for a reason. What really is that reason?
As I hinted earlier, and as Wright goes to great pains to show, what the death of the Messiah Jesus accomplishes is the inauguration of the restoring, healing, redemptive reign of God “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” This Kingdom is launched on Good Friday and the first great act of vindication and proof is the defeat of death in the resurrection. Jesus did not die only to forgive our sins or to give us the free gift of eternal life in heaven. The Bible simple doesn’t teach that. The Bible – as Wright helps us see over and over and over – has a bigger picture, even bigger than the forgiveness of sins. More than taking punishment from an angered judge. It is the revolutionary project of defeating the idols and powers and restoring us to our task as humans co-reigning with Christ; God in Christ is rescuing the planet and uniting Heaven and Earth., What’s that line in “This Is My Father’s World” – “and earth and Heaven be one.” Or, if you’d rather, all things are summed up, to use the language of Ephesians 1:10.
A MASTER CLASS WITH A MASTER TEACHER
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion is essentially a master class with Dr. N.T. Wright – offering a synthesis of his major work on Jesus and Paul; he sometimes says (without any noticeable pride or pushiness) something like “I covered this in Evil and the Justice of God” or “This line of thinking is different then what I wrote in my New Interpreters Commentary on Romans.” Of course he explains how all this new material relates to his important volume Surprised by Hope and How God Became King. This is a beautiful summary, yes, but it is very new stuff, too. And, interestingly, provides an occasional change in focus and/or reformulations of some of his previous writings. (Is this common in the academy, Iwonder, a fairly matter of fact admission that he is re-thinking some things. In some church circles that would be a sign of some great weakness, an admission of error – heaven forbid! – but he’s fairly nonplussed by it all. He just explains he’s rethought a few things and is breaking some new ground. I liked that a lot. So this is both an overview, a summary, a serious bit of Biblical research and a whole lot of new, new ground.
And, yes, here he is teaching in our backyard, behind the shop.
By the way, if you want to enroll in a video course with Wright, watch this trailer about the book, the class, and how to be involved. This is a great opportunity.
The first part of The Day the Revolution Began is called – wait for it… “Introduction.” (I told you he was somewhat reserved as a Brit!)
But Wright gets a bit more vivid in the title of the first chapter: “A Vitally Important Scandal.” Wright is asking why the cross matters so much and delightfully draws us in by showing how much great art and music and literature has been drawn to trying to help us enter into the drama of that event. It’s a really good, helpful way to start.
His “Wrestling with the Cross Then and Now” is a fine, fine overview of how various epochs of church history have understood the cross. Wright is a historian, after all, and says so much of this so clearly and helpfully. From the late medieval world into the time of the reformation so much developed, at least in the Western church. (“The East had no Anselm,” he wryly notes.) This great chapter will be very informative for some readers, a good bird-eye overview for others. It is a good chapter for all as he brings his incisive but (mostly) gracious analysis to each of the major writers and church leaders. This introductory setting of the stage is clarified by going back a bit — the third chapter is called “The Cross in Its First Century Setting.” I’m sure he has covered some of this kind of stuff in various articles, lectures, and books, but some of it seemed new to me.
Part Two is the sort of thoughtful Wright stuff that can benefit anyone; it is called “In Accordance with the Bible”: the Stories of Israel. Oh my, this is material we need to get straight and, again, while it may be a bit of a reviewing overview, for many it will bring the contours of the Old Testament story-line, the plot of the narrative, into clearer focus. Helpful, if with a bit of bravado, maybe, he isn’t just doing a Bible overview, here, though, but contrasting a coherent and faithful interpretation on key matters by comparing them with other views. For instance, in the very first chapter in this second section he takes up what the Westminster Confession calls “The Covenant of Works” which he thinks is unhelpful and unbiblical. He replaces this vexing legalistic approach and unwise nomenclature with what he wants to call “The Covenant of Vocation.”
This is a hugely important reflection on the meaning of being human (made to image God and steward the creation as true worship) the nature of the Hebrew law, the blessedness of covenants and what, finally, Christ accomplishes for those of us who have lost our true calling; namely, to image God faithfully. I know I am going to re-read this chapter again as it seems really generative. I talked to one friend about it today and we both thought this was indeed something very, very interesting and even urgent.
The other chapters in this second section are called “In All the Scriptures” and “The Divine Presence and the Forgiveness of Sins” and “Suffering Redemption and Love.”
I’ve only skimmed these parts but it seems, in characteristic fashion, Wright is in conversation with others views, some way off base, some insightful but not fully adequate. Anyone who follows any of the debates about justification – think of the critique even of Wright made by John Piper on one hand, and maybe those who are formulating “non-violent” atonement theories, trying to get out of the understandable discomfort of legal approaches that seem to understand God the Father as mostly angry and in need of some bloodletting. I don’t think he explores the complex scapegoat theories of Rene Girard, but he is at least in that ball park of trying to understand mysteries and confusions, juxtaposing various Biblical models, metaphors, images, and formulations. I hope you have read his profound and moving Evil and the Justice of God; this pushes further in that direction.
I do wish there were more footnotes, but there are not many at all. It makes the book more readable, I suppose they think, but I sometimes wished for more background which endnotes or footnotes would have facilitated. Even as he has read so much (just see his magisterial volume Paul and His Recent Interpreters if you don’t believe me) and interacts with all kinds of scholars and church groups he does what I almost always think is always so — he draws on various schools of thought with a “both/and” generous approach, trying to see how each insight relates to others. It makes him less ideological, it seems to me, and folks on the left and right both think he’s wrong about much. Which I guess is why I trust him so.
PART THREE: THE REVOLUTIONARY RESCUE
Part Three of The Day… now brings us to the heart of the book, and the exciting vision of just what is going on in Wright’s understanding of the cross. It is nicely called “The Revolutionary Rescue” and each chapter helps us understand with Biblical images and echoes a fuller understanding of the cross – the cross that dare not be “too small.” Here, the dots are getting connected, and, I think, properly so. The vision of the new Eden of Easter and the restoration of all things promised from old are coming into focus.
The chapters are themselves evocative. I hope they inspire you to buy the book – this is rich, good, helpful content. I am sure it will make you think and perhaps give you greater passion for the Kingdom coming. It is surely one of the more important works of its kind.
The chapters in this third part, the part called “Revolutionary Rescue” are:
- New Goal, New Humanity
- Jesus’s Special Passover
- The Story of the Rescue
- Paul and the Cross -Apart from Romans
- The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (The New Exodus)
- The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Passover and Atonement)
You can hardly do better than to ponder some of this creative Bible teaching – even if you know the Scriptures well (and especially if you don’t!) Just for instance, see his section called “The Usual Reading of Romans 3 – and Its Problems”) or how he frames Romans as “A New Exodus.” This is really, really good and will generate lots of discussion, I’m sure.
PART FOUR: THE REVOLUTION CONTINUES
Finally, the fourth part (less than one hundred pages, but still a substantial, provocative, motivational portion) is called “The Revolution Continues.” This is laden with Biblical explication but it pushing us to the “so what” question – how do we live this out? What difference does it make?
I’ve jumped ahead to both of these exciting chapters and can’t wait to hear what people think. Of course, Wright has invited us before to think about the broader mission of the church as partners with God in God’s redemption of the world. In his seeker-friendly introduction to the faith Simply Christian he invites readers to ask what it would look like if the big Biblical story (the middle part of that book) answered or made sense of some of the most burning question of our era – identity, community, security, environmental concerns, war and peace and justice, and hope.
In Surprised by Hope, Wright’s powerhouse study of eschatology he calls the church to take up work of justice for the poor as well as to promote the arts and create culture in ways that enhances beauty. In this new one, he cites Makoto Fujimura, honoring his new book Silence and Beauty that so honestly draws on themes of lament and sorrow for a broken, unjust world, and asking of beauty can help us make sense of the gruesome times in which we live. Fujimura’s meditation is inspired by Japanese novelist Shusako Endo and his moving novel, Silence.)
Wright’s great collection of various talks and speeches and sermons he was asked to give about contemporary culture – found in the great paperback Surprised By Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues – he weighs in on (sometimes tentative, sometimes adamant) Christian perspectives, in light of his Biblical work, on creation-care, global poverty, the role of women, the relationship of faith and science, public justice and the like. He has always wanted to relate ancient faith to modern times. His work in Kingdom coming which he calls “the revolution” is just making that more urgent, more natural, more beautiful, and he is offering insightful ways to relate the cross and justification to our own being just and living in service to our neighbors and world.
As Wright puts it in the chapter called “Passover People” we are “the rescued rescuers, the redeemed human beings called to bring redeeming love into the world – the justified justice-bringers, the reconciled reconcilers…”
So, yes, The Day the Revolution Begins ends big. There is the fabulous chapter called “Passover People” and another very important one called “The Powers and the Power of Love.”
New creation can happen,” he tells us – in italics! – because the power of the satan, of Babylon, of Pharaoh has been broken. That is how the story works. That is what is different by six o’clock on the evening of Good Friday, although Jesus’s followers don’t realize it until the third day, which is the first day of the new week, the start of the new world.
And if a whole new world has begun, then we are living as hopeful agents within it. In, but not of, already but not yet. It is a mystery, and symbols and rituals and liturgies and new habits will shape our hearts to “see” this new age dawning. Many of us have said this sort of thing for decades, and Tom is not alone in offering this solidly Biblical, evangelical, wholistic view of realized eschatology celebrated in church and lived out in the world. But he is one of the world’s leading scholars of this view, and one of our most compelling preachers about it all. After a bit on the “gentle, sad irony” of the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 13, he writes:
With all this we lift up our eyes and realize that when the New Testament tells us the meaning of the cross, it gives us not a system, but a story, not a theory, but a meal and an act of humble service; not a celestial mechanism for punishing sin and taking people to heaven, but an earthly story of a human Messiah who embodies and incarnates Israel’s God and who unveils his glory bringing his kingdom to earth as in heaven.
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion remarkable book is certainly one of N.T. Wright’s most important, and certainly one of the most important this year. It is methodological and at times painstaking in his study of the range of Biblical material. Yet it is vibrant and at times he waxes beautifully – like when he says, contrasting some of the rather turgid and combative debates about theories of atonement — that we stand near “the vast and dangerous ocean of the gospel story, inviting us to plunge in and let the wild waves of dark glory wash us, wash over us, washes us through and through, and land us on the shores of God’s new creation.” He pushes us to take up our roles as renewed ambassadors of the Kingdom coming. And he reminds us that it may not be easy – perhaps taking a cue from his friend Michael Gorman (who has developed this theme in Pauline spirituality) Wright has a section called “cruciform mission.” I am not ashamed to say I urge you to buy The Day…. It will help you embrace the “covenant of vocation” – or, rather, he continues, in the last paragraph,
be embraced by it as the Creator calls you to a genuine humanness at last, calls and equips you to bear and reflect his image. Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution, here and now.
The Day the Revolution Began:
Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion
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