Saturday, February 5, 2011

N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope

I'm cruising through N. T. Wright's recent book, Surprised by Hope, (on my mother's ipad--don't get me started) marking quotes. Part of Wright's thesis in this book, close to the work in my dissertation, is that our truncated views of salvation also truncate our understandings of mission. I read Wright's stuff about hope and I think, "amen." But it dawned on me as I read that some of what he's saying many Christians would find shocking. Do these shock you?

"It comes as something of a shock, in fact, when people are told what is in fact the case: that there is very little in the Bible about "going to heaven when you die" and not a lot about a postmortem hell either."

"The wonderful description in Rev 4 and 5 of the 24 elders casting their crowns before the throne of God and the lamb, beside the sea of glass, is not, despite Charles Wesley's great hymns, a picture of the last day, with all the redeemed in heaven at last. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life."

Wright finds troubling the view of the future in these classic hymn lryics.

"Till in the ocean of thy love
We lost ourselves in heaven above."

"Heaven's morning breaks and earth's vain shadows flee..."

He writes, "Some of the hymns in the revivalist and charismatic traditions slip easy into the mistake, cognate as we shall see with misleading views of the "second coming," of suggesting that Jesus will return to take his people away from earth and "home" to heaven. Thus declares that wonderful hymn, "How Great Thou Art," in its final stanza, declares:
              When Christ shall come, with shout of acclimation,
               And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
The second line might better read, "And heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart."

Wright points out that in the climactic scene in Revelation, the saints are not taken up into heaven, but the new Jerusalem comes down to earth. Moreover, he suggests that our preoccupation with heaven as a home owes much to a spiritualizing tendency (Platonic?) that simply doesn't appear in the NT, and with consequences.

"English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilberforce in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in the resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead."

"Much Christian and sub-Christian tradition has assumed that we do all indeed have souls that need saving, and that the soul, if saved, will be the part of us that goes to heaven when we die. All this, however, finds minimal support in the New Testament, including the teaching of Jesus, where the word soul, though rare, reflects ...what we would call the whole person..."

"Resurrection meant bodies. We cannot emphasize this enough, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word as a synonym for life after death in the popular sense."

"The early Christians hold firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world."

"Only in the late second century, a good 150 years after the time of Jesus, do we find people using the word resurrection to mean something quite different than what it meant in Judaism and early Christianity, namely (what people came to believe later), a spiritual experience in the present leading to a disembodied hope in the future."

Enough? To be fair to Wright, I've lifted these out of context. The blows are likely easier to take in context, Still, he does mess with most of our understandings of the future, but only because he thinks there's something more promising in the biblical understanding. So, read the book to get the full picture.

p.s., for those of view looking for an alternative to marcus borg, et al, this is a good place to go.

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