In his new book, "Simply Jesus," renowned New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright takes dead aim at post-Enlightenment dualism, which keeps religion and public life in their separate spheres. He argues in his latest publication from HarperOne, that the core of Jesus' life and teaching is decidedly political -- that is, God is actively involved in the real, here-and-now world. Wright summarizes this in his articulation of Jesus' message: God is in charge now! God is becoming King!
It isn't new information that sets this book apart from Wright's earlier writing, especially The Challenge of Jesus (1999, IVP). It is rather a kind of clarity that comes through in the intensity with which Wright makes his point. In the 12 years between "The Challenge of Jesus" and "Simply Jesus," Wright served local churches as Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. That time spent working with, as he put it, "ordinary church communities," in a very impoverished area of the country has made him return to this subject with a new perspective.
"One of the things which is most clear to me [right now] is the close integration between Jesus preaching of the Kingdom and Jesus himself as the surprising, shocking presence of the living God amongst his people," Wright told me in a recent conversation. It is this sharp clarity about who Jesus was that sets this book apart. It is not a cool reflection from an academic who has thought about these issues in a stuffy university for the last several decades, but a passionate appeal from someone who has spent time with both the texts of the Christian scripture and ordinary people who are struggling to follow Jesus.
His personal conviction gives this book its energy, but it also makes it somewhat unnerving. What does it mean to take this Jesus seriously? Wright admits in the opening chapter of his book that "Jesus -- the Jesus we might discover if we really looked! -- is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we -- than the church! -- has ever imagined.... We have been asking the wrong questions. We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale" (4-5).
Judging from the religious landscape in the West at least, Christians would rather have a tame Jesus who doesn't meddle with their lives; doesn't require them to change their political affiliations or ethical standards.
"By all means, people think, let Jesus be a soul doctor, making people feel better inside. Let him be a rescuer, snatching people away from this world to 'heaven.' But don't let him tell us about a God who actually does things in the world. We might have to take that God seriously, just when we're discovering how to run the world our own way" (54-55).
Jesus' claim that God is becoming King has ethical challenges of its own when viewed from our postmodern vantage point. Readers could not be blamed for wondering how the notion of anyone -- let alone God -- becoming King of all creation could be good news. History recounts the painful record of such totalizing claims, by people on behalf of their God. We are right to respond to meta-narratives like this with incredulity. But to disregard the claims of Jesus would also be foolish.
Religion has often been a poor reflection of a God of love. Yet, if Christians are to take Jesus' message seriously, they must dig deeper. What kind of King does Jesus paint God to be? How does God intend to reign? What kind of government and economics has God articulated in history? And most importantly, as Wright addresses in his lengthy final chapter, how can the church begin to live out of this reality of God's reign now? We can only hope that Wright will continue to address these questions in his next book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, due out in March from HarperOne.
Ultimately, the proof of God's goodness as King is in the manifestation of that reign in and through those who claim to be God's followers. Perhaps what is true is not that God's government has been tried and found wanting but rather that is has been ignored, or reduced to personal, internal "spirituality" and thus left untried.
For my complete interview with Tom Wright, visit The Hillhurst Review.