Thursday, November 01, 2012

NT Wright: Jesus and the Victory of God

We now come to the twelfth among my "ten most popular book reviews" on Amazon.  I am not embarrassed by the surplus.  It is not due to poor mathematical skills or corporate greed, like overbooking an airliner, but is my way of affirming the truth of that great bumper-sticker, "So little time, so many books."  
Anyway, I promise we are not TOO far from the end, now.  That light at the end of the tunnel is not a train heading this way.  And these last . . . few . . . are books worth talking about. 

So, anyway, here's the one and one quartereth most popular review I've posted on Amazon.  

1.25th Most popular review: NT Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God 

****  (196 + / 29 -)

"Is there an Historian in the House? Right Here."

When I read A. N. Wilson on Jesus, I closed the book and thought, "That's a pretty good book, about Wilson." When I read Crossan, I thought, "Here is the man who should have written the Book of Mormon." Wright first suggested to me the hope (yes, I had some reading, and writing, to do) that historical criticism might actually have something of value to say about Jesus.

Wright's approach has many virtues. He is intimately familiar with an incredible amount of scholarly literature on the subject, and refers to it in a way that is always thoughtful. He seldom arbitrarily discards evidence merely because it doesn't fit his theory, as many do. His favorite critical device is what he calls the principle of "double similarity, double disimilarity." He shows that, while most of the synoptic material makes sense both within the Jewish community, and as the template for the new Christian religion, it also differs from both traditions in ways that strongly suggest the marks of individuality, that neither ordinary Jews nor Christians would have invented for Jesus.

This is a helpful approach, in my opinion, though not so unique as Wright seems to think. Readers with literary or psychological sensitivity have been making similiar, less systematic but sometimes even more insightful, observations for a long time. See, for example, G. K. Chesterton (Everlasting Man), Philip Yancey (The Jesus I Never Knew), M. Scott Peck, Per Beskow (Strange Tales About Jesus) or C. S. Lewis ("Fernseeds and Elephants" -- an essay Wright scoffs at a bit, but that grows in my estimation the more I read of modern Biblical criticism). I think any reader can discern the unique style of Jesus in the Gospels. To a certain extent, Wright is just approaching the unique character of Jesus' sayings in a more formal, and less intuitive, manner.

As a scholar who studies the (often amazing) ways in which Christianity fulfills Asian cultures, I especially appreciated Wright's deep insights into the relationship between the Jewish tradition and the life of Christ. Wright argues that these elements were not retroactively inserted in the narrative, but most probably derive directly from Jesus. I don't recall that Wright places much emphasis on it, but in a sense, much of the argument here could be summarized by Jesus' statement: "Don't think I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets . . . I have come to fulfill them." I believe that applies to more than Jewish culture, but that is another story.

The greatest drawback of this book is that Wright takes himself and his colleagues too seriously, in my opinion. When Wright says, "All agree that Jesus began his public work in the context of John's baptism," he means, "all we scholars." The fact that billions of other readers usually come to the same conclusion, is, to Wright, irrelevent. The same, when he tells us, "It is apparent that the authors of the synoptic gospels intended to write about Jesus, not just their own churches and theologies," (really!) that "one of the chief gains" of the last 20 years of scholarship has been to link the crucifixion of Jesus to his cleansing of the temple, (my Grandma could have told them that) and that when Jesus cursed the fig tree, he was acting out a parable against the Jewish religious rulers.

Biblical scholars resemble the emperor's fashion experts, who, after decades of involved debate, and several fads in nudity, make the astonishing discovery that the emperor has no clothes. They pat themselves on their backs and complement one another for their brilliance, as the little boy, who first made the observation decades before, rocks in his chair in a retirement home nearby.

Chesterton said, one of the ways to get home is to stay there. Wright allows that Biblical criticism is taking a more circuitous route, (he himself uses the metaphor of the Prodigal Son), and he almost makes me think the view along the way might be worth it. But if he choses to lecture about the layout of the family farm when he returns, he ought to acknowledge that some of his hearers have been on that ground for a while already.

Wright seems less kind to his conservative Christian "elder brethren" than to younger (separated) brethren still sowing wild oats in the far country of historical speculation. This attitude troubles me.  (This is why the title of my first book on the historical Jesus, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, was also meant at a bit of a rebuke of conservative scholars who dismiss common intuition too readily.  Also see "Fingerprints of Jesus" in our new Faith Seeking Understanding, which further develops the same theme. 

Human beings are designed to recognize one another, and when we read the Gospels, we come to know a person who is clearly authentic and who cannot then be dismissed.)  After hundreds of pages of argument, Wright rather abruptly asserts that "Jesus did not know he was God," at least not as one knows one "ate an orange an hour ago." He thinks such self-knowledge would be unbecomingly "supernatural." (Though he doesn't quibble with multiplied loaves or the resurrection.)

At this point one gets the feeling that Wright's conclusion (or guess) is based less on historical evidence (which, as another reader points out below, ought to include John, Paul, and other Jewish Christians), but on a desire to keep a souvenir from the far country -- perhaps to show other scholars. Or maybe he just doesn't want to sound too conventional -- publish novelties ("discoveries") or off with your academic head. In any case, one wonders if his own dogmatically expressed opinion about Jesus' sub-divine mode of consciousness itself has a supernatural origin. He offers no other sources, in this case.

There seem to be two ways to "see" Jesus. One is the scholar's approach, which is that of blind men touching an elephant -- each connecting with that which communicates, with special vividness, a focused reality. The other method is that of the unwashed masses, who see the whole, though dimly at times, as through a fog. To see Christ as he is, yet without reductionism, has not proven an easy task for anyone. I do not know if it is the holiest, wisest, humblest, or just the most desperate, who come closest.

Wright shows that, if a blind man touches the elephant in enough places, and takes scholarly theories for the narrow simplifications that they tend to be, he may begin a fairly recognizable and systematic mapping of the shape before us, which, in the end, may help see the elephant once again. It is a brilliant and insightful work. And, I am beginning to think, one very patient elephant, to put up with modern criticism, and not step on anyone.

Pardon the long review. The book is longer. Be warned....

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