N.T. Wright’s How God Became King attempts to show that Christians tend to read the Gospels (Matthew-through-John) improperly. He notes a myriad of tendencies that are common in evangelical circles, one of them being, the reading of the gospels through Pauline lenses.
The heart of this book cries out for Christians to respect the gospels as the gospels and return to what the original intentions of the evangelists (=the gospel writers) were. In the first chapter Wright presents an overlooked dilemma: that Christians don’t know what to do with the life of Jesus. We cough up plenty of sermons on the birth/incarnation and especially on the death (and resurrection) of Christ. But we are puzzled with what to do with his life. In the next chapter Wright critiques the opposite extreme; those who only look to the life of Christ to the neglect of everything else the gospel writers include. Though noting positive moments and aspects of this movement, Wright fits those of “the social gospel” into this extreme.
In chapter 3 Wright talks about how Christians have misunderstood the concept of eternal life, noting that in common Jewish thinking of Jesus’ day this did not simply have to do with a “a disembodied timeless eternity” (p. 44) but that “for them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay” (p. 45). Here Wright is attacking the prevalent theology of escapism which has a hyper-focus on heaven with a disregard for what happens on earth (deeming it secondary and/or unimportant). Some refer to escapism as an “escape from reality.” (He continues throughout the book to attack escapism as well as Gnosticism.)
Wright’s book proves highly intelligent yet surprisingly readable. This is a breath of fresh air since many historians, theologians, and scholars produce works that are the equivalent of dictionaries. (That of course usually comes with the territory .)
Though the book tends to be repetitive, I think it needs to be since Wright is driving a vital point throughout the whole book: that we are misreading the gospels.
One of the ways I was struck was how this book made me realize how I tend to think of Eden and then go automatically to the cross, underscoring (or unwittingly ignoring) the narrative of Israel. Wright argues that we are doing an injustice to Scripture; that we ought not neglect Israel’s story but see Israel (starting from from Abraham’s calling) as God doing the Eden thing again (though we tend to skip the huge “Israel” part and, as reflected in many sermons (mine included-!), and jump from Eden to the cross).
Though Wright critiques traditions left and right, he is not at all anti-tradition. On page 274 (the context there is “creeds”) he writes, “Put tradition first, and scripture will be muzzled and faded. Put scripture first, and tradition will come to new life.”
His book is inevitably controversial since his claim is a serious one; that we have indeed read the gospels wrong as Christians. I agree with the spirit of Wright in this book which can be summed up by the first page of his preface in which he states, “…what we need is not just a bit of fine-tuning, an adjustment here and there. We need a fundamental rethink about what the gospels are trying to say…”
This book suffers from moments of overstating (or repetition). A secondary critique I have is that at times I would find myself getting lost in Wright’s colorful and “flowery” imagery. (This also proved to be the case for me in his work titled “Revelation for everyone.”) Of course this is subjective and will differ from person to person.
Though Wright is often regarded by many as a liberal, I think this is due to people who take his words out of context. This book reaffirms my beliefs that he is in fact an open-minded conservative. (Or a conservative liberal-?)
In that it challenges Christians (of all colors) to reevaluate how they read Matthew-John, I would say this book is a definite success.
What sort of reader would enjoy this book?
- Anyone interested in getting to know the gospels better
- Anyone interested in hearing unorthodox views that challenge evangelical assumptions concerning Matthew-John
- Anyone who would like to understand Jesus better in proper context (not the watered-down Jesus or Jesus made in our image by years of tradition)
- Anyone interested in theology/scholars opinions but are scared by all the footnotes and dictionary-style works (this book is extremely readable with limited footnotes)
Get the book!!!
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