Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Kingdom Come

In an article about the public meaning of the Gospels published in the June 17, 2008 issue of The Christian Century, Bishop N. T. Wright once again demonstrates his status as an Anglican Centrist bishop. Here's a teaser:

In his new book, The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis describes how as a young man growing up in an evangelical church, he never heard a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount. That telling personal observation reflects a phenomenon about which I have been increasingly concerned: that much evangelical Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic has based itself on the epistles rather than the Gospels, though often misunderstanding the epistles themselves.

Indeed, in this respect evangelicalism has simply mirrored a much larger problem: the entire Western church, both Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and liberal, charismatic and social activist, has not actually known what the Gospels are there for.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all in their various ways about God in public, about the kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven through the public career and the death and resurrection of Jesus. The massive concentration on source and form criticism, the industrial-scale development of criteria for authenticity (or, more often, inauthenticity), and the extraordinary inverted snobbery of preferring gnostic sayings-sources to the canonical documents all stem from, and in turn reinforce, the determination of the Western world and church to make sure that the four Gospels will not be able to say what they want to say, but will be patronized, muzzled, dismembered and eventually eliminated altogether as a force to be reckoned with. ...

The Gospels have thus been seen either as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions. Thus the Gospels, in both popular and scholarly readings, have been regarded either as grounding a social gospel whose naive optimism has no place for the radical fact of the cross, still less the resurrection—the kind of naïveté that Reinhold Niebuhr regularly attacked—or as merely providing the raw historical background for the developed, and salvific, Pauline gospel of the death of Jesus. If you go the latter route, the only role left for the stories of Jesus' healings and moral teachings is, as for Rudolf Bultmann, as stories witnessing to the church's faith, or, for his fundamentalist doppelgängers, stories that proved Jesus' divinity rather than launching any kind of program (despite Luke 4, despite the Sermon on the Mount, despite the terrifying warnings about the sheep and the goats!).

Appeals for an integrated reading have met stiff opposition from both sides: those who have emphasized Jesus' social program lash out wildly at any attempt to highlight his death and resurrection, as though that would simply legitimate a fundamentalist program, either Catholic or Protestant, while those who have emphasized his death and resurrection do their best to anathematize any attempt to continue Jesus' work with and for the poor, as though that might result in justification by works, either actually or at the existentialist meta-level of historical method (Bultmann again, and Gerhard Ebeling and others).

The lesson is twofold: (1) Yes, Jesus did indeed launch God's saving sovereignty on earth as in heaven; but this could not be accomplished without his death and resurrection. The problem to which God's kingdom-project was and is the answer is deeper than can be addressed by a social program alone.

(2) Yes, Jesus did, as Paul says, die for our sins, but his whole agenda of dealing with sin and all its effects and consequences was never about rescuing individual souls from the world but about saving humans so that they could become part of his project of saving the world. "My kingdom is not from this world," he said to Pilate; had it been, he would have led an armed resistance movement like other worldly kingdom-prophets. But the kingdom he brought was emphatically for this world, which meant and means that God has arrived on the public stage and is not about to leave it again; he has thus defeated the forces both of tyranny and of chaos—both of shrill modernism and of fluffy postmodernism, if you like—and established in their place a rule of restorative, healing justice, which needs translating into scholarly method if the study of the Gospels is to do proper historical, theological and political justice to the subject matter.

It is in the entire Gospel narrative, rather than any of its possible fragmented parts, that we see that complete, many-sided kingdom work taking shape. And this narrative, read this way, resists deconstruction into power games precisely because of its insistence on the cross. The rulers of the world behave one way, declares Jesus, but you are to behave another way, because the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. We discover that so-called atonement theology within that statement of so-called political theology. To state either without the other is to resist the integration, the God-in-public narrative, which the Gospels persist in presenting.

Read it all.

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