Millions of Americans know former Bishop N.T. “Tom” Wright as the man who defends the Bible against skeptics. It helps that Wright does this in a wonderfully resonant British accent with the confident air of a latter-day C.S. Lewis, who in his own day was a famous media personality. However, through several recent books, Wright has been trying to change the focus of his message to something he considers much more urgent for our tumultuous times. Wright certainly is famous as the Bible scholar who answers a hearty “Yes” to the question:
Are the Gospels true?
But, the question he is eager to answer is: What do the Gospels mean?
In How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,he answers that second question. What’s more, he deliberately uses the word “explosive” to convey the kind of passion and power he believes can be unlocked through the Christianity we discover in the Bible to this day. What may shock some of Wright’s long-time fans is that the meaning of the Gospel is similar in important ways to messages writers ranging from Shane Claiborne and Brian McLaren to Rob Bell and John Dominic Crossan are penning today. There are even echoes of the late Pope John Paul II’s writing about God’s Kingdom as opened to the world through Christ. The Gospels aren’t intended as merely chicken soup for the soul, Wright and these other voices are arguing. Rather, the Gospels reveal a Kingdom in which God’s principles truly shape the way we live together on this planet. We certainly hear that message from Claiborne and McLaren; it’s there if you wade through the dense encyclicals of John Paul II and it’s in the pages of books like Crossan’s God and Empire or The Challenge of Jesus. It’s certainly one of the messages in Lewis’ own work.
Then, what are the principles in this new Kingdom? Well, that’s where the firestorm starts. There are many applications of Kingdom principles that would set off a heated debate between the writers listed above. In simple, broad-brush terms, Wright as an Anglican is more liberal than John Paul II in his applications of Kingdom principles (women’s ordination as one example), but Wright is far more conservative (or traditional) than Crossan on a number of issues.
Here is how Wright describes his overall position in the middle of his new book (page 167): Americans, these days “have simply baptized the right-wing and left-wing politics of a deeply divided society and claimed this or that one as Christian, to be implemented and if possible exported. Listening to the sub-Christian language on display among those exultant at the killing of Osama bin Laden in the early summer of 2011 was an example of the right-wing tendency; anything that advances the world-view of Fox News is assumed to be basically Christian, wise, and automatically justified. But listening to many on the left, I have a similar problem. The left claims the high Christian and moral ground of a concern for the poor and the marginalized, but again this regularly parrots the elements of liberal modernism, not least its new sexual ethic, without any attempt to scale the true heights of the gospel vision in the New Testament.” (Oh, and he’s not only targeting Americans. In the next paragraph, he shares his disdain toward what passes for Christianity among his countrymen in the UK.)
For coverage on Wright’s other books, check out our N.T. Wright Small Group Resource page.
N.T. Wright video: The Bible’s true message is ‘explosive’
Finally, let N.T. Wright speak for himself in the following brief video. Harper One Executive Editor Mickey Maudlin appears in this video, asking Wright to distill the new book’s central theme. In part, you will hear Wright say: Most Christians in the Western world have been puzzled without even knowing that they’re puzzled as to what the Gospels are there for. The way the modern age was asking questions over the last 200 years has driven wedges between different bits of the New Testament. Now, we really ought to say: It’s time to put that lot back together again. When you do, it’s explosive! A lot of Jesus’ parables are told precisely in order to say: No, the Kingdom isn’t what you thought it was. The story the Gospels tell, which is How God Became King, is one that I think the whole Western world has not only not wanted to hear—but it has forgotten that it was out there in the first place.
CLICK THIS VIDEO SCREEN to view the video. Or click this link to jump to YouTube for the video.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.