Book Review: Surprised by Scripture
Title: Surprised by Scripture
Author: NT Wright
Anyone who has read any of my book reviews knows that NT Wright typically gets rave reviews from me–both as a lover of literature and as a Christian who loves Wright's theological perspective. Fact is, I can scarcely ever find anything in his books with which I disagree.
With this book, that changed just a little because I found much of what he wrote to be provocative and challenging to some long held theological ideas I have held. Letting go of long-held ideas isn't easy; being challenged at an intellectual level is sometimes discouraging. If we are not careful, we can label those who challenge us as abrasive or mean. He doesn't hold back, challenging all those sacred-cows current Christians have championed as 'thou shalt not violate orthodoxy in these matters' kind of doctrines. Sad truth is that entire ministries have been built around some of these sacred-cows in recent years–trumpeting theological perspectives that are important, yes, but often exist to the exclusion of a more comprehensive narrative, or to the exclusion of the Person to whom they point. It's kind of like the way a lot of books are put together in today's Evangelical publishing houses: authors find a single verse that supports an idea and then scratch around other tangential passages to find more support and then, voila!, a book is born. And all the while these authors pay very little, if any, attention to the meta-narrative of Scripture.
Yet this is precisely what NT Wright refuses to do in his writing. Taking a sort of 'damn the torpedoes' approach to the sacred-cows and theological pillars of current incarnation of the church, he plows through each subject by constantly reminding of us what Scripture says, and not just what a verse says. What I mean to say is that the meta-narrative is always in his view when he writes. It matters not the subject matter: Wright always has 66 books in his vision when he is writing about even the smallest word, sentence, paragraph, or book of the Bible. And so it is with Surprised by Scripture. There's not a subject he touches that isn't somehow connected to the larger context of the Bible, of the story of God coming down to rescue broken and sinful humanity in Jesus and the project begun at Jesus' resurrection to rebuild this earth and it's people.
This is what I simultaneously love and hate about NT Wright's books. On the one hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so I know that he is not trying to hoodwink me or convince me of some specious theology that is born out of a reaction to some perceived threat or otherwise. Many authors/preachers are good at this and it is reflected in the lack of depth in their work. On the other hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so he is constantly challenging my presuppositions about Scripture and God and what God is doing, or has done, in Jesus. That is terrifically threatening and makes me constantly uncomfortable. It ought to be so with all authors who dare speak on matters of faith. It ought to be so with all preachers: comforting the afflicted; afflicting the comfortable.
Surprised by Scripture made me clench my teeth more than any other of Wright's books precisely at this point. Yet I think this is exactly what happens when you take the bulk of Wright's heavy theologies and filter them down to the every day church. And if we do, and if we are honest, we simply must admit that we have gotten a lot of it just plain wrong. We might also go along with admitting that many of the ministries that are build around some of these wrongs are also, sadly, beside the point. Taking the example of the creation stories, for example, we might say something like: It's important that God made the universe; it's not so much important how he did it. But we might go further and say: It's important that God made the universe, and it's tremendously important that all throughout the Scripture the authors affirm that God is going to remake & recreate the universe. We can go even further: It's important that God made the universe, sustains the universe; that the authors reaffirm this frequently; that the authors reaffirm frequently that God will renew, recreate, remake the universe; that God has already begun to do this in Jesus and will bring it to fruition at some point. One way of saying this ignores the big picture; one way affirms it.
Well, we cannot prove creation in any ex nihilo sense of creation. We can surmise. We can guess. We might ask: Is it a mountain upon which I am willing to die? But what we can do is point to the Resurrection of Jesus (chapter 3) as a point in history where God's breaking in and stirring up the pot of recreative materials that can actually be demonstrated. The point, of course, is that we Christians get all frustrated because we have tied ourselves to the posts of things that are not quite as important as some other things–or because we feel compelled to prove something about Jesus that doesn't need proving because we think that if we don't the whole world of faithism will die. But we are to be found in Jesus, loving Jesus, loving people. Seems to me that everything else is so much frosting.
If we are more willing to die for a doctrine than we are for a person then we have utterly missed the point. I suspect at times this is Wright's point.
The only real gripe I have with this book is Wright's points about politics–especially American politics. He seems very sensitive to the way American politicians do things–especially as it relates to events surrounding September 11, 2001 and the ongoing drama of how 'we' deal with terrorist organizations. He says he's no pacifist; I believe him. But he seems to forget that the 'war on terror' although led mainly by the USA was, in fact, a coalition of nations who decided enough was enough. I disagree with his subtle criticisms of then president Bush (although he never mentions him by name) and the manner of response to the actions of evil people. I think this is even more pertinent now as we see our current president simply doing nothing against terrorist threats, beheadings of women and children, and the systematic destruction of churches and christians in the Middle East.
The problem with Wright's critique of American political processes is that he gives us no viable alternatives. He thinks American democracy is worse than his British Socialism. He thinks that we should be voices in the wilderness hammering out our prophecies against politicians and governments, and perhaps we should, but he doesn't tell us with what or with whom we are to replace them. Should we go back to Medieval Feudalism? Should we revert to the monarchy we escaped from? Should we adopt Sharia? Perhaps we should let Anarchy rule and go back to the time of Judges when 'everyone did as he saw fit in his own eyes'? My point is, it's fine to criticize the way we do things in America if in fact you have a superior alternative. I simply do not see in any of Wright's books a superior alternative to the representative republic in which I happen to live. And if I may add one last point, for as much as I love Wright, for as much as I think he is dead on in keeping the narrative vision alive and in front, I think he is dead wrong when it comes to his critique of the United States. Dr Wright has indeed benefited greatly from the freedoms we enjoy here in America–not least of which is freedom to say what he wants, write what he wants, and criticize who he wants and then return back to the safety of Great Britain. I think it is disingenuous to say on page 112 that 'Western politicians knew perfectly well that al Qaeda was a danger…' and then criticize the reaction to September 11, 2001 as a 'knee-jerk, unthinking, immature lashing out.'
This is a case where the president at the time was damned for doing and would have been damned for not doing (when in fact nearly everyone in government at the time supported the idea of taking action). Frankly, I think Wright's critique beginning on page 112 and ending somewhere on page 114 is wrong (as I think much of his criticism of the American political system is wrong). Perhaps if the British government, who had suffered worse before the USA on September 11, had done something we wouldn't have had to act in the way we did or at all. Fact is, however, no one was doing anything about rampant terrorism until our president took action–and if that's true, then who is to say his actions were merely 'knee-jerk, unthinking, and immature'? It's easy to shift blame which is what Wright does here. His government did nothing about it so when ours did it was, somehow, wrong. And this is all beside the point that our president was acting as the president of a sovereign nation–humanists, atheists, christians, Jews, Gentiles, etc. All of us. He was not acting on behalf of a church or a synagogue or a mosque or professor's chair; he was acting on behalf of the people he swore to protect.
All that being said, I enjoyed the challenge the book afforded. I especially found the last chapter to be one of the best chapters I have read in a long time on the subject of hope. It also goes without saying that Wright is his typical exegetical genius. He brings fresh insights to the Scripture and challenges our presuppositions in a host of ways. I think he would be the first to tell you he doesn't have all the answers to all the problems we face, but in my opinion, he has laser vision on where we should start looking.