Review: N.T. Wright, “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels”

TitleHow God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: New Testament
Year: 2012
Pages: 282
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-06-173057-3
Price: $25.99

The crux of Anglican scholar N.T. Wright’s latest book, How God Became King, can be summed up quite easily, if quite dramatically: “most of Western Christianity has simply forgotten what the gospels are really about” (ix). According to a dominant Christian view today, God created the world and called Israel to be His people, and upon their failure he sent down Plan B, Jesus, to fix everything up and take us away to heaven (84). This is all wrong, Wright says, and reflects an over-emphasis of the early creeds on one hand and problematic Reformation additions or over-reliance on critical scholarship on the other, more than it reflects the stories or purposes of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John:

“Near the heart of my purpose in this book is to suggest that not only have we misread the gospels, but that we have made them ordinary [and] have allowed them only to speak about the few concerns that happened to occupy our minds already, rather than setting them free to generate an entire world of meaning in all directions, a new world in which we would discover not only new life, but new vocation” (158).

In his studies, travels, teaching and preaching Wright says he’s encountered an astounding number of Christians who can’t give a convincing answer to the question as to why we really need the gospels at all. He pleads with Christians to consider the question: “What story or stories do these writers think they are telling?” (xiii). By learning to “read the gospels better, more in tune with what their original writers  intended,” Christianity might be revitalized with a better missionary spirit throughout the world, and also lead to greater inter-Christian unity. “Is that what it would look like if we really believed that the living God was king on earth as in heaven?” he rhetorically asks (x). And he sets out to more closely examine the gospels themselves in their original context: as continuations of the “strange story of Israel” (66).

The gospel writers, Wright asserts, were keenly attuned to Jesus as a part of Israel’s ongoing history, as its culmination, actually. In his typical snazzy-analogical style, Wright compares the New Testament’s biblical back-story to a “quadraphonic set of speakers” which have, over time, been terribly unbalanced by the Christian tradition. (OK, this analogy is a bit clunky, but I think it still works.) The bass is way turned up, one of the speakers has been carted away to the basement, the other is on its last leg, perhaps another turned up so loudly as to drown out the others (61). He intends to help restore the balance so we hear the music properly again. One speaker represents the “Story of Israel,” which means more than merely pointing to proof-texts from the Old Testament which Jesus is said to have fulfilled. Instead, the people of Israel believed in a God who made promises to them, and they watched for the fulfillment of those promises as set out in Genesis, the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, on down through the centuries.

The second speaker is “the story of Jesus as the story of Israel’s God” (83). Jesus appears within the overall narrative of God’s creation and redemption of the world, a God who is said to have accompanied Israel on the journey through the wilderness and take up an abode in their temple. While Wright argues that each gospel writer approaches this aspect in unique ways, they each attempt to present Jesus as the fulfillment and embodiment of the God depicted in the older scriptures.

The third speaker is “the launching of God’s renewed people” (105). Jesus’s life, death, resurrection and ascension did not signal the end of the old Israel story, but the redirecting it further to a worldwide effort of conversion. Wright addresses various New Testament exegetes who present the gospels as simply “the projection of early Christian faith, reflecting the controversies and crises of the early church,” something Wright calls a “half-truth” at best (105). Of course it’s true that their later date of authorship means the authors crafted them for particular audiences, which means the gospels should be read with an ear to the ground in regards to culture context. But he argues that despite their various differences, none of them were intended to reach only a small community, but to take part in the spreading of their faith, to present a “charter” or “foundation for the whole church” (112).  The stories are biased, of course, in that they were written to support, sustain, and spread the “life of the early church,” (125). Source critics will likely have much to argue with Wright especially here.

The fourth speaker is the “story of the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of Caesar” (127). He traces the Hebrew Bible writers’ obsession with tracking the powers of the world and predicting their eventual overthrow by their God in Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, David, etc. He analyzes the way the gospel writers set Christ up against the imperial powers like Herod, and Pilate–an argument which he fleshes out through the rest of the book, perhaps most strikingly in his reading of the gospels as enthronement narratives culminating in the cross as throne: “Think of the kingdom agenda of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), which itself points ahead to the cross: Jesus himself loves his enemies, goes where the Roman soldiers force him to go, and turns the other cheek before being set like a city on a hill, like a light on a pole” (232, see also 225).

When properly balanced, Wright suggests, these four speakers will give Christians a more solid understanding of what the four evangelists are aiming at. It isn’t a story of how we’re all sinners for whom Jesus paid the price, and that once we accept him we’ll expect to go to heaven. In the chapter “Where We Get Stuck” he excoriates four “unhelpful reactions” Christianity has had to the gospels. First, the idea that we can scrap the earth, get saved and go to heaven (165).  Second, the idea that Christians ought to live apart from the world and set an example. Third and fourth, the move to just “baptize the right-wing and left-wing politics of a deeply divided society,” especially in the United States (166). None of these sufficiently account for what Wright sees as the central point of the gospels: “the story of how God became king–in and through Jesus both in his public career and in his death” (175, emphasis in original). Centuries of atonement theology has lost sight of kingdom theology, and present social-justice directed kingdom theologies often lose sight of the cross. Wright says Creedal Christianity has unfortunately taken post-biblical innovation too far, overlooking the scripture from which they are supposed to have been based (256). He surprisingly has more negative to say about the creeds than positive, although he yet salvages them by suggesting that Christians “festoon” ideas around each clause to ground them more firmly in the Bible (259). The book even closes with his own glossing of the Apostle’s Creed, not a re-write, but a commentary to keep in mind while reciting.

Most pointedly, Wright argues that Christ as present king means that Christ’s subjects are called to engage directly in the ongoing project his enthronement initiated, which includes challenging and partaking of much present struggle and suffering. God became king not as the consummation of the world being made new, but the inauguration of a new world order to be carried on by Christian communities. Wright knows this sounds incredibly triumphalist especially considering today’s sensitivity to pluralism, but he believes this is the message the gospels were intended to convey; the kingdom is here and it still ain’t entirely pretty. The Bible isn’t a book that tells us how to get to heaven, Wright says, but explaining “an agenda in which the forgiven people are put to work, addressing the evils of the world in the light of the victory of Calvary” (244).

He recognizes this has direct political implications for addressing human suffering, inequality, and other present problems. “I suspect, sadly,” he concludes, “that this is the point at which my overall argument will encounter some fairly solid resistance” because many would rather hear about being lifted off to another sphere rather than get tangled up in the problems we face in the present (244). But to think like that is to be “radically unfaithful to scripture” (245).

As with some of Wright’s other more popular-audience-geared works, Wright avoids much direct engagement with the viewpoints he criticizes, but spends more time constructing his own reading. He makes it clear in the preface that this work began as a series of lectures geared to help people “engaged in parish and pastoral work.” He expanded the scope hoping to be taken more seriously by “theologians as well as biblical scholars,” but compared to his last few books this one felt a bit more muddled (xvi). His characteristic wit and clever voice is present, but his exegetical decisions often seemed more theory-driven without justifying the theory. So if you’re interested in becoming more familiar with Wright’s latest work, I suggest starting with  Simply Jesus. He covers a lot of the same material there, although Wright’s expanded material on Jesus’s crucifixion-as-enthronement in How God Became King is the best contribution this book makes. There are so many interesting observations which give a new spin on familiar New Testament passages that mentioning one will have to suffice by way of wrapping this review up–

When James and John pull Jesus aside, asking to have the seats on his right and left  “in his kingdom,” Jesus rebukes them (in Wright’s own New Testament translation’s prose):

“You don’t know what you’re asking for!…Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink? Can you receive the baptism I’m going to receive?”
“Yes,” they said, “we can.”
“Well,” said Jesus, “you will drink the cup I drink; you will receive the baptism I receive. But sitting at my right hand or my left–that’s not up to me. It’s been assigned already” (Mark 10:38-40).

“The significance of this in our present discussion is massive,” Wright observes. In chapter 15 Mark depicts the two thieves on Jesus’s right and left in their assigned seats next to Jesus on his throne of wood. “That is the powerful–if deeply paradoxical!–‘coming of the kingdom’ as spoken of,” but the disciples have work yet to do (227).

Tantalizingly, Wright hints to the work he still has yet to do by concluding his preface with the announcement of having been brought onto the Divinity school faculty of the University of St. Andrews in 2010. For the past few decades Wright has worked more outside of the academic mainstream by trying to “relate the academic study of the gospels to the street-level life of the church.” Now he wishes to bring “reflections that were occasioned by my work in the wider world into the bright light and searching scrutiny of the academy.  There is, of course, much more work to do, and I hope to return to the four gospels in a much fuller academic context before long” (xvii).

You can browse How God Became King here. Oh, and here’s a video of the good bishop playing guitar and singing a Bob Dylan tune.

Comments

  1. Blair, great review—thanks.

    I’m esp. interested in Wright’s kingdom theology, as I’m doing some work on Mormonism and apocalypticism. Can you recommend other works where Wright focuses on this topic of the coming forth of the kingdom and . . . well, basically, living in the world but being of the kingdom of God rather than the world? (BTW, I esp. like James Davison Hunter’s book on this topic, To Change the World—highly recommended if you haven’t read it).

  2. Robert C., Hunter’s book has been on to-read list since Jim F. recommended it in his Patheos column. Thanks for the reminder.

    Blair, nice review. This evening I will start downloading some of his lectures. I am intrigued by the idea of allowing ministry to influence theology and would love to see that fleshed out more.

  3. Although we Mormons try awfully hard to ignore it, there is tremendous support in the Book of Mormon for this approach — God himself will come down and save his people; God himself will be lifted up on a cross — and in the Doctrine and Covenants, plenty of times we read Jesus himself saying “I am thy God”.

  4. Robert C.: Wright touches on it in Simply Jesus, but given the brevity in that book I anticipated more practical application of it in this book, but he spent most of the time setting up the premises (that God has “become king”) rather than exploring the outcomes (what today’s “kingdom” ought to be doing). I suspect this is partly due to his desire to be ecumenical and reach a broad audience. He also acknowledges knowing little about Eastern Orthodoxy, which by the mere fact of him mentioning seems to indicate he believes there should be a wider swath than his when it comes to reaching out to “Christianity.” His Scripture and the Authority of God talks about practical application a bit more, but it is less focused on the Kingdom stuff, although it is still in there and still serves as an important premise to the way he believes the Bible ought to be used today. I don’t know if this kingdom emphasis is present in Surprised by Hope because I haven’t read it yet, and his After I Believe is on my to-do list.

    On the kingdom interpretation of scripture, parenthetically, I’m more attracted to John P. Meier’s historical criticism approach to the texts in terms of trying to tease out the kingdom implications of Jesus’s teachings. His Marginal Jew series is great. Meier doesn’t spend time talking about pastoral work as Wright does, though.

  5. Aaron R., I touched really briefly on ministry influencing theology (more specifically on the idea that scholarship can be devotional) in a post that was sparked by reading an earlier Wright book:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/10/13/trailing-clouds-of-hermeneutical-glory/

  6. I studied liberation theology with Harvey Cox in college. I recommend his stuff, as old as it is, for anyone interested in ministry influencing theology.

    Great review, Blair. It reminded me a lot of Albert Nolan’s “Jesus before Christianity” – another relatively old but really good treatment of Jesus’ ministry as earthly kingdom building.

  7. Blair #4, thanks for the Wright help, and esp. for the John Meier recommendation—his volume 2 looks particularly interesting to me.

    Ray #6, Harvey Cox’s work also looks very interesting to me, thanks for recommending him.

  8. I think Wright’s four “speakers” emphasize more continuity between the “story of Israel” and “Israel’s God,” which led to a “launching of God’s renewed people” that was not “the end of the old Israel story” but redirected it further to a “worldwide effort of conversion.” Wright’s discontinuity is more in the fourth “speaker,” the clash between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar.

    But the plot of the Gospel stories are full of conflict, and mostly a clash between Jesus and the rulers of Israel (which include especially the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee, and the chief priests in Jerusalem). Jesus’ new kingdom is a contrast not only to the kingdom of Caesar but also to the kingdom of Israel. This gentle, lowly king does not even seem to be a king; and his little group of poor, harassed disciples do not seem to be a kingdom. Yet the mystery of this kingdom is that it is not about the crowds (who love Jesus for his healing and kindness, and hope he will become king of Israel) and their favorite rulers (who promise prosperity and power), but about his disciples, who will become an international kingdom of little groups of disciples that continue to teach and do what their king taught and did. Disciples will be hated by all nations because they remain loyal to their one exclusive king, and challenge the (ways of the) rulers of every nation (and their loyal citizens).

  9. john willis says:

    I have always been a great admirer of Wright and his work and am reading the book now.

    One thing that has struck me in his concept of Jesus becoming king and setting up a kingdom is how similar it is to Joesph Smith’s concept of the political kingdom of God as expressed thorugh his organization of the council of 50 and having hmself being crowned king.

    Does anybody else see a similarity here or am I com[letely off base.??

  10. And then we try to wedge another speaker into the quadraphonic mix. No wonder they’re mad at us. ;-)

  11. Ha Mark!

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