[This post is part of the Christian Origins and The Question of God series]
Last week we had our first look at Jesus and The Victory of God thanks to Fortress Press. Today we’ll dig in a little more and getting into Part II of the book. This section spans the better part of the book and is more less Wright’s extended attempt at a total paradigm shift for the way you read the Gospels.
This part of the book sketches out Jesus’ profile according to the schematic Wright laid out at the end of part one. I failed to mention it there, so a word here is in order. Basically, in the Gospels, we have Jesus’ words and actions. When we trace patterns in those we are able to understand Jesus’ praxis, which is Wright’s first quadrant in his worldview diagram. When words and actions are re-examined in light of the patterns that emerged in the praxis, we are able to see stories emerge, which is Wright’s second quadrant. Actions, words, and stories, evoke and implicitly rely upon symbols, the third quadrant. All three of these quadrants together, by implication, address deep questions, which as you might have guessed is the fourth quadrant.
Having all those ducks in a row allows you to better answer questions related to a person’s basic beliefs and aims in life, which is Part III of Wright’s book, so we’ll get to that next week. For now, let’s look at the six chapters in Part II.
The Praxis of a Prophet
Chapter 5 outlines Jesus’ ministry in the first century world. Much space is spent explaining the nature of Jesus’ teaching ministry, specifically his use of parables, which you can read more about here. Wright is endeavoring to firmly root Jesus in the first century Jewish world and in the role of a prophet. He detailed just exactly what a prophet was in that context, and then shows how Jesus operates in that role. To me, little here seems very controversial, however some readers may get frustrated with Wright’s approach which is avoiding importing later Christological categories at all costs.
Stories of the Kingdom (1): Announcement
In chapter 6, Wright begins his massive investigation of Jesus’ stories. Thankfully he splits them up thematically, and so this chapter focuses on stories that announced the kingdom to Israel as her destiny and that the inauguration was just around the corner. In order to understand the nature of the kingdom, Wright says that
Any viable hypothesis about the meaning of ‘kingdom of god’ must therefore show, at least in principle, both how Jesus reconcieved and spoke of the kingdom, and why his earliest followers came to construe the extraordinary events of his death and resurrection the way that they did (220).
From this starting point, the rest of Part II offers a “broad classification of the major emphases of Jesus’ ministry in relation to his reaffirmation and redefinition of the Jewish expectation of the kingdom of God” (225).
Stories of the Kingdom (2): Invitation, Welcome, Challenge, and Summons
Chapter 7 shifts the focus to stories that Jesus told to Israel that summoned them to follow him in a new way of being the true people of God. Wright’s thesis in this chapter is “that Jesus’ kingdom-announcement functioned like a narrative in search of fresh characters, a plot in search of actors” (244). Or as he says more fully:
I shall argue in the present chapter that Jesus’ implicit, and explicit, kingdom-narratives carried as part of their story-line the sense that his hearers were invited to see themselves as the “Israel” who would benefit from his work; and also, to some extent at least, as the “helpers” who would have an active share in that work (245).
That reference to “helpers” comes from a schematic used to explain the plot of stories from the standpoint of dramatic theory. “Helpers” are the characters that assist the protagonist in the story in achieving the goal he has. In this sense then, the invitation, summons, welcome, and challenge that Jesus offered was to become his disciples (lower-case d) which meant joining him in his mission.
Stories of the Kingdom (3): Judgment and Vindication
Chapter 8 turns to the stories Jesus told centered on judgment coming for those who do not repent, and conversely, vindication in the end for those who do. This is the flip-side of becoming a “helper” in the story. Those who refuse the call slide into the role of opponents in the story and place themselves in opposition to the advance of the kingdom. It is in this chapter then that Wright examines Jesus stories and warnings about coming apocalyptic doom. The bulk of the chapter is centered around Mark 13 and its parallels, both in conceptually and the actual parallels in the other Gospel accounts.
Wright closes out the chapter by reiterating the subversive nature of not just most of Jesus’ stories, but these in particular:
If telling subversive stories – and the story of the kingdom as we have studied it in these last three chapters is as subversive as anything could be – is likely to provoke dissent and anger, that anger will concentrate itself on places where the retold story, indicative of a rethought mindset, challenges the symbols at the heart of the dominant worldview (368).
This then leads naturally into a chapter examining the symbols and their reinterpretation.
Symbol and Controversy
Chapter 9 explains how these stories Jesus told relied on traditional symbols, but offered radical reinterpretations of them. Wright contends that if Jesus merely had different ideas than the religious elite, he might have been written off. Since he took symbols at the heart of their worldview however, and then reinterpreted them in light of himself, he became a dangerous revolutionary in their mind (371). As Wright explains more fully
I therefore propose that the clash between Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries, especially the Pharisees, must be seen in terms of alternative political agendas generated by alternative eschatological beliefs and expectations. Jesus was announcing the kingdom in a way which did not reinforce, but rather called into question, the agenda of revolutionary zeal which dominated the horizon of, especially, the dominant group with Pharisaism (390).
Much of this symbolic reinterpretation reached its pinnacle around the Temple (pun intended if you catch it). The bulk of the chapter focused on how Jesus redefined the role of the Temple around himself, and that rather than the Jewish approach to God centered around it, it was now going to center around him. I’ve talked about the significance of the Temple in biblical theology, as well as how this clash with the Jesus authorities is often misinterpreted by the prosperity gospel. From what I can see, Wright does a good job of demonstrating that understanding the nature of the Temple is a prerequisite to understanding Jesus’ mission as well as his clash with the Pharisees, which ultimately led to his death.
The Question of the Kingdom
All of these stories and reinterpreted symbols lead to new answers to the traditional worldview questions. Chapter 10 closes out this section by examining this further. If you’re not clear on the worldview questions (that Wright set out in NTPG), they are:
- Who are we?
- Where are we?
- What’s wrong?
- What’s the solution?
- What time is it?
The last question was an addition of Wright’s in between NTPG and this volume. As far as Jesus’ answers to these questions, here they are in short (with “we” being first century Jewish people):
- We are Israel, the chose people of the creator God (443)
- We are still in exile, in the sense that we are in the land but not in control of it (445)
- We have been disloyal to YHWH, and have sold out to idolatry. We, along with the rest of the world have been duper by the accuser (“satan”) and evil is triumphing over good (446)
- We need to repent of our idolatry and return to following the one true God by following his prophet Jesus who will inaugurate the kingdom
- It is time for the kingdom to be inaugurated through Jesus, through him YHWH will become king of the world (472)
There is certainly some level of controversy in Wright’s analysis (for instance “exile” is typically disputed), but when it is interpreted as an answer to “where are we” instead “what’s wrong,” I think it makes better sense. The problem is idolatry and failure to follow YHWH, the result is exile, which is a locational problem. I need to probably dig into to this issue more thoroughly than I have, but in the meantime, this rounds out our look at Part II in Wright’s book.
Next week, we’ll shift to Part III and see how Wright draws much of the material together further.