Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Good News! (NT Wright's book)

Simply Good News was my introduction to N.T. Wright's books. (I had read essays previously.) Wright is in the mold of CS Lewis-- thorough, relatively easy-to-read, and vitally interested in "Mere Christianity". I can certainly recommend this book strongly-- for its style and substance. Wright lays out an important reminder, from many angles, that the "Good News" is really Good News.

Wright opens by defining "good news" (3-4):

1.) "a new and unexpected development within a much longer story";

2.) "everything will be different now"; and

3.) it "introduces an intermediate period of waiting".

In this, "good news" is similar to "apocalyptic" as a literary genre-- with its difficult context, intervention by God, change in the current, and hope for the future. Revelation is the prototypical example, although it's not read often enough as apocalyptic. But there are other examples in Scripture as well, within the prophets (e.g., chunks of Isaiah) and even the gospels (e.g., Matthew 24). Both Gospel and Apocalyptic create a new perspective and call for "new decisions". (12)

Wright argues that it's important to see the Christian faith as both "good" and as "news" (2). Instead, Christians have often reduced the good news to a "system" of religion, salvation or morality (65). Little of that would be "news" and not much of it would be considered "good". It’s 2,000 years old and if it's not the on-going revelation of a dynamic God, living through believers and expanding his Kingdom, then it's simply "old news", not especially "good" and certainly not "news". (6)

Jesus was not offering incomparable teaching, though it is remarkable. Another problem is that, while true, it is only part of the picture. He was not offering a moral example, although if you're looking for that, it was impeccable. "He was claiming to do things through which the world would be healed, transformed, rescued and renewed. He was, in short, announcing good news..." (36)

In fact, it’s the greatest news in all history. Wright (59): "Jesus' resurrection falls into a different if did happen, it set a new standard for our understanding of the way the world is. Lots of events do that in smaller ways. Splitting the atom. Space travel. The discovery of America. Everything looks different once those have happened."


One of Wright's biggest themes is that the Gospel is often reduced to only one or two of its (chief) elements. The reductions distort the Gospel, largely through omission.

For example, Christianity is often reduced to Christ's death as payment for sins. But "there is a.) more to Jesus' death than this; and b.) more to the gospel than Jesus' death." (66)  So, the Gospel is sold as a ticket to Heaven or a ticket out of Hell, reducing it to a formulaic set of beliefs. (Dallas Willard memorably describes this as a "bar-code faith": if you have the correct beliefs, you get the code slapped on your butt and you'll get scanned into heaven.) "The usual heaven-and-hell scheme, however popular, distorts the Bible's good news." (5)

Related, people often see Christianity as having little or nothing to say about the "world downstairs", aside from observation of a moral code. And if someone does talk about making a difference on earth, they are often rejected as worldly and unspiritual (76-77). Both secular and religious fundamentalists ironically hold the same view and both "are committed to not noticing it": "The secularist lives downstairs and has locked the door at the bottom of the stairs. The [Christian] fundamentalist lives upstairs, those he constantly shouts down the stairs to tell people they should be coming up to join him." (79)

When it has downstairs relevance, the Gospel is often portrayed as “truth”-- and sold on its reliability and usefulness. As such, the Gospel is reduced to "good advice": here's how to live, to pray, to become a better person, to get to heaven, etc. (4) Advice to be considered, "an option for your future" (19). But "despite Paul's talk about God, he was not telling people about a new religious system...many people today assume [the same thing]-- that Christianity is a religion, a moral system, a philosophy. In other words...advice." (16)

His larger point is spot-on: don't reduce the good news to good advice (47). Still, Wright knows that he must answer the question: "but is it true?" and devotes all of chapter 4 to the task. For one thing, news is not something to be debated-- like advice or moral systems: "Either the event happened or it didn't; if it did happen, either it means what people say it means or it doesn't." (17) He notes that people often have a high bar for believing something historical-- well, at least for some sorts of historical events. (He doesn't go into it, but I'm always amazed of the historical faith of skeptics for other historical events, and even the narrative of macro-evolution with relatively little evidence.) History "works from evidence and looks for high probability about what caused that evidence. Like science, however, history works by hypothesis and verification." (58)

A New Kind of King and Kingdom

On the "paradox" of Jesus' mixed reception, Wright notes that "people found [Jesus] both compelling and puzzling". He was not simply adding to knowledge, or providing a "new formula for how to go to heaven", or giving "new or more detailed answers to questions they were already asking". Instead, "he was doing and saying things designed to tease his hearers into facing new and dangerous questions...Most people, then and now, find disturbing and try to avoid it." (61b-62)

Moreover, it's not just that God is (becoming) King. His Kingdom is altogether different: "a different kind of power...neither of brute force nor of superior argument but of something that goes much deeper...the power of agape." (42) Moreover, "power comes through service, particularly through self-sacrifice". (63) Wright then notes that "The reason Jesus went on talking about kingdom, despite the obvious risks of misunderstanding in his own day, was because he wanted to replace the ordinary sort of kingdom with a quite different sort." (63)

Wright notes that part of the good news is difficult for us to understand because we take it for granted now: Paul "was offering good news about a different God. A living God. A God who had made himself known in and through Jesus of Nazareth." But today, "people often use the word god as if it always meant the same thing".

Again, the Gospel is often gets reduced to "getting people to heaven and teaching them to behave along the way." (22b-23) But Jesus didn't "say much about heaven in the sense we normally mean it." (6) His focus was on bringing heaven to earth (Mt 6:10). "Instead of suggesting that we could escape the earth to go to heaven, Jesus' good news was about heaven coming to earth." (7)

Biblical and Theological Context for the Gospel

Wright points to "two telltale signs that something has gone wrong" in our explanation of the good news (69): they're not placed within the narratives of creation and covenant; and they fail to set the news in the context of a God of Love. "By itself, an empty tomb in the ancient world would mean grave robbery." (50) Instead, the resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith, combining three foundational biblical themes about God: creation, rescue, and redemption (49).

Chapter 7 is devoted to questions of theodicy and the claims of atheism and esp. deism. The former tries to get rid of God: "the idea of the big bully in the sky. If there is no god, you can relax and enjoy your life. Perhaps." (129) The latter assumes that God creates, but does not sustain it; He's off somewhere, uninterested in His creation and His creatures. Both are responses to the problem of theodicy: why doesn't God intervene (more often) in the blandness and the injustices of life? His answer (131): "not parachuting dispense solutions to all problems, not zapping everything into shape...but living in the mess and an especially difficult moment in its history and absorbing the pain and shame of it all." (131-132) Wright appeals to both Genesis 1 and especially Genesis 2 to fill out the picture. "The most important point was not to understand him but to trust him." (133) From there, Wright continues by describing the Biblical pictures of God as Creator, Judge, and Lover.

Wright is quite helpful on eschatology as well-- both in helping one draw inferences and to help avoid excesses and errors whatever one's eschatological views. "Elaborate theories about the second coming have been developed in which the whole point is that Jesus will come back, not to stay on this earth to transform and renew it, but to take his people away. But this misses the whole point...the good news about the future cannot be about leaving earth and going to heaven. It must have something to do with heaven and earth coming together...creation itself being renewed and restored." (90) As such, the Gospel is greatest version of “the now and the not-yet”.

Wright also clarifies Philippians 3:20's reference to "citizens of heaven". We think of citizenship and heaven as that's where we really belong. But this "isn't how citizenship worked in [Paul's] world." The hope was that the colonists (including retired soldiers) "would bring the benefits of Roman civilization to Philippi." Philippians 3:20 continues with Jesus coming here. And so, "It isn't that we are going off to the capital city to join the king; he is going to come from there to transform our lives here." (94-95)

What do we do with this?

One problem: the true/full Gospel will often be seen as foolishness or scandalous. Wright devotes all of chapter 2 to this pairing. "The news is either offensive or boring. either scandalous or merely nonsense." (22) (As an aside, he uses an excellent analogy about England's World Cup victory over Australia. It was Good News to him, but foolish to Americans [who cares?!] and scandalous to the Aussies! [9])

Wright argues that we need to keep five "propositions" in balance (118-119): 1.) the lordship of the risen Christ (which implies that "real and lasting change is possible at personal, social, cultural, national, and global levels"); 2.) real and lasting change is costly; 3.) such change is sporadic (rather than always forward); 4.) the opposite: that we will be tempted to "retreat once more into gloom and negativity"; and 5.) the importance of working tirelessly for real and lasting change.

That said, in the face of rationalist skepticism, Wright warns against an over-reliance on rationalist apologetics and its opposite--romanticism, with its appeal to experience and feelings. (80-81)


Finally, as an aside of sorts (since I'm not tying it into the review), Wright is very helpful in understanding the structure of the Lord's Prayer in chapter 8. In a word, he reads it backwards-- in order to read it, better, forwards. In this, I was reminded of Dallas Willard's immensely-profitable take on the Sermon on the Mount in Divine Conspiracy and Eugene Peterson's many useful insights on the Gospel of Luke in Tell It Slant. Those nuggets alone make each book worth the read.

UPDATE: Greg Laurie runs with a similar theme-- in noting that if you're not sharing it, then you don't really see it as "good news". 


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