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An Excursus to Discuss Enlightenment, Faith and Power
Tom Wright calls the first chapter of the third part of this book, “Where We Get Stuck.” In this post I will spend some time, as Wright does, digressing from the main point to discuss at least part of what gets us stuck for me when considering the issue of the gospel proclamation that God, through Christ Jesus has become king of the whole world. (In the next post I will get on with Wright’s third part, “The Kingdom and the Cross.”)
Yawn, Ho Hum
If you think about it, the best way in the world to kill the spread of the gospel is to make its message boring, old hat, status quo. Tom Wright says our distorted gospel with its emphasis on a distant God and a divine Jesus who wants to pull us away from most of life here on earth has succeeded; it has, to use his words, “…made the gospels ordinary.”
Yawn… Long, boring (worship?!) services… Ho hum… Sunday school classes on being nice, on our very nice God, far away in heaven and gentle Jesus, also ascended into existential irrelevance: personal, private spirituality now and heaven later.
Wright writes that we have allowed the gospels:
….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.
It is not easy to escape the trap of “making the gospels ordinary.
Wright maintains we have made the gospel ordinary by pulling the message apart: resurrection from incarnation, crucifixion from kingdom. His point in the third part of his book will be to understand how “kingdom,” the long-missing story, actually works with and even within the cross, an element which has always been seen to have significance in the creeds. In “Where We Get Stuck,” Wright first shows how the kingdom and the cross have been separated in Christian thinking from early on.
Sacred and Secular Words and Places
Elsewhere, I have written about the breaking of life into two pieces. This happens frequently among Christians and those who grew up within contemporary Christian traditions. I have demonstrated this tragic breakage by taking biblical concepts found in the Bible and showing how, because of our split, we must have two words to describe what is one thing in Scripture.
For instance, take the Hebrew word, צְדָקָה. This is the word, tsĕdaqah (tsah-dick-eh) which is translated in the Bible as “righteousness” and sometimes as “justice.” Since we have developed a “religious” sphere of life, in our language we have developed words so that we can talk about righteousness without even think about “justice.” “Justice,” for us, is usually a “secular” word which we would never confuse with what we mean by “righteousness.” Yet in the Bible, they are the same word. Why? Because God cares about the matters we think of as “justice” issues as much as what we have divided out as “righteousness.”
Another good old Hebrew word, עָבַד which is pronounced, “abad” or “avad” (sometimes seen as “avodah” or, when used as a noun, as “obed.”) The word at root means “to work” but it also is used to mean “to serve” and “to minister” and finally, “to worship.”
Work is worship is work; really?
Yes. In a language formed in a perpetual wrestling dialogue with the living God, what you and I do all day would be “obed,” work/worship, for and of either God or an idol.
Not in our culture’s framing. In our world we either “work for ourselves” or “for the company” or “for money” but we say we “worship” God. Impossible. There is no room in a Hebrew world for “neutral” or “secular” activities which are outside the scope of life which is always lived before the face of God. And in fact, St. Paul reaffirms this reality going forward when he reminds masters and slaves alike in the Colossian letter that they all work solely for their new master, King Jesus.
What Does God Care About?
I once made a list of a few sets of words where we in our culture have developed so-called secular terms to describe what we think of as secular behaviors and institutions and a separate set of sacred terms for what we think of as sacred behaviors and institutions. Perhaps you can add some to my list:
Sacred Things Secular Things . (Things God Cares About) (Things God Doesn’t Care About)
Poor in Spirit Poor
Sunday School Public School
Prayer and Devotions Meditation and Exercise
Faith (& Theology) Reason (& Science)
Celibate Love Sexual Relations
Sin and Salvation Evil, Oppression and Liberation
Holiness Health & Integrity
Wright notes, in countries like Germany [with its Lutheran law vs. gospel dogma] this sacred/secular way of viewing life was virtually “set in stone” very early on. This is also a part of the Enlightenment’s legacy which views all religion and faith as relics of past superstitions upon which it had shown the light of human science, philosophy, technology, etc. The Enlightenment’s spokespersons, beginning with Voltaire and Rousseau, could point with ease to power-hungry and corrupt clergy, to multiple bloody “crusades” in Asia and in Europe, and thus put the lie to anyone who might suggest that God planned to transform the world by the power of God’s spirit, at work in all of life, pouring from the hearts of God’s people into all of life.
What an absurd idea!
So we, the children of God, but also children of the Enlightenment, get stuck. We Christians really do not know what to do with a gospel message which calls us, as Christians, to venture boldly, with grace, love and truth, into areas of life which our secular teachers have fully convinced us are not appropriate areas for Christian activity. It becomes much easier to say “the gospels must not mean what they appear to be saying” than it is to sort out the conflicting voices in our heads.
For me, as I continue to work through the material in this book, I am conscious of those voices and of my need to address them before I can seriously face the implications of Wright’s message any more substantively than I already do (which is, “not very”).
I am sure Wright is on the right track; I read and hear what he does with “the middle parts” as well as the first and last chapters of the gospels. What I want to know is: How, given our culture’s fear of overbearing religion of all sorts, does “God is king of the nations” work itself out for our blessing and God’s glory in our times? I mean, can it?
What a dilemma; our present piecemeal Christianity is bankrupt and boring but if we take the gospels at their word our Christianity may scare people to death!
A Hopeful Reading
Wright points toward an answer in this summary statement toward the end of the chapter.
Judaism always assumed that the creator God wanted the world to be ordered and ruled by his image-bearing humans. …But the world was out of joint through the failure of humans in general and Israel in particular, so God the creator would have to act in judgment and justice to hold them to account.
And the locus of that judgment where God’s people were gathered was their Temple. It signified the way in which Israel was called to be a royal priesthood, the go-betweens for God with the estranged nations. If the kingdom has come in power, it must have to do with the embodiment of God’s temple, the glory of Israel and the empowering of God’s kingdom priesthood to finally, powerfully and truly bring actual good news to the nations. I hope.
Any corrections, criticisms of or additions to my pairs of words?
What about you? When you think about a gospel message which proclaims God to be the king of the actual world, right now, where and how do you get stuck?
Next: The rest of Part Three, The Kingdom and the Cross
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1 Back to Post Wright, N. T., How God Became King, The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (Harper Collins, 2012) pages 157-8
2 Back to Post Colossians 3:22-4:1
3 Back to Post Loc. Cit., page 161
4 Back to Post I was describing to a friend just the other day how in my teaching for at least a decade I have gotten to the place where I proclaim how God, who is king, still intends to “transform the world by the power of God’s spirit, at work in all of life, pouring from the hearts of God’s people” but then I have no idea how to point forward to what that might look like. I know what it must not look like, I think, but how does one describe what one hopes for, over the heads of naysayers who can only imagine the eleventh century Roman Catholic Church and the Ayatollahs’ Iran as examples of what happens when “God as king” is allowed to penetrate every nook and cranny of life.
5 Back to Post Loc. Cit., pages 172-3