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A Grumpy Reprise
As I wrote in the first line of my last post, “If an N. T. Wright book ever disappoints me, it is in the last chapter.” I have noticed this more than once. I do not know whether he writes the last chapter last and so is impatient to complete the project… Whatever. Sometimes I think I fail to detect the same fine and careful reasoning, the same thoughtful discourse toward the end of a book.
In this case I notice it not so much in the things I mention above as in the apparent design of the project itself. If you are writing something with an audience that implicitly includes all those pastors and lay-persons whom you have previously surveyed for their views on the purpose and message of the “middles” of the gospels, then why would you turn from that decades-long pursuit and try instead to figure out how to re-read the ancient creeds which nearly no one pays any attention to any more in the light of the gospel message?
If I was writing a book today for interested, thinking Christians on the nearly lost message that God has become king over all his creation, I would not now use the Gloria Patri as my hook, as my “did you ever wonder why?” at the beginning of the book. Interesting as the Gloria Patri might be as a historical curiosity, it is no-longer sung, let alone chanted in 90% of Christian churches, not because anyone wonders why this second century ditty had us singing, “world without end. Amen.” but because modern worship dropped it and the Doxology, and all the choral “Amens” and benedictions at about the same time it dropped choir robes, recited creeds, vestments and paraments from regular formal worship. These things hang on mostly in the liturgical churches and I suspect Wright intended this book for a wider audience than just churches such as his. So why hang such a weighty topic on so small a hook? ʼNuff said.
…For All They Are Worth
What remains to be said, in my opinion, has to do with Wright’s last words in this book on the subject of God being the king. As I declared in my last post,
God has been the king of all the nations now for some nineteen hundred-plus years and God is still patiently waiting for his sometime people to realize this central fact and to begin to act accordingly!
I thought (hoped) Wright’s final chapter would point toward and beyond my simple and obvious truism because if the gospels as he reads them ring true, then opportunities for advancing the kingdom on the earth beyond all we have asked or imagined have been proffered but not taken up for most of two millennia. And, therefore,“How then, ought we to live?” is a question, good answers for which are centuries overdue.
Wright does address one critical and central aspect of my question in the last section of his final chapter. There he discusses what it might mean to celebrate the gospels as they are. He notes that we never really read the gospels as whole books and he supposes why:
…the church in many generations has found [the new reality of the gospel’s story] too much to take and so has watered it down, cut it up into little pieces, turned it into small-scale lessons rather than allowing its full impact to be felt.
His remedy? Celebrate the gospels. Read the gospels as never before in public and private settings. As congregations, perform a gospel or build a service around a gospel so that it is read all the way through. Or at the very least, organize the liturgy for a set of services around large sections of a gospel. Wright believes we have too long assumed we could only do what had been done before. He suggests the clergy should enlist the help of those within their congregations who have dramatic training (or at least, aptitude) to do the reading because the way we have read gospel bits in services has never communicated the excitement and drama of these books. As Jim Rayburn, founder of the Young Life Campaign is quoted as having said,
Itʼs a sin to bore a kid with the gospel.
Well, I say, “Itʼs a sin to bore anyone with the gospels!”
Wright also wants us to each sit down and read a gospel all the way through. (It is not as though these books are terribly long.) My own suggestion would be to read a gospel aloud into a recording devise, and then play it back so that you can hear that gospel, in its entirety, as what it was meant to be, a Word of power. Remember, in the early days, few people could read and most people received the gospel first by hearing. Wright also makes a suggestion which I have used with success for years in my classes. Think of yourself as a bystander or onlooker as you watch Jesus asleep in the boat with the disciples, etc. Those among my students in A Year in the Bible who have created a character in the land of Israel and have walked with and seen the events of the gospel through that character’s eyes find they have come to meet Jesus again, as though for the first time.
Wright also suggests we learn to pray the gospels, using what he calls the “Ignatian method.”. If we enter into a gospel section as a bystander, we can then ask, along with the disciples, the panicked question at the supper table:
ʻLord, it’s not me is it?ʼ Stay there long enough to hear what he has to say to you in particular. …there are ways of doing this corporately too. Again, be innovative. Read the gospels for all they’re worth; and they are worth a lot more than we have usually supposed.
There is a phrase in that quote which rings a bell!
When reading a gospel through, Wright suggests sometimes making prayer a part of the discipline. So, for instance, when reading John, stop at the end of each section or chapter to pray John 17, the High-Priestly Prayer or do the same with the Lord’s Prayer when reading Matthew or Luke.
In short, Wright wants us to incorporate the gospels into worship, into our prayers, into our devotional life. He wants us to experience a richer and fuller conversation with God in which the gospels are at the center, pointing as they do directly to the King. (This is a tall order to for most evangelicals who rarely read the gospels and whose study of the Bible as well as doctrine has centered for more than a century on the letters of Paul.)
So Why Celebrate the Gospels?
Wright’s point in all this is that if God has become king of the world as we know it through the ministry, work and sacrificial death of Jesus, this single fact, this core reality, needs to go from being information in our brains right into the very center of our hearts. And from our hearts it needs to flow out into new attitudes, a new imagination, new focus, new creativity; and then it needs to burst out in new energy, new communities, new practice, new life in our lives. Wright believes that to get such things right, we need to begin with and in the gospels. He concludes:
We have misunderstood the gospels for too long. Itʼs time, in the power and joy of the Spirit, to get back on track.
And I conclude, the answer is to go back and read, really read, the Bible afresh. And having done so, then, in the light of that larger frame, to really read the gospels, afresh!
A Storm is Brewing
The Spirit is blowing again, hard. There is a new Christianity storming, forming, norming… If that new, worldwide, explosive expression of the ancient faith is to be everything that it can be, it will have the story of God close to its center and the reality of the sovereign God who loves us through the reigning King Jesus right at the core.
Comments? Questions? Issues?
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1 Back to Post I actually did write four chapters of a book back in the mid-1970s on the topic of Godʼs redemption of creation, using the “world without end,” phrase, something we all sang weekly in church, as my opening hook. When my life changed and I found had to put the project away, I had no sense that by the time I came back to it a decade or so later, the Gloria Patri would have disappeared from most main-line as well as evangelical worship, but not because anyone had really thought through the implications of a short liturgical element which had us all confessing that the world was not coming to an end.
2 Back to Post Wright, N. T., How God Became King, The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (Harper Collins, New York, 2012) p. 276
3 Back to Post Ibid., p. 275
4 Back to Post Those who have walked with me through my long course, A Year in the Bible will recognize in Wright’s words most of the title of one of our text books: How to Read the Bible For All Itʼs Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1981, 1993, 2003).
5 Back to Post Op. Cit., Wright, p. 276