My rating: 5 of 5 stars
First of all I should say that my short review of this work by NT Wright is simply to read this book, persevere with this book, and be nourished by this book.
Wright has made a name for himself in the theological community by eschewing previous Reformation-era interpretations of the New Testament particularly Paul’s writings. (as a side note, this is an “in house” discussion, Wright and all of the “New Perspective” theologians believe all the tenants of orthodox Christianity…there is not heresy here, just some colorful discussion) One of my favorite quotes by Wright is this:
“the church easily lapses into reading with 19th Century eyes and 16th Century questions; and it’s time to read with 1st Century eyes and 21st Century questions.”
That being said, this book is not about Paul or the theology of Justification by Faith. This book is about Jesus. And refreshingly Wright approaches the life and times of Jesus Christ with the same historical vigor that has made him a necessary and valuable voice in the modern theological landscape. What I am trying to say without being frightening is that Wright writes a book about Jesus that doesn’t read like most books about Jesus.
He says this,
“Simplicity is a great virtue, but oversimplification can actually be a vice, a sign of laziness…I set out to write a ‘simple’ book about Jesus. But Jesus was not simple in His own time, and He is not simple now.”
Wright spends a significant bit of time in the first part of the book building a foundation that will become critical to grasping the point of the rest of the book. He attempts to help the reader understand what the prevailing forces were that influenced first century Israel. He does this to show the enormity of the collision that took place when Jesus’ incarnational force arrived, thus creating “the perfect storm” (Wright taps Sebastian Junger’s story “The Perfect Storm” as an illustration). Wright says that the force of the Roman Empire, the force of the Pharisees and their deeply traditional Temple adherence, and then Jesus and the Messianic Gospel fulfillment all explode into one another. This all culminates on the Cross, which is one of the most impressive chapters in a Christian book I’ve ever read.
If Wright is called to offer the church at large something unique it his gift for bringing thick and heady topics just low enough for the rest of us to grasp, but still high enough that we are on our tip-toes while doing it. He is compelled, it seems, by the glory of nuance. But not in a sideline type of way. He seems to see the nuances of the story of Jesus and the Gospel message not as interesting but unnecessary bits that you can take or leave – instead he sees the nuances as the very heart of the story. There had been many “messianic” type stories in ancient literature and tradition, so the lowest common denominator isn’t enough to truly understand the power and or discern the might of Jesus’ story over all others. He says,
“if we want to talk about Jesus himself, as opposed to making up fantasies about him, we are all bound to become to some extent historians of the first century.”
So Wright works through the life and ministry of Jesus, the cultural assumptions of first century Jews, and the formidable pressure of the Roman Empire’s presence in Israel. He walks the dusty roads of Jerusalem, takes us to the Cross, then to the garden tomb, and finally the Ascension. All of the significant movements of Jesus’ life are here. He then spends a short time reflecting on what the life and accomplishments of Jesus meant to both the early church (Acts) and now mean for the current church. He deals with issues of mission, compassion, and the implications of the kingdom of God on our eschatology.
This is not the easiest book you’ll read. It is not meant to be. I’ve read other of Wright’s work and I can say that this is also not his most complex writing. He is making things accessible for a broader audience. He is doing this, I tend to think, because he is not only a theologian but a pastor. People matter to N.T. Wright and his heart for people to be secure in their knowledge of God and the Gospel saturates every page. I got the feeling while reading this that he wrote this book like he was tutoring the reader individually. Never making less of the content than he should, but also graciously helping the student to keep up and actually benefit from the lesson.