Simply Good News– a Late Word from Tom

tom

Some of Tom Wright’s books are rather like sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, realizing that a lot of good eating is before you, and it’s going to take a long time to digest. Fortunately, even Tom’s big books don’t have the same effect as a large dose of turkey does— call it the tryptophan effect. But Tom’s shorter, more popular level books while easier to consume, should never be mistaken for empty calories or fast food, even when they are simply distillations of things he has said elsewhere at more length and in more detail. Tom’s newest offering is mostly what I have just described– a distillation of various things we have heard from him before in various previous offerings. Nevertheless, it is clearly communicated, doesn’t wander around like a lost dog looking for it’s master, and has some helpful insights and memorable and pithy lines in it. At 171 pages of text, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good is a book you can consume in an afternoon read.

Let’s start with one of the key insights from the front end of the book– The Gospel is about good news, not good advice. As news it is about facts, past things that have actually happened in space and time. This is quite different from advice or mere conjecture. The Good News is about the death and resurrection and appearances of Jesus (as the summary at the outset of 1 Cor. 15 suggests). In other words, its not a dispute about philosophical ideas, or advice. It’s an announcement about something that happened, something so important that the Evangelists are convinced that these were earth-shattering and history changing events, indeed the most important actual events to ever happen in history thus far. The divine saving activity of God (call it kingdom or dominion) was breaking into human history in the person and work of Jesus, and these events were Good News. Facts, if they really are facts do require interpretation, but the facts themselves do not require mere belief, much less belief in Jesus. Even the executioners of Jesus knew he died on a cross. That was a fact. “The kingdom of God, Jesus declared, runs on love. That is good news. This wasn’t a theory. It was and is a general truth, but the only reason for believing it is that it actually happened.” (p.44). What this means is that at the heart of the Gospel is history, not advice, not speculation, but history. History requires interpretation, in this case theological interpretation (e.g. to say Jesus died on a cross is stating a fact. To say he died on a cross for the world’s sins, is a theological interpretation of that fact). News reports are about facts. And the Good News is in fact that kind of report. It means that it is not merely about religious belief, it is about history. “Most people in the Western world, think of Christianity as a system: a religious system, a system of salvation, or a system of morality. Most people don’t thinking of it as news– a message about something that happened, as a result of which everything is now different” (p. 65) He’s right about this, hence the need for reiteration, again and again apparently.

Tom then goes on, as he is wont to do, stressing that when early Jews talked about resurrection they were not talking about the appearance of a ghost, not talking about dying and going to heaven, not talking about an apocalyptic vision, they were talking about the bringing back to life of a dead person in the flesh. This was not about getting beyond death in some sort of spiritual condition or state. It was about triumphing over death in a physical body, albeit a body now immune to disease, decay, and death. This is not about death being cheated, because somebody survived in a spiritual condition beyond it. This was about death being conquered, about God’s yes to life being louder than death’s no. About a greater reality in space and time than death itself. Tom has of course made this point many times before, especially in his great treatment of the subject in Resurrection and the Son of God, but since people keep getting wrong what resurrection means, it is well to have it reiterated.

The chapter beginning on p. 57 on distorted and competing Gospels is helpful, and there Tom rightly emphasizes that one of the competing distorted ‘Gospels’ is in fact the creation of well-meaning Christians who say things like dying and going to heaven is the form of afterlife really in focus in the NT, or Jesus’ death on the cross is meant to save us from a vengeful OT God who will otherwise judge us and send us to Hell. Wrong, and wrong says Tom. He’s not denying the notion of dying and going to heaven, but he is certainly right that: 1) it is not the final destination of believers, and 2) it is only a minority subject in the NT. Mainly the writers want to talk about resurrection, both Jesus’ and later ours.

What sort of kingdom then did Jesus mean? Tom stresses it is a different sort of rule, based on a different sort of power— namely love. (p. 63). “Paul is situating Jesus not in a narrative about an angry God who might just let us into heaven after all but in a narrative about the God who, to renew the creation, made covenant promises, and who has now kept those promises” (p. 72). “To imagine a Gospel that has forgotten about creation and covenant; to imagine a Gospel with an angry deity who is pacified only by the blood of an innocent victim; to imagine good news that, instead of restoring and completing the work of the world’s creation, is prepared to throw away the world and take some people (‘souls’) to a different location, namely a disembodied heaven– this picture looks far more like a complicated form of paganism than genuine biblical Christianity.” (p. 74).

Tom deals with the competing Gospels of rationalism and romanticism, and his basic critique is that they try to get the fruit of the Gospel (Christianity makes sense, and Christianity is about the personal experience of God’s presence), without the root, the basis and basic thrust of the Good News— namely the facts and the history of what happened to Jesus back then and there. (p. 82), and also about what God intends to do when he returns to restore creation, make a corporate merger of heaven and earth. Tom’s dealing with the modern Gospel of progress, then follows (pp. 83ff.) and he is absolutely right that that gospel involves a sort of chronological snobbery which assumes the latest is the greatest and newest is the truest, and we are inevitably headed for an unclouded day where liberal democracy and freedom and tolerance will rule the world as humankind becomes more liberated and better informed. “Now that we have modern science and technology, we know that everything they believed back in the dark ages or whenever, was just superstitious ignorance.” (p. 85).

On p. 94 Tom provides an interesting interpretation of Jesus’s words to Pilate ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ He says it means ‘my kingdom is not the sort which grows in this world, isn’t world in origin or character. It’s not from this world, but it certainly is for this world, but its a different kind of kingdom based on a different kind of power. When Paul says we are citizens of heaven he doesn’t mean heaven is our home and someday we’ll get there to dwell forever. He means that Christian communities are God and his Kingdom’s beachheads into this world, in preparation for God coming and taking over the world in Jesus, and renewing it. Resurrection was the foretaste of the new heaven and new earth coming to a theater near us when Jesus returns.

On pp. 105ff. Tom helpfully rebuts the common myth that the early Christians, bless their hearts, were sure Jesus was returning next week, and were wrong. They believed the world would end soon, within their lifetimes, and they got it wrong. Interestingly, Tom suggests this was a back projection of twentieth century folk like Schweitzer, Marx, Hegel who thought modernist liberation movements with messianic flavor were going to set the workers and the world free and when this failed, when the End they sought did not come, and instead two world wars and a holocaust showed up instead, they projected the failures of the 20th century back on Jesus and early Christianity. It’s an interesting theory, which would need more substantiation than just this assertion. More clearly on the mark is the fact that when Jews talked about the sky falling etc. they were not talking about the end of the space time continuum, but rather the end of their world, in this case the temple-centered world of early Judaism (see Mk. 13). I would say that even when NT writers are talking about the future return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the new heaven and earth, they are also not talking about the end of the space-time continuum, but they might well be referring to cosmic signs of the return of Christ, like we had a cosmic sign at the birth of Christ. I don’t think we need to demythologize the cosmic signs, and refer all of Mark 13 to the events that led up to the fall of the Temple. In fact, there are two kinds of materials in Mark 13— events on earth that lead up to the fall of the temple within a generation, and then AFTER ALL THOSE THINGS a return of Christ with cosmic signs at some unspecified time later (Mk. 13.32– an unknown time). As far as the Gospel of progress is concerned, Tom rightly denies that the NT supports the notion that history is inevitably inherently going somewhere, evolving in a positive direction. The application of Darwinian theory about biological evolution to history doesn’t work!

True, the work we do now which is kingdom work provides only a foreshadowing or at most a foretaste of the coming Kingdom. Tom calls them advanced signs of the kingdom (p. 117). Humans can’t bring in the kingdom on their own without the return of Christ, but Tom is correct that “somehow, in ways we cannot at present discern, what is done in the present out of love for God and in the power of the Spirit will be part of God’s new world when it finally arrives.” (p.115). Nothing wasted, nothing good goes for naught.
Throughout the book there is a concern to debunk some of the mythological images of God– namely a distant god who left the world to its own devices, or a god who is no more than a divine presence within the world, but not a creator distinct from the world, or a god who is weak, and an underachiever but not evil (Woody Allen). Tom suggests that it is the image of the distant creator God, that then people try to fit Jesus into the picture of which causes the big difficulty in seeing Jesus, so loving and so present, as divine. But what if the right way round is to start with Jesus, and realize he is the spitting image of God and what God is really like? (p. 131). The real God is like Jesus, not like these pagan caricatures of God. “God is not an object in our universe. We are objects in his universe” (p. 136). Amen to that.

So what happened when the God of love in the person of Jesus, came to earth and did ministry long ago? Jesus “let the power of creative love flow out of him in all directions though when the power of love met the love of power— for instance, the rich and respectable who didn’t want this new creative energy upsetting their way of running the world–it took the form of confrontation and denunciation”. (p. 141). Tom attributes both the belligerent atheism of a Dawkins, and the softer atheism of a novelist like Julian Barnes (who bemoaned “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him”) to having a wrong initial image of God in the first place– namely the distant angry tyrant (p. 149). I think he’s on to something in this assessment. I recently posted a blog about flood stories, and got a tirade in reply about ‘I don’t want anything to do with your genocidal god who destroys people’). Nothing about human beings wickedness destroying other human beings, and finally called to account lest the wickedness continue. No… it’s all God’s fault.

There’s much to enjoy and commend in this book, even if much of it is a rerun for those of us who have read so much of Tom. But then, I’ll take a classic rerun over a bad new film with new subject matter any day. The newest is not necessarily the truest, never mind, the Good News.