This last week I (RJS not Scot) have spent my commute listening to the audio from the Wheaton Theology Conference: Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. This is fascinating stuff – I recommend it highly. I put up a post in dialogue with the speakers at the conference on Tuesday, and want to think about this a bit more today. Tuesday we discussed history as apologetic, but there is another facet to this discussion of Wright’s work – the gospel vision.
The power of our ability to convey the gospel is intimately connected with our ability to cast the gospel as story. It is hard to develop passion for – or even intellectual belief in – a series of facts and propositions. All good politicians and all good pastors know this. The conflict between science and faith is, I think, at root a conflict of story. The conflict of fact, empirical observation, is purely secondary. This goes beyond the typical science vs. faith discussion though – it isn’t primarily an issue of evolution, creation, or Intelligent Design. In our increasingly educated and secular world we do not present the story in a fashion that makes sense, that captures heart, mind, and imagination.
We discussed the importance of telling our story in a couple of posts lately – Telling Our Story and Telling Our Story – The Story of Genesis. Today I would like to consider Wright’s work on Jesus in the context of story, and the impact that this telling of the story has on our ability to present the gospel. The questions today are simple:
How important is story in the presentation of the Gospel?
What is the story we have to tell?
I will discuss Elaine Howard Ecklund’s book Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think starting next week – but as a teaser, she reports that something like 65% of the social and natural scientist surveyed reported themselves as atheist or agnostic, 54% directly – but of the 16% who reported themselves as Jewish, 75% are atheist or agnostic. There is a common sense view among many within our society, or at least within our Universities, that religion is an idea whose time has come and gone. With either bemusement or downright incredulity, they wonder what value an ancient myth could possibly have in the modern world. Religion is a supernatural explanation for things not yet understood. We can construct theories of the past, we can learn lessons from the past – but a narrative story? No such luck.
I submit that we must learn to tell our story – to do so in a fashion that both takes the evidence seriously, evaluates and analyzes, contextualizes and interprets. We need to do so in a fashion that captures heart, mind, imagination and compels action. This story won’t be a monotone presentation. The gospels are stories of Jesus — they frame evidence, events, etc. into a coherent picture of Jesus. They are not simply itineraries or compilations of propositions or pithy sayings. The four gospels give different angles on a three dimensional story.
In the church we will also have different ways of framing the story of Jesus. The call of Christian scholars is not simply to pass on received knowledge, nor to invent new knowledge, but to help the church interpret, understand, and retell the story. This brings me back to the Wheaton Theology Conference. This conference, available for download, is a powerful resource. This isn’t a “how to” on practical ministry, a guide for the CEO pastor, or a presentation of clear answers. It is an entree into thinking about the story we tell and how we tell it. We need this in our church.
N.T. Wright frames the story of Jesus in terms of return from exile, the return of YHWH to Zion, and the defeat of evil. He gives us a vision of Jesus situated in time and place – suitable to that time and place. He gives us a picture of Jesus with a vocation to do for Israel what Israel’s God had promised to accomplish. A Jesus who accomplishes this through his life, death, and resurrection. Return from exile becomes – (and he may over do this) – an overturn of empire and a declaration against Caesar as Lord. The teachings of Paul fall into line with the overall theme.
The papers presented at the conference invite us to think more deeply about the story, fleshing out other aspects, bringing out critical differences.
Marianne Meye Thompson highlights the importance of John, neglected in much of Wright’s work.
Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat, in an entertaining conversation, suggest that Jesus is interested primarily in economic justice – and that this is the message we need today – with a rather interesting recasting of the parable of the talents.
Kevin Vanhoozer suggests that Piper and Wright are perhaps in disagreement over the spider in the room – not the elephant.
Jeremy Begbie played a musical piece to capture Wright’s impact. Far from monotone.
Edith Humphrey in her paper “Glimpsing the Glory–Paul’s Gospel, Righteousness and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright“ begins with an observation particularly relevant to the idea of telling the story of Jesus, its relevance to the entire New Testament text as a coherent whole, and its value for the church, not just the guild of scholars:
There are many who would disagree with the recent indictment of John Piper that ‘the Bishop’s biblical analysis’, here I’m quoting, ‘leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding aha experience of illumination but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity.’ On the contrary, I’ve discovered that when we begin with Wright’s presentation of the gospel, and I discover this in talking to students, when we center upon God’s action in Jesus, then the teaching on righteousness falls into place without vulnerability to this charge of abstruseness. To be sure, those with a particular formation find themselves perplexed since they applaud the Bishop’s trenchant critique of certain liberal or revisionist arguments, but they find themselves challenged in matters that contradict their earlier education. (4:13-5:03)
This leads me to a final reflection – we need to tell the story with and to each other as well as to the world. We need to learn and wrestle together. New expressions or insights are hard to take when they challenge some aspect of our story, but this is the beauty of the process. Some expect the gospel to be monotone – of unvarying quality with a lack of variety in color, expression, or style, to be nailed down concretely, … different views suspect, even unwelcome. But is this really what we have? Perhaps from the canonical gospels on through the church and continuing today we a polyphonic expression – with several melodic lines, parts, or voices that sound simultaneously and flesh out a whole. We need to be in dialogue with each other. But we need to frame the story.
What do you think? What is the story we have to tell? Is it monotone or polyphonic?
Why is Wright’s story of the “end of exile” (vs. Messiah, Son of God, Kingdom, Church, Salvation) such an appealing story? Is the strength of his portrayal the end of exile theme – or is there more than this?
What is missing from this story – what would you add?
If you wish to contact me you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.