Book 10 of the ten books that have shaped my life (and ministry) is The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is by Nicholas Thomas Wright. An historian-theologian catapulted me into a dramatically expanded view of Jesus. I concluded after reading this book “Now this is a Jesus I would die for.” I lamented that I would not die for the Jesus presented to me by American theologians. The Jesus I was familiar with was too stained-glass; a cobbled together theological construct to which the Gospels were called to support—a human and divine being in one person forever. At the popular level this was the Jesus that Philip Yancey described as a “Mr. Rogers.”
Theologians of any stripe must not be threatened by Christian historians who are deeply committed to Jesus and who are committed to helping us understand Jesus in his cultural setting.
Christians, particularly in the Western world, who think Jesus came to die just to make it possible for believers to escape and hell and go to heaven when they die, are horribly misinformed. If the sole mission of Jesus was, as the penal substitutionary atonement crowd suggests, to die in the place of sinners, why waste all that space in the Gospels on Jesus’ life? Only the crucifixion accounts should matter, right? Yet, we have birth narratives and we have both teachings and actions of Jesus that lead up to the last week of his life. Why?
Without taking anything away from the soteriological Jesus of American evangelicalism (even though the so-called NPP caused some dust up), N. T. Wright introduced me to the historical Jewish Jesus of 1st century 2nd Temple Judaism. It was Wright who emphasized that unless we know this particular Jesus living in his particular time in his particular place among his particular people, saying and doing the particular things he said and did, we will have no substance for a universal soteriological Jesus. This thought tightly gripped my thinking. Wright’s Jesus was not a theological construct supported by tidbits of Jewish and Roman history, but a dusty, sweaty courageous first century Jewish man taking on the powers that be—the supreme monotheistic power of the prevailing Judaism(s) and the imperial military powers of Rome—showing everyone God’s way of bringing in the kingdom of God. My observation is that American evangelicalism affirms the 100 % deity and 100% humanity in One Person concept, but seem to get jittery when an historian gets really serious about the 100% humanity reality. Some theologians want to keep Jesus lifted a little above the Judean dust or, even better, stuck irrevocably in systematic, stained-glass categories.
We often think that the hard part of Jesus’ job was to get his disciples to recognize him as the Messiah. “Who do you say that I am?” Wright unpacks the greatest challenge for Jesus was not only to get his Twelve to affirm his correct identity, but even more to get them to understand and own his (Messianic) mission. The hot-headed, curse-word implications of the phrase “crucified Messiah” is lost on most of the Western evangelical population. Many find it hard to think that Jesus intentionally engaged his world as a determined trouble-maker. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild cannot be found in the Gospels.
Here’s something cool (for me). When I first read some of N. T. Wright’s books, I, an obscure pastor in Grand Rapids, MI, emailed him when he was at Westminster Abby. Wright emailed me back several times suggesting books and encouraging me as a pastor. When he debated Marcus Borg in Grand Rapids, MI, Julie and I got to sip martinis with N.T. and sit at the dinner table with him. There we met the husband and happy father N. T. Wright. I thank God for this brilliant scholar, humble brother, faithful family man, and fellow pastor.