The Failure of Christianity is a Modern Myth

The Failure of Christianity is a Modern Myth April 26, 2012

If you are, say, Voltaire, or a postmodern journalist, then the failure of Christianity is the way to tell the story of the course of history. Of course Christianity gets muddled, but there’s far more in that story about love and creativity and beauty and justice and healing and education and hope. So N.T. Wright, in How God Became King (p. 162-163). The world without the gospel of Jesus, Wright claims, would be “the cultural and ideological equivalent of those horrible 1960s buildings that were structures without spirit, boxes without beauty, all function and no flourish” (163).

The Enlightenment had to tell that story because it had to tell history with itself as the goal and the center, while Christianity had an entirely different eschatology — so the Enlightenment pushed religion into the private world and told it stay put. The storytellers may say otherwise, but the Christian story is good and goes on because it has an anchor in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, because Jesus is the reigning king, and because the kingdom will come.

How do you differ Wright’s kingdom theocracy with the four views below? How and why hav the cross and the kingdom been separated?

But too much of Christianity bought the Enlightenment’s story and it led to dualities: cross Christians with saving-for-heaven agendas and religion vs. kingdom Christians with social justice agendas and politics. Tom Wright’s thesis — of all his writings mind you — is that kingdom and cross belong together and that the kingdom vision is simultaneously social and spiritual.

Which just shows one more time how important eschatology is: the NT eschatology is one in which the kingdom has already begun to appear but still will happen completely in the future. But what has happened is not just the internal, religiousness or spirituality but instead the kingdom has been inaugurated holistically — social, cultural, political, cosmic and spiritual.

Wright steps up his critique of how the church has read the Gospels, though there are exceptions: Wilberforce, Tutu, William Temple, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. [I wonder what N.T. Wright thinks of Wesley, of Edwards, of Kuyper, of Finney.] Wright finds four reactions to what has happened in modernity:

1. “This” [world, kingdom, etc] doesn’t matter; we’re going to heaven when we die; we’ll leave this old world behind us. Wright accurately observes this gets too close to gnosticism.

2. Neo-Anabaptists: get the church in order, live as a beacon of light, “but without actually engaging with the world.” Well, that is precisely not what the Neo-Anabaptists argue or do; instead Tom is here speaking of some forms, perhaps most, of Anabaptism. The original Anabaptists — we’re speaking here of Grebel, Blaurock, Hubmaier — were social protesters fighting Catholic taxes. Anabaptism did go through a quietist and sectarian, separatistic period, but the modern “Neo-” Anabaptists are anything but quietist and uninvolved. Think Sider and Yoder or Claiborne and McKenna… very involved.

3. Right-wing Christian activism. Those who exulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden; FoxNews.

4. Left-wing Christian activism. Those often fighting for the poor and pushing a new sexual ethic are often aping liberal modernism (166). The UK Christians are grumpy pragmatists, Tom says. He parrots them with a caricature: “What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!” [LOL]

And there are the Reformers (who assumed by justification what late medieval theologians meant and were discussing) and the modern proponents of empire criticism (who assume when Paul spoke into empire that he meant by that term what we mean today).

So we need to read the New Testament afresh.

The Jewish vision was a theocracy — an on-earth, creational theocracy, ruled by image-bearers (Eikons of God). This is not what left-wingers today perceive. He sees a temptation toward anarchy in the left-wing. [Well, yes, but also strong centralization.] Nor is the right-winger small government the solution. So, in spite of the Anabaptists who gnarl at Tom on this one, creational monotheism works best with humans ruling as wise stewards under God.

Power isn’t the problem; the problem is who does what with that power. In other words, the biblical approach is not a fear of rule or power or leaders; it is a fear of bad rule. Neither anarchy nor small government is the way forward; the way is good government. Theocracy, then, is the right word.

And the right theocracy is messianic rule by the Messiah/King.

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  • S Wu

    Dr McKnight, thank you for this critique and interaction with Tom Wright’s book. I’ve been following a few online discussions on this book. It does sound like a good book to read.

    I have been really enjoying your blog and your books – and your commentary on James has been most useful in my work.

    I tend to agree with your statements in the last paragraph of this blog post. But I wonder whether more can be said about power, especially in light of the notion of powerlessness in the NT. If you have a moment, would you like to let me know your thoughts about the following article on Power and Powerlessness?

  • PGM

    As a Christian and a (social democratic) local body politician I cannot agree more with this: “Power isn’t the problem; the problem is who does what with that power. In other words, the biblical approach is not a fear of rule or power or leaders; it is a fear of bad rule. Neither anarchy nor small government is the way forward; the way is good government.”

    That’s why character of the individual politicians and the democratic processes, checks and balances and the distribution of power are all so important in maintaining a, biblically speaking, “righteous and just” society.

    People on the left tend to ignore the dangers posed by the centralised state and people on the right tend to ignore the dangers posed by the concentration of wealth in private hands.

  • fb

    i’ts true that power isn’t the problem in and of itself. however, we’d be naive to think that individuals can simply choose to do good with power without accounting for the impact/influence of the social structures in which they live. is it any wonder that the more power and wealth the government wields, the more easily corrupted it is? this is part of the rationale for a smaller government.

    still, it’s not like a small government (or even the absence of government) would lead to freedom. human sinfulness can twist and exploit the private sector as well. it’s for this reason that concentrations of power are inherently dangerous (as per dr. mcknight’s last sentence) — perhaps necessary at times, but dangerous nevertheless. humanly speaking, we need systems in which power is distributed and the public and private sectors can check and balance one another.

    and of course, no system is a substitute for yieldness to the true King. the true Savior is not a system or philosophy of government.

  • Jerry

    Scot, I felt this is one of the best chapters so far in the book and is really getting to the heart of Wright’s understandings of the problem/solution. I particularly like the fact that no one is spared from criticism. Thanks for the Anabaptist corrective.

  • As a Kingdom nut from way back, I like the way that Tom Wright brings the cross and the Kingdom together. I have never been able to see the point of pushing them into opposition. However, I was surprised out how little emphasis he gave to the Holy Spirit although he is seems to be an equally important part of the gospel. Wright simply says “And that theology of the Spirit is, of course, what the New Testament supplies, on page after page”, but leaves it at that.

    Wright finds the cross and the kingdom together on every page of the gospels, but mostly ignores the increased activity of the Holy Spirit that runs along side. For example, in Luke’s gospel, John was full of the Spirit from birth (1:15), the Holy Spirit came upon Mary (1:35), Elizabeth (1:41), Zechariah (1:67) Simeon(2:25), and Jesus (3.22; 4:1; 4:14). The Holy Spirit was present to heal (Luke 5:17). Luke ends the gospel with the disciples being told to wait for the promised Holy Spirit. He begins the book of Acts with a repeat of the command to wait for the Sprit. The entire book is the story of the Holy Spirit and could be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

    John the Baptist promised that Jesus would baptise his people in the Holy Spirit. All the gospels record the Holy Spirit coming on Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. During his ministry, Jesus rejected religious and political power, but embraces the power of the Spirit to heal the sick and cast out demons. The gospel writers repeatedly say that the Kingdom is near. Matthew explains what it means. The Kingdom coming near is the Holy Spirit doing stuff among the people (Matt 12:28). John recorded that Jesus needed to go away, so he could sent the Holy Spirit to get the job done on earth.

    When I read the gospels, I see the cross, the kingdom and the Holy Spirit. We need all three brought back together.

    However, the eschatology questions points to this gap. Jesus might be king, but he has gone back to heaven, so how can his kingdom come on earth, and be more than just a nice theological idea. When the king is not here, his kingdom can be ignored, no matter what status, he has back in heaven. The key is the Holy Spirit. He is the Kingdom Builder. When Jesus ascended out of the earth, he sent the Holy Spirit to establish his Kingdom on earth.

    To understand how the Kingdom comes we must understand the ministry of the Holy Spirit on earth. Wright says, , “All this demands, of course, a strong theology of the Holy Spirit as the one who dwell in Jesus’s followers and enables them in turn to be kingdom-bringers…..” but does not develop this further. It is the presence of the Spirit that enables us to escape the four reactions described in Scot’s post.

    The fullness of the Spirit is an essential part of the gospel that makes the coming of the Kingdom on earth possible. The good news is that Jesus is King and is sending the Holy Spirit to apply the cross and bring his Kingdom into being.

  • Scott Gay

    C.S.Lewis’ last interview was hypertexted in weekly meanderings(4/21/12). In it he referenced as most influential Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man”. Chapter VI “The Five Deaths of the Faith” directly relates to any notion of the failure of Christianity.
    As to the enlightenment having a different eschatology than Christianity, again turn toward Chesterton, but now to “Orthodoxy”(directly related to the significance of Jesus and Orthodox faith for the 21st century). From page 102/103:”This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to swoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to the left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions…… and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling, but erect”.

  • P. Keys

    Great read! could someone explain Wright’s chide on Reformers? I didn’t quite get that one.

  • T

    Great, great points, Blessed Economist.

  • Daniel Chappell

    I think Wright’s comments about the Reformers and Justification referred to the Reformers using the category of Justification as “all about me and my personal salvation” as opposed to “how to be incorporated into the people of God” (which naturally includes the forgiveness of sins), most notably in the context of bringing Jew and Gentile into one single family, cf. Romans, Galatians, Ephesians.

  • John G

    Blessed Economist, check out this lecture by Wright that addresses the issue you’ve raised: A quote: “The Holy Spirit; and the task of the church. The two march together hand in hand. We can’t talk about them apart.”

  • Bob

    In other words, Enlightenment thinking – and thinkers – haven’t answered that irritating but real question, “So What?” On the other hand, Christ has and isn’t bothered one bit.

  • Excellent review. I’m blessed by this perspective.

  • Jan I

    Maybe my english is to bad and I don’t understand the subtleties, but exactly what does Wright means by theocracy? Is it Christians acting like “secret agents” in the political systems of wordly kingdoms, setting up the rule of a foreign king (Christ) in the nation they live in without the non-believer knowing it? Then I don’t get the critizism of the American right-wingers, at least they are open about their agenda.

  • Richard

    I wonder if some of this is revulsion/reaction to the last time the cross and the Kingdom were wed: the Crusading HRE? I’m fine with wedding the cross and kingdom together as long as we’re clear that we’re being crucified with Christ for the Kingdom and not crucifying others with it.

  • PLStepp

    How I wish you’d not paint Fox News with the broad brush! Did some FNC on-air personnel exult in the death of OBL? Perhaps. Was it the majority, or was that the attitude of the majority of FNC viewers? I doubt THAT very seriously.

    FNC and FNC viewers has become the knee-jerk shorthand for knee-jerks, I guess. Not fair.

  • DRT

    Just have to echo the LOL, ““What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!” That is hilarious.

  • DRT

    As I have studied this toppic over the past several years I have become a big fan of Handell’s hallelujah chorus. It seems to me that the whole point of the chorus is much more akin to the Jesus being King than the modern sense of his reign. It has the fresh enthusiasm filled with the irony that a lowly person, such as Jesus is Lord, Hallelujah!

    And then the whole quote of “Is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ” just blows me away. In my translation of this it becomes that the earth has become the unquestioned kingdom of god the father and of his anointed one.

    For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
    Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
    For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
    Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
    The kingdom of this world
    Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
    And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
    And He shall reign for ever and ever,

    I have a college course from the teaching company that I really like, and in it there is a critical analysis of this song. Professor Greenburg (I hope that is right) digests this song and tells how to appreciate it for the musical content. After the section I quoted above, he says something like “and then they all go nuts and sing in overlapping segments!” And when you listen to it, and think that, back in the day, when they are going nuts it is not the same as today. But they are! And he shall reign for..and he shall reign for…and He shall reign for ever and everereer!!!! King of Kings!!!! It is wonderful.

  • DRT

    Sorry, here is link. Please enjoy.

  • Dana

    P. Keys said on April 26, 2012 at 7:09 am:

    Great read! could someone explain Wright’s chide on Reformers? I didn’t quite get that one.

    Daniel Chappell answered April 26, 2012 at 8:42 am:

    I think Wright’s comments about the Reformers and Justification referred to the Reformers using the category of Justification as “all about me and my personal salvation” as opposed to “how to be incorporated into the people of God” (which naturally includes the forgiveness of sins), most notably in the context of bringing Jew and Gentile into one single family, cf. Romans, Galatians, Ephesians.

    I think one of the fundamental points of contention/difference is over just what “justification” and “righteousness” mean, which, for the Reformers, usually involves some notion of “imputed righteousness.” NTW counters that “justification” is not some sort of process whereby “moral virtue” can be transferred from one person/party to another (in this case, from the judge [God] to the defendant [us sinners]), but rather “righteousness” “denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favor.” And “to justify” denotes “a declaration which grants [us] a status.” We have been “acquitted,” “cleared,” “vindicated” (see his “Justification,” 90ff.). But we have not been infused with some kind of moral virtue. We receive in the present the pronouncement that will be made once and for all at the consummation of all things in Christ.

    That is just one–but, to them, a very important one–of the Reformer’s sacred cows being gored by NTW’s challenges to one of the reigning paradigms in theology. Consider, for example, the back cover endorsement on John Piper’s book (“The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright”) from no less a Reformed stalwart than D. A. Carson, who doesn’t try very hard to veil his accusation that to believe other than how he and Piper present the subject is to believe in another gospel: “… John Piper will not allow believers to put their trust in anyone or anything other than the crucified and risen Savior.” Really?! To insinuate that N. T. Wright suggests anything otherwise is preposterous.