With Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright has done several important things.
He has written perhaps his most accessible theological book on an important topic of interest to not only most Christians, but to millions of people in the general culture as well.
He has shown, with characteristic intelligence, style and persuasion, how the errors of the church’s handling of the Bible have become the errors of a culture completely confused on what Christians have to say regarding life after death.
He has, quite possibly, rescued the term “resurrection” for a whole generation of younger Christians who will read this book.
He has modeled true pastoral theology in a way that should inspire every pastor who reads the book to never again preach a tired and rehashed funeral sermon.
He has, hopefully, inspired a continuing examination and discussion of the role “heaven” plays in our message, the folk theology of our culture and our outworking of Christian ministry.
He has, as always, modeled a kind of Christian scholarship that is brilliantly deep, practically useful, determined to engage with the larger world and humbly cautious.
Readers of this space know that while I do not agree with a good bit of the Bishop’s politics (and that is certainly true about several political suggestions in this book) I am still an unabashed fan of his project of doing an entire New Testament theology from the ground up without signing up for the idiotic team sport approach of much of the Christian world. I learn as much from how Wright does his theology as what that theology actually teaches.
It has occurred to me this week that fundamentalism’s appeal within my own tradition has a great deal to do with anti-intellectualism and accessibility. A fundamentalist preacher can confidently haul out the certainties of creationism and make every student in my school who is failing biology feel that he knows more than a professor at Yale. Watch a few hours of Hovind/Hamm videos and you are ready to trounce any Biology professor at Oxford or Cambridge. Fundamentalism is about creating that kind of confidence out of the shallowest, cheapest materials.
This kind of Bible-waving simpleton-ism models everything that is wrong with the Christian approach to intellectual and academic issues. Armed with blatant misunderstandings of the Bible, the fundamentalist isn’t just competent to say the wise of this world may miss the truth of the Gospel (which is absolutely true); he/she’s also competent to make pronouncements on every subject, preach distortions and outright falsehoods as facts and drag whatever audience is available to believe what amounts to mythology as Biblical fact.
Wright is another approach. He is deeply prepared. He knows his history, Bible, languages and theology. He also knows the errors and minefields on the subject, but instead of coming off as an arrogant ass, he shows his readers what it looks like to approach Christian belief with critical seriousness, humility, and the courage to say, “…or maybe not.” He offers up a highly original alternative way of reading the Bible, one that has stimulated many of us toward the Bible in ways no other writer has- often because we’re convinced he’s made a wrong turn.
One of the most persistent responses to Wright is an insistent that he, too, is a fundamentalist. “Wright doesn’t believe in heaven” will most certainly continue to be heard after this book. Such a claim is nonsensical to the point of absurdity. It’s simply the case that in passage after passage, and topic after topic Wright points out the most obvious blind spots of the muddled eschatologies Protestants have glibly sold, devoured and applauded for the last several centuries.
Instead of lining up with a team, Wright suggests we all might be wrong and the Bible be on target. And, yes, even his own conclusions on subjects like hell, are offered with a confession of his own need of further correction.
I don’t agree with all of this book. I still have some questions, but Wright has inspired me to further study of the scripture on my own. His work consistently sends me back to an open Bible to read again what I’ve read before- but this time to examine my presuppositions, my reliance on assumptions and my failure to be a better scholar.
Many of you will read this book and you assumptions like heaven are going to be overturned. Perhaps for the first time, you’ll look at this subject with the determination to not let everyone else tell you what you must say. You’ll realize that life after death is a subject that demanded more from you than quoting “I Can Only Imagine.” Hopefully, you’ll reread, ask questions, revisit the languages, discuss the whole topic and draw some revised conclusions that will make a practical difference in the way you live, worship and evangelize.
I believe that’s exactly what N.T. Wright is all about. When you hear the usual suspects denounce him as a dangerous false teacher, remember that these are the people who want to do your thinking for you. Wright will show you what you have overlooked. He’ll show you a bigger picture, but the hard work is always going to be yours. On Jesus, justification and life after death. You are the one who will be staying up late reading the Bible.