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Soularize Recap: NT Wright, Part 1

November 16, 2007

After being without wi-fi at the Soularize conference (not enough bandwith to share with the tech guys) and being without my beloved Moleskine upon my return (I left it at The Cobalt Season show in Baltimore), I intend to catch up with some reflections over the next few days.

The Bishop NT Wright was the headliner, leading the opening session and breakouts each subsequent day, and presiding over the whole event and all of its official and semi-official meetings. And, though I’m unable to finish any of his books, I must say that I love NT Wright so much that I’d consider becoming Anglican (which communion he described as ‘shipwrecked’). Why? Because NT Wright is a regular guy. It’s strange to say that, but there you have it. He brought his lovely wife, and attended each and every session (listening attentively to everyone who spoke or asked a question or whatever), and even drank wine and lemonade on the beach and went snorkeling like any other bloke. I guess he had a great time, and the unbuttoned Soularize crowd reciprocated: someone heard Maggie (Mrs. Doctor Bishop Reverend NT Wright) say, “I like this group, because you don’t kiss his butt!”

During the opening session, after a short excursus on how we in the church spend too much time on too few verses, Bishop Tom (as everyone seemed to call him) took us on a beautiful and rapid trip through the book of Acts– the whole blessed thing in 59 minutes. He described the book as ‘Part 2 of Luke’s Gospel’, noting that Luke’s first book described the Kingdom work of Jesus (“what Jesus did and taught”), where his second book shows the extension of that work (“how Jesus continued to do and teach, through his disciples”). Wright defined ‘Kingdom’ as “the reign of God in and through Jesus, ‘on earth as in heaven’”, and said that heaven and earth overlap and interlock as ‘two spheres of God’s good creation’ (“we misunderstand this because we have too much Plato in our makeup,” he said). The ‘Kingdom’ is where these two parts are joined together, and Jesus is thoroughly at home in both places. (He also curiously described God as ‘CEO’, and heaven as the ‘control room’ for earth, about which I queried him later. The stammering question and eloquent answer are captured by my new buddy Nick, here.)

According to Bishop Tom, 1st Century Jews would have recognized an overlap of heaven and earth as well, but would have seen this as represented by the Temple. But the innovation of the New Testament teachings is that the whole world is God’s special place, and chosen land. That the Holy Land as such, and the Temple itself, serve as ‘advanced signposts’ of God’s redemption of the entire cosmos, and the second coming of Jesus is meant to complete that rule and reign of God, and to finally bring justice to the earth. Therefore, the story of Acts is that of the tracing of the extension of this message to the Jews (as Christians upstaged the Jewish religion from the porch of the Temple), and then to occupying Rome (as Caeasar arrogates rulership of the Jews to himself, and comes to an ugly end), and to the pagans (so Acts 14, 17, and 19-21, as the upstart former Pharisee Paul upstages the pagan practices). Yet somehow, this message and this new way of life make it all the way to Rome itself, and the anticlimactic ending of the book stands as an ellipsis, and an invitation for the reader to ask oneself how the message of the Kingdom will find its way to the rest of the world.

Wright argues that he real literary emphasis of Acts comes in the second half of the book, where Luke’s awareness of Greek literature (and its intense interest in seafaring tales) combines with his awareness of Jewish sensibilities about the sea (see Genesis 1-3, where the sea is a dark and dangerous power, and note the general reticence among 1st-Century Jews to do much sailing) to create a stunning account of the shipwreck of Paul. In this way, Wright suggest that Luke embeds his theology of the cross into the narrative– that the crucifixion in Luke’s gospel parallels his account of the shipwreck in Acts.

So, just as in Luke’s gospel, the shipwreck looks like the powers of darkness have won. So hardship, it seems, is a part of the journey: “bringing the gospel means enduring shipwrecks”. And the idea of ‘salvation’ for Luke is a very practical one: he concentrates his use of this word group (‘sozo’, not to be confused with the other, similar term of British intelligentsia, ‘Zoso‘) on the shipwreck story, suggesting that ‘salvation’ is not some ethereal, in-the-sweet-by-and-by escape from this world, but a very literal, practical quest to find a way out of a very plain predicament (Wright translates the question of the Phillippian jailer elsewhere in the book as not “sir, how may I be saved?”, but rather, “how do I get out of this mess?”). We’re not ‘saved’ (“rescued”) from the universe of space and time and matter– God made these things and they are ‘very good’. Instead, we’re ‘saved’/'rescued’ from corruption, decay, and death. So with this view of the essential continuity between this earth and the new earth, redeemed by Jesus, Wright hopefully points out that “what we do in the present will resonate in the new world”.

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2 Responses to “Soularize Recap: NT Wright, Part 1”

  1. Ryan says:

    I can really resonate with this “how do I get out of this mess?” philosophy. It’s easier for me to buy into this fact that we need rescuing form corruption and decay as opposed to saying we have a sin problem. Maybe that word sin has developed such a negative connotation for me, i.e., a severe stigma of judgment is so attached to the word, that it is no longer useful.

    At my workplace I see this all the time, a culture of corruption and decay that is crying out for restorative justice. The punitive measures that are too often used in the educational system seem to lead to only judgment and rejection which furthers the cycle of decay.
    We’re not helping some of these kids to get out of this mess that they are in. They need to hear that while their actions might be rejected their person is not. They need to not just be suspended for fighting they need to be taught how to make amends with their adversary so that true healing can take place for both parties involved. I think they are crying out “what must I do to be saved?” and too often we don’t have the answer.

  2. pellucid says:

    I love Tom Wright’s stuff too – thanks for sharing that Mike.

    Fascinating to hear his take on Acts – and reflect back on his description of the Anglican communion. (Being a Brit myself I have a long-standing debt to the Anglican church and a corresponding fondness for the ‘old mater’.)

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