November 22, 2011

Review: N.T. Wright, "Simply Jesus"

Title:  Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters
Author: N.T. Wright
Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: Christianity
Year: 2011
Pages: 240
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-06-208439-2
Price: $24.99
There are a lot of great things I could tell you about N.T. Wright’s latest book Simply Jesus. I could praise the way Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, clarifies Jesus’s claims about “the Kingdom of God” by situating him alongside Judah the Hammer, Simon the Star, Herod the Great, and Simon Bar-Giora–historical figures who, before and after Jesus, declared their kingdoms (105-117). I could analyze Wright’s seven-point typology of the Exodus as he depicts it playing out in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth (63-66, 174-176, etc.). I could explain the way Wright challenges the notion that Jesus was simply a good moral teacher by placing Jesus’s actions and claims within their ancient cultural context, trying to discover what he thought he was doing based on the very Hebrew scriptures he quoted and enacted (166, 170, etc.). I could dissect Wright’s employment of key Old Testament texts regarding the coming Kingdom of God, texts which Wright views as crucial to understanding Jesus’s claims and various reactions to them (151-166). I could engage in debates about properly interpreting the identity of the “servant” in the book of Isaiah (153-158). I could even hook you in by outlining the interesting, often compelling ways Wright tries to answer questions like “Look out the window…If you think Jesus is already installed as king of the world, why is the world still such a mess?” (198).

Indeed, there is plenty of stuff in Wright’s latest book which makes for compelling review fodder. Instead of any of the above, I’ll describe the clever central metaphor Wright employs throughout Simply Jesus in order to paint “A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.”

Wright knows there has been a ton of debate about who Jesus was, who he believed he was, who others believed he was, and a host of other questions. Why write another book to add to the pile? Wright answers by employing a metaphor of “the perfect storm” (13). As the film of that title depicts, a fishing boat called the Andrea Gail was trapped between a cold front pushed in by a western wind on one side and a high pressure system coming from another direction–perfect ingredients for a huge storm. But a third factor, the left-overs from Hurricane Grace, swept in from the Atlantic to complete the perfect, that is utterly disastrous, storm. Wright uses this as an analogy for current debates about Jesus. The “high-pressure system” of conservative Christianity’s literalist biblical interpretations meets up with a “skeptical ‘western wind’,” which depicts Jesus as a man who wanted to teach good moral stories to people, or perhaps form a radical social program, all apart from heavenly direction (17-18). The third element is “the sheer historical complexity of speaking about Jesus” in the context of “first-century Palestinian Judaism,” the hurricane which completes the triple threat (20). Wright separates this third element from the second element: “the western wind of modernist skepticism and the eastern hurricane of historical puzzle are not the same thing” (22). This is his way of easing the minds of readers who believe serious scholarship is only a covert way of putting down religious faith (22). Rather than destroying faith, Wright understands careful historical and textual examination as the best way to demonstrate Jesus’s initial message, as well as his contemporary relevance.

Thus, context is king throughout Wright’s narrative of Jesus’s ministry, which is also framed using the “perfect storm” metaphor. Wright situates the trial and crucifixion of Jesus within the triple threat of pressure from the Roman Empire and the thousand-year-old expectations of Israel concerning deliverance from oppression, with God’s hurricane-like overriding plan executed through Jesus completing the ingredients (13-14; 151-152). In all of this Wright emphasizes Jesus’s Kingdom message, by which God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. Wright emphasizes this theme over and over:
“First, it will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people ‘how to get to heaven.’ That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’s public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave ‘earth’ behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on earth; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality” (144-145; see also 148, 184, 192, 194).
Reading Wright feels like curling up next to a fire on a dark, brisk night in a little cabin at the edge of the world. I’m not quite sure exactly why, but that’s how I feel when I’m reading Wright. I really like how he works with the New Testament. Here’s another excerpt:
“Layer upon layer it comes, dense and rich within the texts, echo upon echo, allusion and resonance tumbling over one another, so that for those with ears to hear it becomes un-missable, a crescendo of questions to which in the end there can be only one answer. Why are you speaking like this? Are you the one who is to come? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? What sign can you show us? Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners? Where did this man get all this wisdom? How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Who are you? Why do you not follow the traditions? Do the authorities think he’s the Messiah? Can the Messiah come from Galilee? Why are you behaving unlawfully? Who then is this? Aren’t we right to say that you’re a Samaritan and have a demon? What do you say about him? By what right are you doing these things? Who is this Son of Man? Should we pay tribute to Caesar? And climactically: Are you the king of the Jews? What is truth? Where are you from? Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One? Then finally, too late for answers, but not too late for irony: Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us! If you’re the Messiah, why don’t you come down from that cross? [...] And Jesus had his own questions. Who do you say I am? Do you believe in the Son of Man? Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink? How do the scribes say that the Messiah is David’s son? Couldn’t you keep watch with me for a single hour? And finally and horribly: My God, my God, why did you abandon me? [...] The reason there were so many questions, in both directions, was that–as historians have concluded for many years now–Jesus fitted no ready-made categories” (167-168, emphasis in original).

One particular way Wright has tried to refresh the story of Jesus for the present tense is by creating his own New Testament translation: The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011). It was released in October 2011 and can be had for around 20 bucks, a real steal. Without calling attention to the fact, Wright uses this new translation throughout Simply Jesus to great effect:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and James’s brother John, and led them off up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Then, astonishingly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them. They were talking with Jesus.
Peter just had to say something. “Master,” he said to Jesus, “it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters here–one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them. Then there came a voice out of the cloud. “This is my dear son,” said the voice, “and I am delighted with him. Pay attention to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were scared out of their wits. Jesus came up and touched them.
“Get up,” he said, “and don’t be afraid.”
When they raised their eyes, they saw nobody except Jesus, all by himself. (Matt. 17:1-8; Simply Jesus, p. 142; cf. Kingdom New Testament, p. 34-35)

Wright has a ton of books out there. You could just as well begin with any of them to find out if you’re interested in Wright’s typical approach. Many of them, including Simply Jesus, attempt to merge ”the academic and the pastoral” to educate and inspire a wider audience (ix). The book has a mere seven asterisk footnotes, includes several useful chronologies (62, 106, 108, 113) and highlights the poetic nature of Hebrew scripture verses through formatting. Oddly, Simply Jesus includes a handy scripture citation index but lacks a topical index. I guess I could criticize him for making yet another book on some of the same themes he’s discussed in previous books like Surprised by Hope (2008) and Simply Christian (2006). All his books cross paths with each other. At the same time, I once again found myself having fun with this latest effort, losing track of time in the pages. Wright overcomes overlap by providing fresh metaphors, using different biblical texts, and by referring the reader to his other work when too much content overlap looms. Simply Jesus showcases Wright’s characteristic wit and charm, his perceptive exegesis and theological biases, and his overriding sense of urgency for making Jesus better understood and thus more relevant in his ancient and our present contexts.

If you’re on the fence about this one, HarperCollins has a nice preview of the book available here. I reviewed Wright’s previous book (Scripture and the Authority of God) here. Given the choice between the two I’d start with Simply Jesus, although I enjoyed both books.