Friday, May 23, 2008

"Simply Christian" and God's Restoration Project

No Roundup again today, so instead I'll argue with N.T. Wright a little more.

In his book, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright spends the second section of the book with specific themes related to Christian history and theology. He first talks about God, and follows up with a chapter on Israel. This chapter provoked a few thoughts. First...

It is fundamental to the Christian worldview in its truest form that what happened in Jesus of Nazareth was the very climax of the long story of Israel.

The two words that get me in the above sentence are "fundamental" and "climax." I'll take them in reverse order.

First, after some 4000 years of history, it is strange to think of Jesus as the "climax" for Israel. God really took God's time leading up to that, especially with so many false starts, setbacks, and choosing of imperfect guys like Abraham, Moses, and David along the way. To say that Jesus was what all this finally led to begs a few questions. First, why not just make one of those other figures the anointed one? It would have saved the Hebrew slaves some 40 years in the wilderness at least, and may have gotten them out of Babylon later on, too. Second, what does this "climax" do with those 4000 years? Is it merely background to which we can point out where we think we see shadows of Jesus (a popular way to read some of the prophets, for instance...which Wright proceeds to do later in this chapter).

Thankfully, Wright clarifies this a little by suggesting that we can't understand Jesus apart from the history of Israel. However, his reading of the prophets to point out "predictions" of Jesus is not where I'd go with it. I agree with his assertion, but not his conclusions on this point: I think that we need to understand the history of Israel in order to provide context for Jesus' heritage, culture, teaching, and life. A.J. Levine is a good scholar to consult on this issue.

Obviously, "climax" assumes a particular reading of the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the prophets. Wright adheres to this reading.

Second, he says that it is "fundamental" to believe that Jesus was said "climax." In other words, you can't adhere to true Christian belief unless you believe that Jesus was the culmination of 4000 years of history. Never mind that believing anything to be a "climax" doesn't say much for what happens afterwards, like, say, today. The notion of "climax" lessens the work of the Holy Spirit--on which he'll later spend two chapters--and the church, to which he devotes his third section. So if believing Jesus was the "climax" of history is fundamental, that greatly affects how we live today as his disciples. Not to mention that Wright spends so much of his book trying to argue against too much emphasis on the afterlife and arguing for how relevant this life is to Jesus' message, that such a notion of "climax" seems to work against the case he's been trying to build.

Okay, that's out of the way. Now, God's restoration project.

In this same chapter, Wright lays out some of his case for reading the prophets as alluding to Jesus. In conjunction with one of his first chapters on justice, wherein he states that God is seeking to "put the world to rights" (I really like that phrase), Wright talks about God wanting to rescue and restore creation:

The theme of a new Eden (the thorns and briers of Genesis 3 replaced with beautiful shrubs) picks up one of the main subtexts of the whole biblical story. Ultimately, the real exile, the real leaving-home moment, was the expulsion of humankind from the Garden of Eden. Israel's multiple exiles and restorations are ways of reenacting that primal expulsion and symbolically expressing the hope for homecoming, for humankind to be restored, for God's people to be rescued, for creation itself to be renewed.

I find trouble here in a couple different ways.

The first assumption here, of course, is that Eden literally existed. I'd rather not get into an entire creation/evolution thing here, because that wouldn't really be the point anyway. I see the Eden story as a parable written, as much of the Torah was, during the Babylonian exile: a time of prosperity gives way to a time of hardship due to humanity's sin. This is not unlike Wright's take on the story. If, however, Eden was not a factual place, then Wright's point about God restoring creation to a state like that earlier factual place becomes problematic.

There are references in the Hebrew scriptures to God desiring to restore Israel to a state "like Eden." However, these are explicit references to Israel during points when Israel was enduring specific hardships at the hands of oppressors such as Babylon. In these passages, then, God is making promises that this shall pass, and Israel as a nation shall be returned to the prosperous state that it once knew.

The overall concept of restoration and rescue for all creation, however, shouldn't be negated. I'd suggest that it just be tweaked. Reading through the New Testament, there are numerous references for a coming age, hope for the coming of God's kingdom, visions of a new heaven and a new earth. To say that God isn't doing this kind of work at all is to miss a good portion of scripture...on this, Wright and I agree. However, where Wright would say, "God wants to restore creation to a new Eden," I'd simply say, "God wants to progress us toward a new Eden-like state."

Maybe for some, the differences in these statements are minor. The latter removes the problem of whether there was a real Eden while acknowledging that creation is in serious trouble and is in need of restoration and renewal.