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Surprised By Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues

by N. T. Wright


Are you someone who loves surprises? Surprises can happen in all areas of life, but to those who are familiar with the Bible and have heard its stories from childhood, being surprised by scripture may sound a little odd. Yet if anyone can find and share an unexpected and startling slant on the text, N.T. Wright is one who can. Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (2014, Harper Collins) by Bible scholar, author and retired Anglican bishop N. T. Wright, is a collection of essays that seems to have taken Wright by surprise, also. “In almost all cases, I did not take the initiative to write on these subjects. I was responding, as best I could, to questions that others had raised, and to the frequent invitation to explore contemporary issues from a Biblical perspective.” As one who, due to his training and vocation, is uniquely prepared to speak from a Christian worldview, Wright offers his insight on matters of concern to Christians in the West, particularly Christians in the United States.

There are twelve chapters in Surprised by Scripture covering challenging topics ranging from “Healing the Divide Between Science and Religion” to “The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women.” I was not expecting this book to focus on Christ’s death and resurrection but, surprisingly, it often does, and in particular, Wright expounds on Jesus’ resurrection. To that end, Surprised by Scripture has been a very apt book to read during Lent. Here are some highlights:

In the chapter called “9/11, Tsunamis and the New Problem of Evil,” Wright presents the idea that we in the post-modern era have no way to explain the presence of evil in the world, neither the evil that results from a powerful act of nature, nor the evil that humans perpetrate against humans. So how does one define or explain the horror of a tsunami that wipes out a quarter of a million people on December 26 2004, or un-see the evil of two airplanes being flown into the Twin Towers of New York on 9/11? Wright says, “Postmodernity may be right when is says that evil is real, powerful and important, but it gives us no real clue as to what we should do about it…This sends us back to the Bible itself. What has it got to say about all this?”

Beginning with the Old Testament, Wright develops the Biblical view of the human predilection for evil and writes, “[The prophet Haggai] seems to be trying to say that creation is good but incomplete, and human evil has somehow stalled the project of creation in its incomplete mode, so that humans need to be put right… The biblical imagery of judgment insists over and over that God will put the world to rights and wipe every tear from every eye.”

Wright then ties together the ongoing sinful condition of humankind with the coming of a redeemer who will address evil once and for all.”The story of Gethsemane and the cross present themselves in the New Testament as the strange, dark conclusion to the story of what God does about evil, of what happens to God’s justice when it takes on human flesh, when it gets its feet muddy in the garden and its hands bloody on the cross. The multiple ambiguities of God’s actions in the world come together in the story of Jesus.”

At the close of this chapter Wright says, “The Gospels thus tell a story unique in the world’s great literature, religious theories and philosophies: the story of the creator God taking responsibility for what’s happened to creation, bearing the weight of its problems on his own shoulders…The tidal wave of evil crashed over the head of God himself. The spear went into his side like a plane crashing into a great building… This is not an explanation [or] a philosophical conclusion. It is an event, which, as we gaze on in horror, we may perhaps glimpse God’s presence in the deepest darkness of our world.” That is to say, God does not abandon humankind to the pain and hardship of this world, but identifies with us in it, and joins us there.

The final chapter in Surprised by Scripture is “Becoming People of Hope.” In this section Wright turns his full attention to the centrality of the resurrection to Christianity, and he begins by sharing this story of a cabby, who was driving, or more correctly, sitting with Wright in a traffic jam in London: The cabby had observed Wright’s clerical clothing and began talking to him about problems in the Anglican Church. Then the fellow turned around to face Wright and pronounced, “What I always say is this: if God raised Jesus from the dead, everything else is basically rock’n’roll, i’n’it?” Wright comments that the cabby’s message is “at the heart of what I want to explore” in this chapter.

Drawing on the Gospel of John, Wright brings out parallels between Genesis 1 and the resurrection story, helping the reader to see how the story of creation is reiterated from the very first verse in John’s gospel: “In the beginning…” Wright stresses here, and in numerous places throughout “Surprised by Scripture,” that Easter was the beginning of God’s new creation, and just as God had work to do to in creation, Christians now have a job to do. “The completed work of the Father in creation and the completed work of the Son in redemption issue directly in the ongoing work of the Spirit in mission.”

Centering on John 20, Wright points out that after the Crucifixion the disciples were huddled behind locked doors out of fear of the authorities; they were soon to learn that “in the Kingdom of God there are no locked doors.” Jesus came into their midst in that locked room, bringing peace and a mission: “As the Father sent me, so I send you…” Here again Wright harkens back to Genesis noting that Jesus breathes on the disciples as God breathed into the nostrils of the man in creation, and “he became a living being.” (Gen 2:7). Then Jesus gives the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit to enable them to accomplish their mission, which, Wright tells us, “is to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel.” Wright explains that this is also the mission of Jesus followers today, “…There are no locked doors in the kingdom of God, and we who are charged to go into the world with the good news must pray them open so that message of God’s unconquerable love can go in.”

As a collection of essays about the challenges facing the church today, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues by N.T. Wright makes for thoughtful reading. And as a book to use to meditate on the passion and resurrection of Jesus, Surprised by Scripture makes a wonderful, and surprising, addition to a Lenten book collection.