26 February 2010

A Resurrection for Christianity: Surprised by Hope

I'm not sure where it's harder to be a Christian--in a godless land, where the Believer attracts martyrdom or in a God-full land like mine, where Belief is so easily drowned out in a cacophony of sales pitches. I'm so fortunate that I have, in N.T. Wright, a sojourner who has the intellectual muscle to break down so much of the fake noise in his book, Surprised by Hope.

If you didn't read this book last Easter (when it came out), you owe it to yourself to digest Wright's ideas before Easter rolls around again. It strikes to the heart of what Christianity has always been about, and dismisses a lot of fakery in the process.

I don't think that Wright was "rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church," as the subtitle implies. Instead of new thought, he is focused on re-establishing a Resurrection-centered theology and renewing the mission of the Church that naturally stems from this.

Wright sees Christianity pulled by two poles: the Liberal side is ready to dismiss the literal Resurrection and discount the miracles of Jesus, relying instead on the moral and ethical advantages of faith. On the other hand, fundamentalists have stirred up an orgy of speculation on Rapture and Second Coming--a line of theology that justifies reactionary political stances (on the environment, on justice) and subverts Resurrection. What about Death? Is it nothingness? Is it a fantasy world where Christians take time from floating on clouds to view life back on earth?

These are big questions--ones about which few Christians, even after nearly 2000 of systematic theology struggle to find agreement. Wright answers them authoritatively, using New Testament scriptures to support his case.

Wright is most concerned with Christians who adopt the Platonist view of life: a dualistic view that sees earthly things as evil and spiritual things as good. He traces this heretical line of reasoning to the Gnostics of the 3rd Century. He points out, however, that God saw Creation as "good," and that his goal in sending Christ was to sort things out here on Earth. The climax of Revelations is a New Jerusalem returning to earth. So why do so many Christians seem happy to leave Earth behind? Wright seems to agree with C.S. Lewis's idea in Mere Christianity that maybe Heaven is all around us, unseen, in a dimension or level of existence that is more real than what we experience now.

The Resurrection, properly taught, dismisses dualism. God's kingdom comes, we pray, on earth as it comes in heaven. Therefore Christians take up the promise of resurrection, sharing with everyone the taste of beauty, the sense of justice, the burden of compassion this teaching unleashes.

I found myself reading this book with a Bible close by. Wright returns again and again to 1 Corinthians 15, the chapter in which Paul discusses our resurrected bodies and the state of our spirits after death. He covers the teachings of Christ and Peter, too. Every chapter was thought-provoking. It deserves careful thought--and the earnest student of scripture will not be disappointed.

I especially loved Wright's suggestion that the Pentecost Season--the 40 days between Easter and Pentecost--be celebrated as an anti-Lent. Christians should take up one good habit during this time, even as we give up vices for Lent. He even recommends champagne on Sundays during this celebration.

Easter 2010 is coming, praise God. But a Greater Easter is the promise of every spring. Resurrection awaits all who believe and who put their hope in God.

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