N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperOne, 2014).
A former Anglican bishop of Durham, England, and the current New Testament chair at the University of St. Andrews, N. T. Wright is undoubtedly the most popular and well respected biblical scholar alive today. Continuing his popular series begun with his bestselling 2008 book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Wright now takes on the task of understanding Scripture in light of issues confronting the church today. Using a style that is simultaneously academic and conversational, and easily accessible to the laity, Wright seeks to debunk many biblical misconceptions held by atheists and fundamentalists alike.
Wright contextualizes the topic with a short discussion of the Scopes Monkey trial (1925). This single event, according to Wright, forever balkanized the faith/science debate in North America—relegating individuals into rigid categories of Christian faith/literalism on one side and evolutionary science/atheism on the other, with little room for common ground. He attributes the rise of the second group to the reintroduction of Epicureanism into European (and later American) society through the 1417 rediscovery of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, a poetic work which once again popularized Epicurus’ materialistic views. Much of the book, therefore, deals with countering modern Epicurean/atheistic thought, an effort that includes harmonizing the Bible and modern science. Wright lauds the work of Francis Collins in this regard, dedicating the volume to him.
Wright also offers a number of useful exegetical insights on contemporary issues such as women’s ordination and rapture theology. For instance, in discussing the biblical case for women’s ordination, he retells the Martha and Mary story (Luke 10) by outlining the expected gender roles of the first century. The typical sermon interpretation heard in pulpits today explains that Martha became angry with Mary because she decided to sit at the feet of Jesus rather than help her sister with the household tasks required for such an esteemed visit. While this interpretation is well supported by the text, Wright offers an additional element. He writes, “But far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East, and many other parts of the world to this day, would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’s feet in the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha… Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions… And Jesus declares that she is right to do so” (his italics). Wright’s new interpretation points to a Jesus who welcomes women into the formerly male-only milieu of theological discussion.
Wright also offers a fresh interpretation of I Thessalonians 4 to counter the ubiquitous rapture theology which has been so popularized by the Left Behind book series. Wright notes that the term ἀπάντησιν, translated as “meeting,” as in “meeting the Lord in the air,” is the technical term for welcoming Caesar at a “royal appearing” (παρουσία). Wright explains that “when the citizens went out to meet Caesar, they didn’t stay there in the countryside. They didn’t have a picnic in the field and then bid him farewell; they went out to escort their Lord royally into their city” (his italics). Wright thereby questions the idea that “Jesus is ‘coming back to take us home’—swooping down, scooping up his people, and zooming back to heaven with them, away from the wicked earth forever. As Revelation makes clear in several passages, with echoes in other New Testament books, the point is that Jesus will reign on earth, and at his royal appearing the faithful will go to meet him… [to] escort him back into the world that is rightfully his and that he comes to claim, to judge, to rule with healing and wise sovereignty.” The environmental implications of such an interpretation are formidable. Instead of residing on a temporary world which will be totally destroyed at the second coming, we live instead on a planet which will one day be part of heaven itself.
Perhaps one way to retain one’s status as the most widely revered biblical scholar alive today is to sidestep hot-button issues which might alienate readers on either the theological left or right. This seems to be the only way one can explain the absence of a chapter on gay marriage in a book which purports to engage Scripture with contemporary issues. One can only assume that this glaring hole is by design rather than omission, as Wright seeks to avoid the cesspool of sexuality polemics which have fractured the church and society at large.
But despite the book’s many brilliant exegetical insights, Wright falls into the common mainline Protestant misconception that if the church could simply refute the “backward” fundamentalist theologies of evangelical Christians—the rapture, a six-day creation, an historical Adam, and so on—then the conceptual hurdles that prevent so many from entering the ranks of the faithful might be overcome. In other words, Wright calls for a “half-demythologization” that would be used in the service of modern evangelism. But if anything, we see just the opposite occurring in America today: Evangelical churches are growing by leaps and bounds, while the more “enlightened” mainline denominations are shrinking into irrelevancy. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is working by another method?
Dennis Di Mauro is Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Warrenton, Virginia, and teaches for St. Paul Lutheran Seminary.