Saturday, May 17, 2008

Book Review: Surprised by Hope

In my educational background I have taken numerous New Testament and theology classes.  In doing a survey of the New Testament, I can't remember having much time left in the course for the book of Revelation.  And theology, we ran out of time to deal adequately with eschatology (study of last things).  Add to this the fact that I have always been a bit weirded-out by those end-times junkies who perpetually forecast the rapture any time we have more than one earthquake or there is a war in Southwest Asia (the Middle East).  All of this is to say that I arrive at N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, with very unformed opinions about the subject.  The book, put simply (perhaps too simply), explores our future as understood through scripture. 

Bishop Wright is a New Testament scholar, prolific writer, and a widely sought-after speaker.  There is no question that he is a gifted communicator and lucid thinker, and he brings those gifts to this book.  Wright has laid some ground work in some very dense works on New Testament theology and sets up the need for this book.  A key theme of Wright's is God's desire to "put the world to rights."  In this book, we are able to understand a little more about what he means.

Wright begins the book by illustrating the many varieties of confusion the church has about our future or what happens when we die, heavily critiquing the Platonic notion of the physical world being nothing more than a shadow of reality.  Wright builds his argument in various stages, but distilling it down, he establishes the incredible event of Jesus' resurrection from death (which he did more definitively in The Resurrection of the Son of God), his ascension, and coming reign.  Then the rest of the book is essentially the worked-out theological implications of that for those declaring their allegiance to Jesus.  Wright resists the only-spiritual idea of our future, and that ultimately we will be enjoying the goodness of God's creation in the transformed new earth. 

This challenges the standard images we have of a soft, glowy life up in the clouds.  It also challenges how we live now in light of our future.  He draws heavily on 1 Corinthians, where Paul indicates that the things we do now, will have impact into the future. Wright makes his points well and communicates to a wide audience. His portrayal of our future hope is beautiful and helps make sense of some of the bizarre images we have in Scripture. If what he describes is the best way to understand Scripture, then it has enormous implications for the church and its mission (which is partly his point in writing the book).

Not everything is resolved for me. I wish Wright had a chapter or appendix addressing some of the passages that might seem contrary to the view he is offering. For example, one that is frequently brought up by those that want to continue to treat the earth as one big trash dump, is 2 Peter 3:10. Relatedly, is the new earth made new through miraculous transformation or is it a totally new planet? As I stated at the beginning, this is not an area of theology that I have reflected on very much, so I would welcome insights from y'all.

For a chapter-by-chapter description of the book with a few points of explanation and well-placed questions, see Scot McKnight's blog.  I am too lazy to retrace each step Wright takes in developing his argument.

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