Review of “How God Became King”

N.T. Wright writes faster than I can read. Having relished a few of his other works, I sat down with his new How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, (HarperOne, 2012).

Wright and Scot McKnight are two scholars easily identified in evangelical circles that openly criticize the boiled-down view of Christian faith as “I believe in Jesus as my personal Savior and when I die, I get to go to heaven.” It’s the Christianity associated with the “sinner’s prayer” at revival meetings and youth rallies. This description fits what McKnight calls a “soterian” view of the Gospel (see his The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited [Zondervan, 2011]).

To be clear, neither Wright nor McKnight have any intention of laying aside the central need of personal relationship with God, nor any of the justification theology around which evangelical doctrine builds. The problem is reductionism – ignoring vast portions of what the Bible says through the Gospels. Wright laments how we’ve taken these enormously rich and bold claims full of world-changing vision and made them positively ordinary. We’ve taken the justice of God and reduced it to personal justification – for individuals to be saved from the penalty of sin – and we lost sight of the larger aims of God for the whole cosmos. Being a “biblical Christian” thus does not mean for many what it should mean, were we not to interpret out of sight vast tracts of scriptural material.

Using the metaphor of four electronic speakers, as in quadrophonic sound connected to your iTunes, Wright shows how one or the other has been either turned down too low or turned up too high. One example from the chapter “The Clash of the Kingdoms,” in which he explains the famous statement of Jesus to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caeser’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” We have misunderstood this statement as the advice to “Stick to your own patch,” (as in separation of church and state, see p. 148).

After some reflection on historical background, Wright says: “What is important is that the quizzical saying…indicates that Jesus is refusing to collude either with the pro-Roman party in Jerusalem or with the would-be violent revolutionaries. His comment can be taken either way. And that’s not just a trick. It’s a way…of breaking open the either/or in which his hearers were stuck and pointing toward a deeper reality. Perhaps it’s time for God – whose image is on every human being and whose ‘inscription’ is written across the pages of creation and the story of Israel – to receive his due.”

In other words, it is about politics. It’s about King Jesus’ politics.

You may or may not agree with Wright’s rendering of this passage. He even gets into his own translation of the Greek. What strikes me about Wright’s approach through the whole book is that the old evangelism/social justice competition that goes on among United Methodists is rendered utterly useless.

Reading Wright thus makes me think of my United Methodist family. At the risk of too much generalizing, I still think we operate from within the divided history of the Social Gospel movement (which tended to downplay one set of Christological claims in order to focus on the ethics of the Kingdom) and a revivalist, holiness Methodism (my “tribe”) with a “high” Christology focused on individual salvation and personal holiness.  Lots of us don’t like this division and wish we could leave it behind,

A reading of Wright’s book will challenge that problem and offer a way not only to heal an ecclesial wound, but to propel us forward more energetically in mission.

But each side will have to recognize – if you accept Wright’s basic claim – the shriveled way we read the Gospel narratives. “Part of the tragedy of the modern church, I have been arguing,” states Wright, “is that the ‘orthodox’ have preferred creed to kingdom, and the ‘unorthodox’ have tried to get a kingdom without a creed. It’s time to put back together what should never have been separated.”

What strikes me most powerfully is the implication of this book for the character and witness of the church. In the Cross-shaped Kingdom, God’s people are to be “the royal priesthood who will take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love…” (239). “Take over the world” is scary language which Wright full well knows. It nevertheless holds our feet to the fire. Jesus is Lord. He’s not just “Lord” of my individual spiritual/moral life. He is the world’s Lord, above all nations, powers and principalities. The bodily resurrection and the ascension to the right hand of the Father bear witness. The cross, the resurrection and the ascension inaugurate his kingdom, in this world, but not of it.

Thus, we his followers don’t believe in Jesus to escape this world (a huge point in the book). We believe in Jesus in order to serve this world and serve in this world, in all the ways the Bible tells us to serve, including sharing in the suffering of Jesus.

No “two kingdom” theology here; no two realms with “religion” safely quarantined from public life. Rather, a call for a truly public witness. Which makes this book, in the end, far more troubling than comforting.  But oh, what a vision.

Stephen Rankin is the chaplain at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the author of Aiming at Maturity: the Goal of the Christian Life (Wipf and Stock). 

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