Book of the Month/July 2014

When reviewing a book written by a friend, there are two basic ways the thing could go, one of them very bad. Say that you had been duck hunting for forty years with your very bestest friend, and then, after retiring from his job as CEO of Whatsit, Inc. he gets it into his head to write a book, a novel, say, about the Amish End Times, and there are lots of apocalyptic bonnets, which is a disturbing thought in itself. He is a rich guy so he is going to have some vanity press do it up right, and he gives you the manuscript and asks you, his very best friend, to blurb it for him. Ten pages in and you are murmuring “shoot me now.” Twenty pages in and you have an inexplicable quarrel with your wife. Thirty pages in and you realize that you are already in the Amish End Times. The fiction has come to surrealistic life, and you are being chased through a spooky field in the gloaming, pursued by the Manure Slinger of Death. If you hadn’t guessed, this one is the bad scenario — when you get along famously with someone, except for that part of their brain that writes books. A part that you didn’t realize was there for all those years.Seeing Beauty

The other scenario is the happy one. A friend writes another book and you realize yet again what the basis of the friendship actually is. This was perhaps a roundabout way of introducing it all, but this month’s book selection is Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully by John Piper. This book, like John, is passionate and meticulous in equal measure, and on a topic like this it really needs to be. Without passion, poetic effort is dry and mechanical. Without meticulous care, poetic effort melts into a fairly large puddle of sensate lamesauce.

“This book is about the relationship between poetic effort, on the one hand, and perceiving, relishing, and portraying truth and beauty, on the other hand” (p. 17).

In the introduction, Piper addresses the dilemma which the apostle Paul created for all Christian wordsmiths when he rejected words of human wisdom. Does this restriction mean that we should labor to always say exactly the wrong thing the wrong way — the non bon mot? Non bon for short? Piper argues, very effectively, that the apostle was not rejecting a thoughtful use of words, but rather the sophistry that was very common in Corinth at the time.

Statist Solutioneering

Wright’s last three chapters were really very good. They were “How to Engage Tomorrow’s World,” “Apocalypse and the Beauty of God,” and “Becoming People of Hope.” What I want to do is make a few brief comments about each, and then make two observations about the book as a whole, and Wright’s influence generally.

In these chapters, Wright is doing what he does best, which is declare the biblical basis for the ultimate lordship of Jesus Christ over all things — the resurrection — and then to insist that this lordship is not an airy fairy spiritual abstraction, but rather that it has nuts and bolts applications in the here and now.

“Our confidence is in Jesus and him alone” (p. 185).

“Jesus is lord of the world, so all truth is his truth; let’s go and explore it with reverence and delight” (p. 185)

He cites C.S. Lewis insisting that there is absolutely no neutral ground anywhere in the universe. Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.

“Lewis was echoing the view of many Christian thinkers, going back to Abraham Kuyper and ultimately to Paul himself; but in doing so, he, and they, stand firmly against the great division that is come upon us in the West” (p. 187).

That great division is the idea that there is somehow a disjunct between actual facts and religious truth, or that truth itself can be divveyed up and placed in separate compartments. No, Christ is Lord of Heaven and earth, and we call it a universe for a reason.

Bet You a Can of Corn

I should begin by saying that this bit of writing is not a rant. I can assure you that at no time in the composition was the screen spittle-flecked. I remained in a good humor the entire time. And I mention all this because it is my intention to step out a bit, high, wide, and handsome. My criticism of Wright at this juncture is going to have a little tang to it. My adjectives and my metaphors are going to be slathered in West Texas barbecue sauce, that one for instance.

The title of this chapter is “Our Politics Are Too Small,” when the actual problem is that our politics are far too large. If responsible government were considered as two or three of those little marshmallows, the kind you put into jello for the kids, our modernist concept of idolatrous government is that marshmallow puff monster at the end of Ghostbusters.

True, our cultural vision is truncated and pinched, and much of what Wright is arguing here could be used to broaden that vision — but he doesn’t do it. If, under the lordship of Jesus, our politics assumed a more reasonable size and shape, our culture, free of coercion, and also under the lordship of Christ, would be in a position to truly flourish.

But Wright doesn’t do this. He is like the constables in Penzance. “We go, we go, we go!” “But you don’t go!” Let me splain.

First, Wright is absolutely correct that the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is necessarily political. Jesus rose from the dead in the middle of history, and so the old ways of doing politics must be abandoned. This happens progressively in history, not all at once. Building on the foundation of the resurrection, the Church is God’s plan for getting this task done, and He is willing for it to take a while. And those who hold to power in the old ways don’t want to let go of it. “God acting in public is deeply threatening to the rulers of the world in a way that gnosticism in all its forms never is” (p. 173). The “political implications [are] inevitable” (p. 163). Wright correctly stands against the notion “that God doesn’t belong in public life” (pp. 164, 169).

What the Pimp Needs to Do

In this installment, I want to commend Wright yet again, briefly summarize what he says, and then try to supply a key element that I think he is missing. Were he to gain that element, either from me or from a reputable dealer, I believe the good points he is urging here would gain a great deal of additional potency. So I am not really disagreeing here, but since the next chapter is on politics, I think I might resort back to this chapter in order to explain our anticipated differences there.

The chapter is titled Idolatry 2.0, and it is quite good. In it, he points out rightly that every kind of nature abhors a vacuum, not just physical nature. Whenever you banish the gods, others come creeping back in. “But history shows again and again that other gods quietly sneak in to take their place” (p. 152).

Three of the most obvious gods in our day are Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite — war, money, and sex. In a nice touch, Wright associates each of these three gods with their respective prophets — Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Each of those guys would sit on their tall three-legged Delphic stools, get the fumes into their heads, and start raving about how it was all about “power,” or “economics,” or “sex.” He then has a good discussion of the various forms of worship these gods receive in our day, and I commend the chapter to you. There is good stuff here.

The thing missing from Wright’s discussion of this is that he doesn’t make the obvious connection between all three of these gods and the modern high priest of that pantheon, which is the modern state. All three of these religions are tax-supported religions, and there will be no reformation unless and until we cut off Caesar’s money supply. These religions have an apparatus, and that apparatus is the modern state. Repentance would mean that the state would have to shrink back to a more normal size — about twenty times smaller than it is now.

Caesar as Coxcomb

Given how hard I have been on Wright for most of these chapters, it might seem remarkable to some that I have now come to what I consider to be the second outstanding chapter of this book. Others might think the word remarkable is not the right word. Perhaps the word schizophrenic is the one we are looking for. This would leave unresolved whether we are talking about Wright’s intellectual schizophrenia or mine. I will leave you to discuss that among yourselves. Be judicious.

I should mention one nice little thing he did before moving on to discussing why this chapter was so good. Early on in the chapter Wright was fair-minded enough to quote something I said to him at lunch the one time we met. There was a gang of us there in Monroe, when he spoke at the Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference in 2005. And if he was only going to quote me once, I am happy with the one he chose. “As a friend of mine from out West says, ‘In Idaho ‘gun control’ means you use both hands” (p. 130). How that figures into the theme of this chapter you will have to work out on your own time.

In this chapter, Wright outlines three important ways the Bible addresses modern Western culture. The first is that biblical thinking requires us to get rid of our natural tendency to “split-level” dualism. Second, Wright is insistent — contra the postmodernists — that we must learn to see the Bible as “an overarching story, a single great narrative, which offers itself as the true story of the world” (p. 143). And third, he show how the Bible teaches us to know. At the end of the day, epistemology is a function of love. His discussion on all three points was quite satisfying, really good, and worth the price of the book.

Forgetting the Columns

The next chapter is on the problem of evil, and in the course of it Wright says something that is particularly fine. Since there are a lot of other problems, to be dealt with in due course, I wanted to begin with the praise.

“The Gospels tell this story in order to say that the tortured young Jewish prophet hanging on the cross was the point where evil, including the violence of terror and the nonhuman forces that work through creation, had become truly and fully and totally itself. The Gospels tell the story of the downward spiral of evil” (p. 121).

In this statement, and a number of related statements in this chapter, Wright does what he does best, which is to set and describe the broad context — the events leading up to the cross are set center stage in a cosmic drama, which is right where the cross belongs. He does this very well, and no complaints on that score.

The approach that Wright takes to the problem of evil generally appears to be a variation of the Christus Victor approach to the cross, which is absolutely biblical and fine, but only so long as other key elements of biblical atonement theology (e.g. propitiation) are not left out, but which Wright unfortunately does.

What Wright says about the silencing of the principalities and powers is glorious and right and true. Christus Victor is one biblical aspect of the death of Christ. But it is not the whole thing. To write about God’s vindication of His righteousness without using the word propitiation is like building a replica of the Parthenon and forgetting to put in the columns. For someone like Wright to miss this concept in Paul, and in the New Testament, is simply fatal to his project.

On this topic, Wright continues to indulge his propensity for calling things new that are not new at all. For example, he thinks we are dealing with “a new problem of evil” (p. 110). But what’s new about it? People have been dying in tsunamis for many centuries. People in anguish, also for centuries, have wanted to know why. This question has been asked forever by poets and wailing widows, and not just by metaphysicians. But Wright dismisses the older concerns as the stuff of philosophical fustian, with more than a whiff of the constant seminar room, the one with a particularly metaphysical fly buzzing helplessly against the window pane of inscrutability — “older ways of talking about evil tended to pose the puzzle as a metaphysical or theological conundrum” (p. 111).

In Which N.T. Wright Discovers the Moon Again

The next chapter from Wright is on eschatology and care for the creation, and is a mixed bag. The title of the chapter is “Jesus is Coming — Plant a Tree.” We will come back to that shortly.

I want to begin by acknowledging what is very good about this chapter, which is Wright’s exegetical understanding of the relationship of heaven and earth, the old creation and the new creation, and what the resurrection of Jesus and what His second coming actually mean for this world. It is very good work, and it is good work from the beginning of the chapter to the end of it. This is basically a chapter length treatment of his book on the same general topic, Surprised By Hope, and has the strengths and weaknesses of that book, mostly strengths.

While there would be quibbles here and there, I don’t want to dispute with his exegesis on this topic. I think it is good, I think it salutary, I think it is most necessary for our generation of evangelicals, particularly in America, to recover this understanding. Anything that Wright does to help this along is something I am all for. I am grateful for his influence here at this point.

But this leads to the second issue. While his exegetical theology is fine, his historical theology is atrocious. I have no problem with how Wright argues his biblical case in this chapter because, as it happens, I am a postmillennialist. The position that Wright is advancing has a name, and it is a name that Wright appears to be extremely reluctant to use. I have not read everything Wright has written, for the age of miracles is past, but I have read a lot of his stuff. I am open to correction here, but I don’t recall him ever using the term postmillennialism, still less identifying with it. This could be fine — albeit a little weird — except for the next thing.

Last week Sam Allberry tweeted this: “‘…and only I am left’ – The prophet Elijah and every book by N T Wright.” In a previous post, I said that Wright has an annoying habit of announcing discoveries that all of Western theology has missed, when in fact his discoveries are nothing of the kind. He is like a very competent amateur astronomer who keeps discovering the moon. We could put up with this, but then he keeps chiding us for having missed it. Now it is true that there are popular schools of theology that have missed it, but Wright is here making claims about the broad history of theology, and he gets it spectacularly wrong.

The Elton John Version

Wright’s chapter on the case for ordaining women starts off a little oddly. He acknowledges that he used to teach that “the creation of man and woman in their two genders is a vital part of what it meant that humans are created in God’s image. I now regard that as a mistake” (p. 64).

His reason for considering it a mistake is that Genesis notes that both plants and animals are also divided into male and female (pp. 64-65). Now this last observation is quite true, but it is a curious reason for dropping a connection that the book of Genesis explicitly makes. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27, ESV). It would be better, I think, to take this passage as a straight up declaration, and to take the similarities exhibited by the surrounding world as animated typology. The created order exhibits the traits of male and female as a declaration of the glory of man and woman, the woman is the glory of man, who in turn is the glory and image of God (1 Cor. 11:7). Clearly, the mere possession of the male/female distinction is not a sufficient condition for bearing the image of God. But no one ever said that it was.

By the way, for any who want to pursue this a bit further, I have written a small book on the topic, Why Ministers Must Be Men.

Early on, Wright objects to the way the discussion frequently goes.

“Instead of taking texts in a vacuum and then arranging them in a hierarchy, for instance by quoting this verse and then saying that it trumps every other verse in a kind of fight to be the senior bull in the herd (what a very masculine way of approaching exegesis, by the way!), we need to do justice to what Paul is actually saying at this point” (p. 65).

There is some temptation to have a little fun at this point, but I resist it manfully as a temptation. But let me share with you what I was tempted to say. I was tempted to say, but refrained from saying, that another masculine way of doing exegesis might be to rank verses in a different kind of hierarchy, privileging those texts that are talking about the issue in question, while back-grounding those passages that are about something else. The reason I did not say this is that I know plenty of women who know how to discuss the point at issue and plenty of men who don’t. So there’s that.

As an example of this quaint procedure, developed by dead male theologians, but applauded by sensible females, suppose we were debating whether or not Og, king of Bashan, had an iron bedstead. One might argue, as I would, that the Pentateuch says that he did (Dt. 3:11). In response, someone else might argue that arbitrary role responsibilities, assigned according to sex, such as the man taking out the garbage, and the woman doing the ironing, is no longer tenable in the light of the full revelation of the gospel in Christ (Gal. 3:28). An example of my hegemonic approach to exegesis would be to privilege Dt. 3:11 over Gal. 3:28, even though I heartily approve of Gal. 3:28.