“We Want to Play the Music”

As the year comes to an end, I find myself with a short stack of articles and essays that I never quite got around to writing about here.  One of them was yesterday’s question of religious language through Jonathan Merritt’s New York Times article.  Another such piece of writing dates back to mid-October from N.T. Wright, who posed a number of good questions concerning the Gospel and the public witness of the church.  And while he was writing from a particularly British and Anglican perspective, he says things that are easily true about the best of conservative, evangelical Christianity in the states, too.  From the article posted to the Fulcrum website:

What has renewing the evangelical centre got to do with our witness to the nation? Might it not look like fiddling with in-house self-definition, copying the world in worrying about our own identity while the world itself hurtles towards new types of hell?  The gospel is never about defining a small group. Despite popular impressions, the evangelical centre ought to grasp what Lesslie Newbigin insisted on, the gospel as public truth.

Evangelicals haven’t always been good at this. A generation ago the two defining marks of evangelicals – ‘conservative’ evangelicals, no less – were the authority of scripture and the substitutionary death of Jesus. Those two have often been used within a turn away from the world, creating a private spirituality in the present and an escapist salvation in the future. But Scripture itself insists that the good news of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s lord, is for all people, summoning the world to a new and transforming allegiance. Scripture itself insists, though this is more complex to explain, that the substitutionary saving death of Jesus serves, not a detached soteriology where saved souls fly away to heaven, but the kingdom-agenda of the gospels in which, precisely through substitution, Jesus wins the victory over all the dark forces that have enslaved people and nations and that still try to maintain that grip despite that victory.

Let me explain briefly. I have written about this elsewhere and can only summarize. First, the great story of scripture is about the creator and the cosmos, with humans called to be God’s image-bearers within it. God’s aim is to rescue, renew and unite heaven and earth: that’s what Jesus taught us to pray for, and what the New Testament insists has begun with his resurrection and ascension and the gift of the Spirit. If you say ‘authority of scripture’ but simply mean ‘as opposed to tradition or reason’, and merely regard scripture as the book in which you can look up the right answers to troubling questions such as the details of how to go to heaven, you are not allowing scripture itself to be itself. You are accusing God of giving us the wrong sort of book. No; if we invoke scripture, let us live by scripture. Scripture is the great drama in which we constantly re-learn ‘the story so far’, particularly where that story climaxed and where it’s supposed to land, so that we may act and speak wisely and truthfully in a world which lives by quite different stories. Like Micaiah ben Imlach in 1 Kings 22, we stand humbly in the council of God so that we may then stand boldly in the councils of the nations. To think of scriptural authority in terms simply of Christians looking up right answers to doctrinal or ethical questions would be like someone regarding a musical score as providing examples of harmonic theory. No: we want to play the music. The world needs to hear it.

Wright, of course, has his critics, particularly when it comes to his approach to soteriology and his too-often bringing-heaven-to-earth theology.  One of my goals for the new year is to read more about those positions (particularly by reading Michael Allen’s Grounded in Heaven).  And while Wright is often accused of misunderstanding or oversimplifying things with his “it’s Epicureanism!” assertions, I can give him the benefit of the doubt for trying to give us a good handle on things.

The rest of the article is worth a read, particularly as Wright does a great job juxtaposing two competing version of “the hinge of history,” either Jesus or the Enlightenment.  All the way through the article, you might get a better sense of what is at stake both in how we view the world and how we live by faith in it.

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