This book, I believe, has a baby and plenty of bath water. The bath water is probably because Wright strays well outside his area of expertise, and the baby is a re-statement of views found elsewhere, but in different terms.
As seems normal with Wright, his concern is that the message of the Church be relevant to society; part of this he sees as making sure that the Church is there to ‘critique’ political and institutional bodies; part of it is that he sees churches he characterizes consistently in his books as right-wing fundamentalist as having a narrow and non-biblical concern with ‘going to heaven’ rather than God’s project of his kingdom on earth. The first concern, I suspect, is tied in some degree to Wright’s involvement with the Church of England, who see themselves as having precisely that role within English society – but the broader scope is what matters, that the Church’s job is to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that no other ruler is finally legitimate without reference to Him, and on this Wright is very strong, and what he says is tied strongly to the Bible. With regard to the second, there is clearly some truth to the idea that the Church has retreated into a private ‘spirituality’; however, his discussion of both modern society and the church is characterized, in my view, by caricatures of a somewhat superficial nature based on questionable history. Wright, in short, is good when he talks about the Bible;potentially interesting, but off target when he doesn’t.
The book has three chapters. In the first, ‘creation’, the act of God the Father, is contrasted to ‘gnosticism’, both ancient and modern; in the second, concerning ‘power’, the Lordship of Jesus is contrasted to ‘empire’, both ancient and modern; in the third, the ‘truth’ of the Holy Spirit is contrasted to the deconstructive relativism of ‘post-modernity’. What follows here is a brief outline of what I understand Wright to be saying in each chapter, with some comments.
The target of the first chapter is Gnosticism or neo-Gnosticism. Briefly, instead of an external fixed body of truth, Gnosticism reduces spirituality to the private sphere, a personal search for truth; in its ancient form it was dualistic, seeing the spirit as good and the body as bad, and therefore not concerned with this present world, it being evil. Creation is the answer to this – God created everything good. In Wright’s view, however, there has been a strong tendency since the Enlightenment period of the 18th century to reduce Christian faith to ‘going to heaven’ when you die, to an escape from this world; he sees this tendency exemplified in the eschatology that leads to books like the Left Behind series. The tendency is to ignore the idea that God is bringing about a new earth, a restoration of this earth, and so, in his area of expertise, he points out that Lutheran and evangelical exegesis have tended to ‘ignore’ Rom 8 18-27. One can see that these tendencies exist, but to see neo-gnosticism in them does not seem very sensible to me; perhaps there is an influence, but it is extreme to label movements within the Church as neo-gnostic, not when they explicitly state that ‘Jesus Christ is come in the flesh’. when this is explicitly denied by gnosticism. Strangely, Wright sees and characterizes as conservative and Gnostic the idea ‘the world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through’; I would say it was a legitimate extrapolation from Heb 11 13-16. Oddly again, to my mind, on the political front, he says that the very people who reject Darwinistic evolution, actually support “large scale social Darwinism in which the doctrine of the ‘survival of the fittest’ is applied relentlessly to the global rights of the superpower”. This seems very tendentious to me; you would have to produce a large book of historical research to support this idea; the objective seems to be to slam the USA, a point to which I will return. Finally, a quotation which seems to encapsulate the best and the worst of what Wright says:-
Notoriously, right-wing Gnosticism, caring about the salvation of souls and envisaging judgment as the punishment of the unsaved along with the wicked world itself, has an easy solution to the problems of crime at the local level and problems such as terrorism at the global level: anticipate God’s judgment here and now, in punitive retribution.
Here Wright feels that he can characterize the right-wing church as Gnostic. It might not have thought things through (politically in particular) very much, but to call it Gnostic is just rhetoric. As I understand it, much of the American church comes from a historically very stable political background and have not had to think properly about these things, hence the focus on ‘salvation of souls’; the American church with its strengths and weaknesses carried the weight of evangelism on a worldwide basis for quite a long time and it is poor not to remember this. Wright’s warning about the way judgment is envisaged is, I think, very just. If this tendency exists, and it does, the statement that follows is apt and it may seem to characterize the way, for example, President GW Bush tended to operate – more prisons, bigger military; but surely there is an awful lot more to it than Wright is allowing to be said ; it is a substantial over-characterization. However, Wright’s favourite point remains – that God’s judgment is not essentially punitive, but has as its goal ‘putting the world to rights’. That’s the point, but even here there is over-characterization, because there is a punitive element.
The second chapter, contrasting ‘empire’ with the Lordship of Christ, similarly makes strong points on the theological side but has a mixture of sensible points about empire along with caricatures of fact. Wright is always keen to bring out the way Paul is distinctly concerned to oppose to Caesar the rulership of Jesus, particularly in the first chapter of Romans which deliberately applies the imperial language of Rome to Christ; in the same way the Psalms speak of God as king, the ruler over all nations. It might be thought that the following is something of an overstatement :-
“… ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.’ That famous verse….is not, as it has so often been treated, a detached statement of atonement theology, but is rather the clinching point in this devastatingly counter-imperial statement about power”.
Wright does indeed specify that this is about atonement, but his point is that real power is about serving, contrary to the tendency of empire. It is not that Wright is against government, and indeed makes a statement to the effect that he ‘cannot be a full-blown pacifist’ because some governmental use of force is necessary, but that government can become empire in a totalitarian way. It is at this undoubtedly true point, in the details of it, that I find my understanding of history clashing with Wright. In the modern world, Wright seems to conflate empire with the USA; with regard to earlier times, he simply gives all empire a pasting. Was the Roman Empire simply bad? I think not – the western world still uses the Roman legal system; the Romans were in many ways a good influence. Strangely, Wright seems to deny any positive role to the British; I would suggest reading Mangalwadi ,The Grand Experiment 1 as a counter to this, showing both the worst of colonialism in India and the best, which was wonderfully good. I would point to the influence of the Chinese in Tibet: it is a commonplace to condemn the Chinese for repression and cruelty, but missionary type friends of mine, with experience in Tibet, point to the very vile nature of Tibetan culture; it has aspects as nasty as anything you could think of, and the Chinese, no doubt with plenty of repression, are nevertheless opening up what looks like a thoroughly demonized society to the outside world. Wright says this: ‘..the Western powers…charge off round the world planting colonies, ruling the natives and coming home with bulging pockets….’ This is gross caricature; surely there is more to it than this! Wright goes on to suggest that this forms the west in their own thinking into an elite.
“If we are the elite, and if the real God is the super-spiritual one who is interested only in heaven, not in earth – and if, as in the Cold War, this God has raised up the democratic West, particularly the USA, to keep the wicked Soviet atheists (and/or the dangerous Middle Eastern Islamists) at bay, making us the world’s police force – then we have not only the right but the duty to act as masters, not stewards, of creation, making it conform to our plans and serve our divine calling.”
Leaving aside the interesting issue of whether the western world claims divine sanction, I find the suggestion thoroughly exceptionable that the Soviet atheists, who killed millions and persecuted people of faith, were not ‘wicked’, and that ‘Islamists’ are not dangerous. While acknowledging the intent here, I think things are more complex than this, and specifically find it strange that the existence of Satan should not be brought somewhere into this type of discussion, Satan, who deceives nations.
In the third chapter we move onto the question of post-modernity and truth; the chapter is centred around Pilate’s cynical question, “What is truth?” His answer of course is that there is no such thing, and this is the central point of popular culture today; in a more formal way, post-modernity means questioning everything and saying every human activity is vitiated by self. For myself I saw the onset of post-modernity when studying literature in the ‘70s; the new idea accorded no special place to ‘great’ literature; any written text was to be ‘deconstructed’ in terms of its relation to power structures, everything reduced to selfish motive, no superior value to be ascribed to anything at all. This method has some virtue and Wright sees in post-modernity the ‘preaching’ to the modern world of the Fall, everything spoilt by sin. However his next point is that because of its relentlessly critical nature whereby it finally denies any value to any idea, post-modernity has no power to speak truth, and this of course is where the Spirit of Truth must be heard to speak. Wright’s point here, centred on a discussion of Jn 16 8-15, is, with regard to sin, righteousness and judgment that,
“..the [S]pirit will not merely show that the world has has held incorrect opinions on these subjects ; rather, the [S]pirit will demonstrate, as in a law court, that the world is in the wrong, culpable…”
This, I think, is a most valuable point, with which, as we consider the role of the Church in the world, one could hardly concur more. It is not a statement that I have seen in this form elsewhere and is of great value, quoting Wright’s ‘Conclusion’, to ‘those who want to take the Christian gospel seriously and navigate their way through the cultural and social minefield [he has] been describing’.
- Manglawadi seeks to demonstrate how, firstly, the entrance of the British into India was simply rapacious, but that fairly soon the presence of active Christians (notably William Carey) in the East India Company and the British Government led to an endeavour to responsibly raise the Indian people up to a place of full liberty and independence. The endeavour, in Mangalwadi’s view, was initially very successful and led to the considerable betterment of the nation, before later being derailed. ↩