Thursday, August 04, 2011

War and Peace & N.T. Wright, Part 1

It’s difficult to write about the books you’re reading while you’re in the middle of them. I suppose I could try to write about something else, but I am not fully engaged in anything else. I am almost halfway through the monster known as War and Peace. It’s taken a month to get that far, which is quite a feat of patience for me. But, we’re starting to gain momentum now. I have reached the reading stage which is one of my favorite things in life, namely, when I sit down, grab that fat book with two hands (too big for one), let it fall heavily open on my lap and eagerly enter the world fully as a participant because I’ve thoroughly taken the time to get to know the characters and their world. These gigantic novels take patience, but “you reap what you sow” and l’m pretty excited to reap War and Peace.

Besides the fact that War and Peace is quite lengthy, I’ve also been proceeding slowly because I was finishing N.T. Wright’s Justification and subsequently starting his book, After You Believe. Of course, Justification was brilliant, but I will probably address that book in a subsequent “N.T. Wright is Splendid” post. Right now, I would like to recommend to you After You Believe.

 After You Believe is a sequel of sorts to Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, addressing the issue of Christian character. Wright couches his teaching within the tradition of virtue, demonstrating how Jesus and the NT writers expanded and surpassed the wisdom beginning with Aristotle. Virtue, simply put, is “what happens when wise and courageous choices have become ‘second nature’ ” (21). Within the framework of ancient wisdom, the four main virtues were “courage, restraint, cool judgment, and determination to do the right things for others” (21). Christianity summed up and surpassed these by the overlaying triad of “faith, hope, and love,” which synthesizes what it means to look more and more like Jesus, which, by default, means becoming more and more human.

All of this is framed within an eschatological framework. Eschatology is the “study of last things,” but don’t immediately think about the Left Behind series (which, if you own it, should be buried in a place where no-one can ever find it, ever. I would say ‘burn it,’ but burning books—even such a wretched series—is pretty horrible and I start getting images of Fahrenheit 451). You see, the early Jewish followers of Jesus interpreted the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through their contemporary theological framework. Within that framework, when the Messiah came to fulfill God’s promises to restore the world to Himself, he would bring in the “last days” (i.e. when God would make all things right). Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus brought that future restoration into the present. God turned death on its head in Jesus, giving a foretaste of when He would finally conquer Death once and for all. But, the early Jesus followers also recognized that this restoration is not yet complete. We live in what can seem to be a Jackson Pollock world with some beautiful color spatters mixed up with a lot of darkness and confusion. The NT clarion call within that world is to faithfully live in a manner that is decidedly oriented to the future reality of judgment and restoration.

Wright especially brings attention to the promise that those who are faithful to following Jesus will indeed be glorified and will reign with him, accompanying him in bring healing justice to the world. When we hear “reign,” I know it’s easy to cringe because we associate any sort of power with corruption. But, Jesus was exalted to reign over all because of his self-giving love (i.e. Phil. 2). Those who reign with him will also be like him. If I truly believe this will be the future reality, then I will shape my life accordingly.  I will “anticipate” that reality by properly reigning over myself in self-control. And self-control does not only refer saying ‘no’ to sin, although that’s certainly an important part of it. I think it also has something to say to my patterns of indecisiveness and oscillation, which proceed out of fear.

Unfortunately, at points, within a certain view of spirituality, my wishy-washiness would be affirmed as proper waiting upon the Lord for him to move my emotions and give me “peace” about whatever I should do. Within that point of view, one mistrusts using the mind to make a fully-thought-out decision because it could be “worldly wisdom.”  Christians are supposed to step out of the way and let God move them ‘spiritually’ (i.e. emotionally) to do whatever he wants, no matter how absurd it might seem to the rest of the world. The more ludicrous it is, the more obvious it is from God because “I would never have thought of it on my own.” Wright straightforwardly addresses this issue:
 “Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think. I cannot stress too strongly that this is a mistake. The more genuinely spiritual you are, according to Romans 12 and Philippians 1, the more clearly and accurately and carefully you will think, particularly about what the completed goal of your Christian journey will be and hence what steps you should be taking, what habits you should be acquiring, as part of the journey toward that goal, right now."
The whole scope of Scripture tells a story of humans created in God’s image to be strong and free people—not wishy-washy people trying to ‘get out of God’s way’ (how do you do that anyway?) so that he can possess them and make them do whatever he wants. Instead, part of being fully human means making wise decisions out of self-giving love and gladness to be holy. Tragically, the first humans rebelled against that and instead became enslaved to death and sin and life-depleting addictions. Jesus came and was the true human, freely choosing to take upon himself the consequences of all of their sins. In his death, burial, and resurrection, he defeated Death, Sin, and Evil. In following him, humans are freed from their slavery and are given life through the life of Jesus, both in this age and in the age to come. By the indwelling Spirit of God, they are being renewed and restored back to what they are created to be—glad and free people, who love both passionately and intelligently, people who make wise decisions to show God their hope that he indeed is restoring this world through his Son. In sum, God rescued those people from the inhumanity of slavery to sin, self, passions, and evil and is transforming them to be more and more human, to be a “kingdom of priests” who will properly reign over the earth.

If I live with the expectation of being part of that kingdom of priests, then I will reign over myself well.  I won’t be so fearful and timid and indecisive. I will wisely and confidently make decisions that are aligned with the truth that I know. And, I will be disciplined to think about how the patterns of my daily life also reflect that truth.

Well, I think Tolstoy is rubbing off on me because this is getting long. My next post, I hope to integrate more fully this topic of “war and peace” and N.T. Wright. 

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