Book Review: “The Day the Revolution Began” by N.T. Wright (Lent Series: Part 3/3)

The day the revolution

Over Lent this year I decided to read three books as a part of my Lenten experience. I divided the books into daily readings so that each day I would get to read a portion from each book and still have them all read by Easter Sunday. The three books I chose to read were: Show Me The Way by Henri Nouwen, 24 Hours That Changed the World by Adam Hamilton, and The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright.

Part 3 of 3

If you are unfamiliar with who N.T. Wright is…Merry Christmas! This blog post is my gift to you. I was introduced to N.T. Wright’s work a few years ago through his book Simply Christian and have since gone on to buy quite a few of his books.

N.T. Wright has a very storied career. He was the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, Bishop of Durham, and is now the chair of New Testament & Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is considered to be one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and has written over 70 books and commentaries.

Early on in the book, in a chapter called The Cross in Its First Century Setting, Wright unpacks the presence, role, and the practice of crucifixion in the years before, during, and after the life of Jesus. This chapter deeply affected me and was incredibly eye opening. I had never considered what Jesus would have seen, and known, and grown up in as He approached the cross Himself. This look at first century crucifixion will profoundly impact how I read the New Testament and especially the account of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, with respect to the mental and emotional state He would have been in.

One of the main highlights of the book is Wright’s commentary on atonement theories. He argues with ample scriptural support that salvation is far more than “getting into heaven” and that unfortunately much of the Church today doesn’t go beyond this in it’s preaching and practice. Wright argues that to make salvation purely about going to heaven is to build a theology on portions of the Gospel and not the entire Gospel narrative. Essentially it is an incomplete, cheaper, and even a selfish view of salvation.

Almost nobody talks about “going to heaven.” When Jesus talks about the “kingdom of heaven,” he doesn’t mean a place called “heaven,” but the rule of “heaven,” that is, God’s reign, coming to birth on earth. (p. 196)

Jesus’s death is seen, right across the New Testament, not as rescuing people from the world so that they can avoid “hell” and go to “heaven,” but as a powerful revolution – that is, a revolution full of a new sort of power – within the world itself. (p. 220)

…salvation in the New Testament is not seen as an escape from the world of space, time, and matter, but rather as its redemption. (p. 348)

Sin matters, and forgiveness of sins matters, but they matter because sin, flowing from idolatry, corrupts, distorts, and disables the image-bearing vocation, which is much more than simply “getting ready for heaven.” (p. 363)

Wright points out that the Church can make the grave mistake of building it’s beliefs on cultural or inherited theology and not necessarily on scripture itself. So although some theological positions may be supported by the Church and may even be considered “traditional theology”, they may not actually fall in line with the Biblical narrative.

The historical questions and answers are the place to go if we want to find the theological answer. If we cannot see it there, that might be an indication that we are trying to answer the wrong question. If the gospels do not seem to be “saying the right stuff,” maybe it is our idea of the “right stuff” that needs adjusting. (p. 199)

This book challenged me deeply on how I understand what Jesus accomplished in and through the cross and His resurrection. I don’t mean to say that it fundamentally changed what I believe about the cross, but it certainly broadened what I believe and how I understand it. Wright does an excellent job in presenting what I would consider to be a holistic and Biblically faithful understanding of the purpose and work of salvation.

The cross stands at the center of the story of Jesus, Israel, the human race, the creator God, and his world. This is where the biblical narrative finds its heart. (p. 255)

Of the three books I read over Lent, this was the thickest book of the three, both physically and in theological depth. Wright himself would consider this a less academic “popular” offering, but I found this book to be quite dense at times. There are a few chapters that were slow moving for me, but they all still contained incredible insight.

The Day the Revolution Began is a truly exciting book. It is a reminder of who we were created to be, a reminder of the passion and commitment of God towards us, and a call to live fully in our vocation as image bearers of God, engaged as active participants in the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

Like I do with all of his books, I highly recommend you check this one out. It is not a casual breezy read, it will be a commitment, it will challenge you intellectually and theologically, but it will be completely worth it.

nt wright

Book Review: “24 Hours That Changed the World” by Adam Hamilton (Lent Series: Part 2/3)

24 Hours

Over Lent this year I decided to read three books as a part of my Lenten experience. I divided the books into daily readings so that each day I would get to read a portion from each book and still have them all read by Easter Sunday. The three books I chose to read were: Show Me The Way by Henri Nouwen, 24 Hours That Changed the World by Adam Hamilton, and The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright.

Part 2 of 3

24 Hours That Changed the World (2009) is written by Adam Hamilton, who is the senior pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas and the author of 23 books.

This book is theologically rich, is packed with revealing historical information, and yet it is completely accessible for anyone to read. Throughout the book Hamilton discuses in great detail: the last supper, the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ trial, His torture and humiliation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, including touching on various atonement theories.

One of the more disheartening things I read about was what the culture around Jesus was like when it came to issues of power and fear, and realizing how much of humanity today still seems to be stuck in the same place.

Fear performs its poisonous work within all of us. How often are we still motivated by it? In what ways does our fear lead us, individually and as a nation, to do what is wrong – what is at times unthinkable – while justifying our actions as necessary. (p. 50)

We must each be aware of the power of fear, and we must not forget the lessons of history. All of us, if we let our call to love be overshadowed by our innate fear, are capable of supporting and doing the unthinkable. (p. 50)

The question we must ask in our personal lives and in public policy as Christians is not “What is the thing that will make me feel most secure?” but “What is the most loving thing for me to do?” (p. 51)

Hamilton’s writing on the moment where the crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus was also an incredibly difficult thing to think about because I’m not confident our modern Western culture (including much of the Church) would make a different decision. Even with the advantage we have today over those in the crowd on that day, of having a Bible and knowing how the message, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus would impact the world for the last 2000 years, I am not confident the undying devotion to Jesus we sing about on weekends in our churches would be reflected in how we would choose our leader.

If you picture yourself as part of that crowd, which one do you pick? One is going to lead by force; throw out the Romans; reclaim your tax money, wealth, and prosperity; and restore the strength of the Jewish kingdom. The other’s leadership involves loving these same oppressors, serving them as they dwell among you, doubling the service they demand of you. Whom do you wish to see freed? Whom do you wish to see destroyed? When we see the choice in that way, it is not so difficult to understand the crowd’s choice of Barabbas over Jesus. They chose the path of physical strength, military might, and lower taxes over the path of peace through sacrificial love. (p. 73)

How far could such an approach be taken today? Is it possible to live as Jesus of Nazareth urged in our own world? Could a nation or government even survive that way? I do know that Jesus asks us to choose his way over the way of Barabbas; but I also know that while many admire Jesus of Nazareth, they feel safer, and prefer, Jesus Barabbas. (p. 74)

Please don’t read the above comments and quotes as a cheap instigation towards an argument between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. Jesus and the cross happened long before our political parties were established. Forget what your favorite political party champions, if you identify as a follower of Jesus, what does He call us to? What did He model with His words, life, and death? Was Jesus too much of an idealist? Was He being serious that it would cost us everything to follow Him? These are really difficult questions to answer in our increasingly complex world, yet for those who would call themselves disciples of Jesus, they are questions we must humbly and lovingly wrestle with in the context of true community.

24 Hours That Changed the World is a perfect blend of ancient cultural information, theological insight, and a call to action to live today in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. If you are looking for an outstanding book on the final hours of Jesus life, the meaning of the cross, and what it is to follow the resurrected Jesus, this is it. I highly recommend this book.

adam hamilton

Book Review: “What is the Bible?” by Rob Bell

what is the bible

I feel like any time someone mentions the name “Rob Bell” in Christian circles post Love Wins, someone should yell out: “LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!!!” So whether you love him or hate him, he’s back with a new book called What Is The Bible? and I’m sure it will get us talking.

If you are unfamiliar with who Rob Bell is, he founded and pastored Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids MI for about a dozen years, he’s written eight other books including: Velvet Elvis, the New York Times Best Selling Love Wins, and What We Talk About When We Talk About God. He hosts his own podcast called the RobCast, he’s done some events with Oprah, and in 2011 he was listed in Time Magazines 100 Most Influential People in the World.

In his newest work Bell sets out to answer the question presented in the books title: What is the Bible? This book is written for people who have never read the Bible before, people who love it, people who are suspect of it, people who are bored by it, people who are confused by it, people who are afraid of it, both believers and unbelievers.

Bell writes this book like someone who has visited the most amazing and mind-blowing place in the world (the Bible) and desperately wants everyone else to come and experience it too.

The book begins with Bell unpacking numerous sections of scripture, giving examples of how rich and complex and layered these passages are when you begin to dig into the cultural contexts and start unpacking the original languages it was written in. Throughout the book we are reminded that the Bible was written by “real people, in real places, in real times”, and when we read the Bible with this in mind it will change how we understand and experience it.

When people say the Bible is boring, they’re saying that because they haven’t actually read it. Because if you actually read it, and enter into the stories, and the depth and background and context and innuendo and hyperbole, the one thing you will not be is bored. (p. 141)

In my opinion, this reminder (not necessarily all his conclusions) for Christians to dig deeper into the text, has been a strength of Bell’s going all the way back to his first book Velvet Elvis. I personally have been challenged by Bell throughout the years to dig deep when studying scripture and it has most certainly had positive impact on my relationship with the Bible.

Another thing I appreciate about this book, is Bell’s unbridled passion and excitement for the Bible. If I had never read the Bible before, the first thing I would have done after reading this book, would be to go and buy a Bible.

When you read the Bible in its context, you learn that it’s a library of radically progressive books, calling humanity forward into a better future. (p. 114)

Bell’s consistent affirmation throughout the book of the relevance of scripture for today is also a very encouraging note, and one that I strongly agree with. That said, I find it somewhat inconsistent with at least one comment I’ve heard Bell say on the Bible. In an interview with Oprah a few years ago on the subject of sexuality, and the varying moral positions between much of the church and culture, Bell said: “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense…” In my opinion, whether he intended it or not (probably didn’t), his statement regarding scripture comes off as a low view of the Bible, and not very affirming towards the relevance of scripture if it holds a position contrary to our own or that of our culture (regardless of the issue being discussed). While I completely agree that we need to unpack scripture in it’s original context to properly understand it, and we have to exegete it for our current cultural context, my comfort level or level of agreement with something in scripture doesn’t make it any more or less true or relevant. So on this point of scriptural relevance, I probably agree-ish with Bell.

Another line from the book that MIGHT BE of concern for me, is when he speaks of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The line begins saying: “The next time you hear someone insisting that it was an actual, literal resurrection…” Now, in no other book (including this one) or interview, have I ever heard Bell say that he denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but this line feels like he is distancing himself from those who do hold that belief. If that is the case, I have significant concerns with that position, but if I have read too much into that line, I apologize, and there is nothing to see here.

What about the big questions concerning the Bible? Is it the word of God? Is it authoritative? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired? Where does Bell land on the big ones? Well, he actually dedicates almost 90 pages to answering those and other questions.

The Torah started the discussion. For many in our world, the Bible ends the discussion. Someone stands up and reads from the Bible and then tells the gathered masses what it means and what is right and how it should be interpreted and then the service is over and everybody leaves. But in the first-century world of Jesus, the Torah and the prophets and the wisdom writings were the start of the discussion. You read it, together. And then you interpreted it. You engaged with it. (p. 153-154)

Some people will sound the alarm that this book should not be read by anyone (especially new Christians) because they may begin to interpret the Bible solely through the opinions of Rob Bell, and that’s dangerous. Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Though it would also be dangerous for us to have John Piper, or Tim Keller, or C.S. Lewis, or N.T. Wright, or your pastor, or ______________ (insert your favorite theologian here) be the sole expositor of scripture in our lives. There is nothing wrong with reading other theologians and their interpretations of scripture, in fact reading a diverse mix of voices is an important and healthy thing, but the best thing, is that we are personally reading and praying and wrestling through the scriptures ourselves and we are doing so in the context of community.

There are definitely some conclusions Bell comes to that I would need to do some further study and research on before I could stand by them (or not), there are some conclusions that I find to be a bit of a stretch, and there are other conclusions I completely agree with. If you are curious as to who Bell’s theological influences are, he gives a pretty hefty list of books that have helped shape his theology including authors like: Thomas Cahill, Bruce Feiler, Peter Enns, Dallas Willard, and N.T. Wright to name a few.

What Is The Bible? in my opinion will be no where near as controversial as Love Wins, but similarly to that book I think it will be successful in bringing people into a conversation, in this case about the nature and purpose of the Bible, and that’s a great thing. So yeah, you should check out Bell’s newest book. Read it, question it, affirm it, disagree with it, but more importantly, and Bell would agree, just go grab a Bible and start reading that.

Bell 2017