Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright's "Story of Israel" (3)

Chapter Five of How God Became King, "The Story of Jesus as the Story of Israel's God," is N. T. Wright's approach to Christology. His basic idea is that the gospels, in different ways, express Jesus' divinity through "the Story of Israel's God." Thus, Mark is about God "becoming king." Matthew and Luke are about God "returning to save his people from exile"--and according to Wright "exile" includes "not least" (one of Wright's very favorite expressions) "the plight of being overrun and ruled by pagan nations." For John, "All the functions of the Temple ... have devolved onto Jesus." As we will see, Wright has some valuable observations to offer, but in the end he doesn't begin to do justice to the radical newness of Jesus, or the complexity of the gospels themselves.

Wright begins by essentially reprising Chapter Four. Adopting a straw man approach, he presents a caricature of what "Christians" believe and then decries it, setting himself up as the voice of reason:

For far too long now Christians have told the story of Jesus as if it hooked up not with the story of Israel, but simply with the story of human sin as in Genesis 3, skipping over the story of Israel altogether. From that point of view, the story of Israel looks like a failed first attempt on God's part to sort out his world. “Here,” he says, “you can be my people. I'll rescue you from slavery and give you my law!” But then the people find they can't keep the law and the story goes from bad to worse. Eventually, God gives up the attempt to make people (specifically, Israel) “better” by having them keep his law and decides on a different strategy, a “Plan B.” This involves sending his son to die and declaring that now the only thing people need to do is to believe in him and his saving death; they won't have to keep that silly law after all. This is a gross caricature of the actual biblical story, but it is certainly not a gross caricature of what many Christians have been taught, either explicitly or by implication. (84-85)

I have no idea who these Christians are who "skip[] over the story of Israel altogether." Truth be told, Wright's version of this caricatured "story of Israel" actually sounds rather like some of Jesus' parables, such as the parable of the vineyard or of the wedding feast. For that matter it also calls to mind Paul's narrative of human history in Romans--including the inability of Israel to keep the Law. But there are three points that get us closer to the main issue.