Monday, March 03, 2008

Studying Jesus with N.T. Wright

"I have argued that the historical quest for Jesus is necessary for the health of the church. I grieve that in the church both in England and in America there seem to be so few - among a church that is otherwise so well-educated in so many spheres, with more educational resources and helps than ever before - who are prepared to give the time and attention to these questions that they deserve. I long for the day when seminarians will again take delight in the detailed and fascinated study of the first century. If that century was not the moment when history reached its greatest climax, the church is simply wasting its time.

"This is not a task simply for a few backroom specialists. If church leaders themselves spent more time studying and teaching Jesus and the Gospels, a good many other things we worry about in day-to-day church life would be seen in their proper light. It has far too often been assumed that church leaders stand above the nitty-gritty of biblical and theological study; they have done all that, we implicitly suppose, before they come to office, and now they simply have to work out the 'implications'. They then find themselves spending countless hours at their desks running the church as a business, raising money or working at dozens of other tasks, rather than poring over their foundation documents and enquiring ever more closely about the Jesus whom they are supposed to be following and teaching others to follow.

"I believe, to the contrary, that each generation has to wrestle afresh with the question of Jesus, not least its biblical roots if it is to be truly the church at all - not that we should engage in abstract dogmatics to the detriment of our engagement with the world, but that we should discover more and more of who Jesus was and is, precisely in order to be equipped to engage with the world that he came to save. And this is a task for the whole church, especially those appointed to leadership and teaching roles within it."
- N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus:
Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (1999)

While recuperating, I've read some things and watched some movies. I enjoyed my annual viewing of the William Wyler / Charlton Heston classic Ben Hur (1959) and I've almost finished N.T. Wright's book The Challenge of Jesus (1999).

Together, these works have challenged me. Ben Hur is, for me, one of the best "Jesus movies", because we magnificently see how Jesus' work...his mercy, his hands, his Cross...intersects and transforms the life of a man in need of redemption.

In his book, Bishop Wright argues that we need to focus more on Jesus...not just in a prayerful, devotional way (though that's crucially important)...but as a subject for serious, ongoing study by church leaders worldwide. We ought to be studying more about Jesus and his times than we do; we ought to spend more time studying Jesus and trying to better understand who he was and is and what his mission is truly all about.

Most church leaders I know would agree with that; certainly, all evangelicals would agree with that, definitionally.

Then why do so many of us (myself included) read book after book about emerging trends, leadership development, worship practice, dogmatic theology, or "how to build your business into something really neat"?

Don't get me wrong: none of that is bad. And we need to read that stuff as well. But how often do we read about Jesus and the first century? How often do we blog about these things? And yet, Bishop Wright is correct: that was "when history reached its greatest climax".

Maybe, if we are to really "believe again", we should delve more deeply into Jesus, into finding out who he was and is. I'm not talking about antiquated pursuits like the so-called "Jesus Seminar", which are fascinating but ultimately fruitless. There is excellent Jesus research out there today, and I, for one, have been lax in my attention to it. I think we've gotten lax, actually, as a Conference - remember when we engaged in Bible study at Conference each year? Whatever happened to that?

At any rate, I'm hoping to read more of this stuff in 2008 and see where the Spirit takes me. I want to find out more and more about Jesus and the world in which he walked. If anyone wants to join me on this "quest", feel free. And if you'd like to suggest any particular books which challenged you in this area, I'd love to hear about them. Maybe a "Jesus Book Club"...


Eric Park said...

"The Quest for Jesus!!"

I'm in!

Do we get to hold up multicolored cards?

And will there be t-shirts?

Your post hits me at an interesting time. I just recently flipped through a chapter or two of a book that meant a great deal to me during my seminary years: "Who Was Jesus?" written by Hendrikus Boers back in 1989. It was one of four books that were absolutely crucial in the formation of my personal understanding of Jesus and his time. The other three were "Jesus of Nazareth" by Guenther Bornkamm; "Jesus and Judaism" by E.P. Sanders; and "From the Maccabees to the Mishnah" by Shaye Cohen.

Were any of these a part of your seminary "diet?"

Greg Cox said...

We are reading, "the Jesus I Never Knew" by Philip Yancey in our Sunday School Class. About 13 years old, but a good read.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Greg - I liked that book, too. Good study.

Eric - I've read Bornkamm and Sanders but don't know Cohen or Boers; I'll add them to my list.