Surprised by Hope

The title of this post could have been used to describe the happenings on a Chicago golf course last night, but it actually refers to the book by former Bishop of Durham, N.T. (Tom) Wright. I apologise in advance to facebook friends and fellow Goodreads members as this is substantially the same review that I posted via Goodreads this morning... But I thought it was worth taking a slightly more leisurely look at some of the issues raised there.
I first read this book about four years ago on the recommendation of Glenn Jordan. It took me about four months to get through it the first time, as it is not an easy read... I actually finished it whilst on exchange in Grand Rapids, so it was a pleasant accident that our exchange partners, Geoff and Pam Hayes were with us yesterday evening for our "Good Book Group" who had chosen this book to read way back in March. So, whilst Europe and America were slugging it out in Medinah, a group of Irish and Americans (including some golf addicts - that is how committed our group is) met in our manse to discuss this book.
It is fair to say that it was not loved universally by all the participants in the group. Some found Tom Wright's approach patronising, arrogant and unnecessarily high-brow, others were not convinced by his evidence for the physical resurrection. His jumping off point, attacking some of the trappings of contemporary Christian funerals, including some well-loved hymns, didn't go down at all well, but even though I think he was pushing some of it to far, I think that the questions he raises are important, especially given that I am a Methodist, and that we traditionally sing our theology... I didn't even blanch when he attacked Charles Wesley. 
Actually I would argue that Wright, like the Wesley's, is too dogmatically wedded to an Anglican perspective on theology and practice, particularly as far as the sacraments of baptism and eucharist are concerned, but he was an Anglican bishop, so I'll forgive him that. 
Despite the criticism, I still hold to my previous assertions that this is one of the best pieces of theological writing I have read, ever, in that it is a thorough-going look at the key doctrine of Christianity, ie. the resurrection. In this it sits roughly half-way between his more scholarly "The Resurrection of the Son of God" and elements of his populist, easy-reading "Simply Christian." Here he deals with major misunderstandings about heaven and eternity, misunderstandings that are not just held in pop-religion, but are also widely promulgated from pulpits, particularly at funerals. This is important not just as an exercise in theological debate about the hereafter but also has major implications for our mission in the here and now. The issue of the resurrection is not just about an empty tomb and the reanimation of a corpse 2000 years ago, but reality of emptying churches and the reanimation of Christianity in the present. Its not about pie in the sky when you die, by and by, but, as he says in his much repeated sound bite "Heaven is important, but it isn't the end of the world." It's not about hope deferred, but finding and offering hope in the present. Or, as Christian Aid assert: "We believe in life before death."

After some in the group saying that this was heavy going, our choice for the next book is the classic "The Cost of Discipleship" by Bonhoeffer... It may be a couple of months before we meet again!


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