How God Became King is N. T. Wright’s latest attempt to clear away the modern evangelical misreadings and misunderstandings of “the Gospels” and to let them speak for themselves to have a fresh hearing of their central message.
The book opens with Wright asking a provocative question: in the evangelical world we tend to focus all of our talk about “the Gospel” on the creeds: that is, “why Jesus died” (atonement theology) and what that means for us (justification by faith), two things about which the Gospels themselves (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) with a few exceptions, are largely silent. At the same time our understanding of “the Gospel” remains largely ignorant of the question which seems to dominate the four Gospels themselves: why did Jesus live? Wright says that many evangelical Christians approach the Gospels as “the optional chips and dip before dinner,” awaiting to get to the red meat of Pauline theology that gives us the great creeds of the faith.
In order to uncover the message that the Gospels are seeking to communicate, Wright uses an analogy of a room with four speakers, each playing a different part (a different instrument) in a song. Each of these “speakers” represents a different emphasis of the Gospel story, and it is only when we play them at the proper volume and emphasis will we hear the song as it was intended to be heard.
The first speaker is the “story of Israel.” The Gospels are retelling the story of Israel, God’s people, in light of the events of Jesus’ life. In fact, much of Jesus’ life is a recapitulation of the story of Israel. This is a speaker whose volume is turned too low in the modern church: we have tried to read the story of Jesus as if all it had to say to Jews of Jesus’ day was that they were wrong (p. 83). But Jesus is the climax of the story of Israel, all the way up to his “enthronement” on the cross.
The second speaker is “the story of Jesus as the story of Israel’s God.” This is a speaker, Wright says, that has been turned up so loud that it has distorted the other speakers. In other words, we have read the Gospels as if their main emphasis was to prove that Jesus is God so much so that we have been unable to listen to them telling us which God they are talking about and what exactly he is up to.
The third speaker is “the launching of God’s renewed people,” the reading of the Gospels that assumes that they are just reflections on the early church and not actually entirely historical. This speaker, according to Wright, is not only turned up too far in modern scholarship but isn’t completely true. To adjust this speaker to its proper volume we ought to acknowledge the agenda of the Gospel writers themselves, but also that those emphasis didn’t mean that they were falsifying history but rather telling the story of Jesus deliberately to lay down markers for the life and witness of their own communities. (p. 109)
The last speaker is one that has been turned down way to low: the clash between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar. This is the political edge to the Gospel message, one that was communicated in the Roman empire where Caesar was lord and didn’t take kindly to other “lords” claiming a similar universal sovereignty. In order to adjust this speaker to its proper volume, we need to allow the story of Jesus to be read as political theology (not in a partisan sense, but emphasizing that the core of Jesus’ message was one that sought to subvert the rulers of this world and to establish a new kingdom).
Wright finishes the book with several reflections on the “kingdom and cross,” and how the cross is the interpretive intersection not only for all four of these speakers that redefines the major symbols of Judaism and also defines and guides how we are to live in light of God becoming king on earth as in heaven.
This is an exceptionally fascinating read for people who have been Christians for a long time are familiar enough with the Gospel stories and have listened to enough sermons to sense that something is missing that ties it all together. It offers a framework for reading the Gospels and for understanding the story of Jesus in light of the overall story of Israel and of Israel’s God. It will challenge your understanding of the Gospels and of the central message of the New Testament.
A few minor criticisms … This is the fifth N. T. Wright book I have read this year, and he definitely does a fantastic job of summarizing modern scholarship, as well as identifying provocative questions that keep the reader engaged. I think Wright sometimes repeats himself way too much … his writing would be more powerful if a bit more concise. Further this book is basically a more accesible overview of Part IV of The New Testament and the People of God… I’ve read both now, and at times I felt that this book is presented and marketed as more accessible than it actually is. It is not a light read by any means.
One other thing… I sometimes have a suspicion that Wright is overly obsessed with his thesis and tends to read Israel and the Old Testament into every corner of the Jesus narrative. I sometimes suspect that he doesn’t allow the Gospels to be read as living documents (i.e. they remained trapped in history), and as a result is painfully low on application. After reading How God Became King, I felt like I wanted more reflection from Wright on how we are to apply all this, and why it matters…why its not just information we learn to impress our friends. But, that’s how scholars are, I suppose.
Fantastic read. Highly recommended.