Tag Archives: HGSCF

Book 4 – Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

The book we read this week may be called Simply Christian but if you read it with me you’ll probably agree that it isn’t simple. Amazing, Yes! Simple, No.

There is a reason that N.T. Wright is called the C.S. Lewis for the post-modern generation. He has written more books (lots of BIG THICK books) and papers about Jesus than I could read in a dozen summers and is engaged in the conversation about what it all means with both skeptics and believers from all around the world.

I first met him when he was the biblical scholar and teacher at our InterVarsity national conference for graduate students and faculty in 1998. Since then he’s been with us at Harvard on many occasions – most recently as a speaker for a series in 2008 we called Reconstructing Hope (scroll down on the website, the recordings of those lectures and the question & answer time are worth a listen.)

When he was a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School a few years ago I had occasion to sit in from time to time on his lectures about Jesus and the Gospels. After each class I felt like we should end the class on our knees in prayer or communion or something – so profound were the ideas, drama, and Christ of the gospel we were being led to encounter. It was just overwhelming.

So, I’m a fan and think that his books and ideas are worth whatever work it takes. I’m not the only one. Each of the books we’re read this summer have more than traces of Wright’s ideas. Of course, you could say they are all reading the same Bible but I know that Carl, James and Brian are all fans too. Not primarily fans of N.T. Wright but rather of the One whose kingdom he is inviting us to embrace.

THINGS I LIKED

1. Putting the World to Rights. It isn’t the way I talk but I love the phrase and the idea. Something is wrong and God intends to set it right.

2. While it is not conclusive, the discussion in the fist part about Echos is helpful. He says that our longings for Justice, Spirituality, Relationship, and Beauty all point to something – to someone – who is both the source and fulfillment of all of these. I totally see it and feel it – these impulses seem to come from God. It is interesting, though – only a few of the scholars from China who have been reading this text with me this summer were persuaded. In the last pages in the book he lines out how these echos are renewed and consummated – it is beautiful.

3. God’s sphere and ours overlap, intersect and coincide in different ways at different times. In this regard he references Torah and Temple (p. 132) but also the community of Jesus followers as they gather in witness (p. 134-5), worship (p. 144), prayer (pp. 161-5), and Bible study (p. 187).

4. God’s future leaks back into the present in the lives of those who embrace his coming kingdom – It is happening here and now!

5. I loved his discussion of worship and how it both retells the story of God’s might acts in Scripture and anticipates the kingdom.

6. Chapters 9 (God’s Breath of Life) and 10 (Living by the Spirit) are about the Holy Spirit. Both are beautiful.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. The thing I found most challenging about the whole book is knowing how to use it. Like I said above, it may be called Simply Christian, but it is far from simple. Virtually every page is loaded with references to other texts or theological ideas that are difficult for people who don’t read this stuff.  I suppose that is just the way it goes, but very few of my skeptical friends would be able to pick up this text and decode it on their own.

2. Chapter 5 (God) was difficult – especially the philosophical section that distinguished pantheism & dualism from his “overlapping and interlocking” description of heaven and earth.  The section on The Name of God seemed confusing to the Chinese scholars in the Bible and Tea Group.

3. In chapter 7 Tom briefly takes on questions related to the trustworthiness of the text – the Gospels in particular. Of course he says that these few pages can’t truly assess “their historical worth,” (p. 99). This disclaimer helped a bit but was undone by his poetic line at the end of the paragraph:

The Jesus who emerges is thoroughly believable as a figure of history, even though the more we look at him, the more we feel once more that we may be staring into the sun.

4. In chapter 8 (Jesus: Rescue and Renewal) Tom draws us into the mystery of Jesus’ own vocation, suffering and self-understanding. Once again, these are big important questions but I worry that his comments only serve to raise more issues than he resolves.

At the end I’ve gotta say that I think this book is a gift. I’m sure I’ll keep coming back and rereading sections in the future. Who knows, someday maybe I’ll tackle his multi-volume Christian Origins and the Question of God. In the meantime, I want to conclude this short reflection by quoting Wright’s soaring answer to the question, “So what is Christianity about, then?” It seems to me almost impossibly beautiful…

Christianity is all about the belief that the living God, in fulfillment of his promises and as the climax of the story of Israel, has accomplished all this—the finding, the saving, the giving of new life—in Jesus. He has done it. With Jesus, God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once and for all. A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut. It’s the door to the prison where we’ve been kept chained up. We are offered freedom: freedom to experience God’s rescue of ourselves, to go through the open door and explore the new world to which we now have access. In particular, we are all invited—summoned, actually—to discover, through following Jesus, that this new world is indeed a place of justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty, and that we are not only to enjoy it as such but to work at bringing it to birth on earth as in heaven. In listening to Jesus, we discover whose voice it is that has echoed around the hearts and minds of the human race all along.


Book 1 – Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism

Carl Medearis is a guy who can frustrate – even make you angry – the first time you meet him. He did that to me when he came to stay in our home and join us for some conversations a few years ago in Cambridge.

It always seemed to me and some of my friends that he was being a little cagy. He wouldn’t answer questions. Kept saying that he didn’t know – even if we asked him basic questions from theology 101. It was annoying – especially in the shadow of the Philosophy Department and Harvard Divinity School.

But Carl’s annoying, cagy way stuck, and what happened in our InterVarsity staff team and the lives of a bunch of grad students was profound. So I’m glad he finally wrote it down.

In truth, Carl isn’t really cagy – he is being completely direct and clear. And the one thing he wants to be most clear about is Jesus. Period. Jesus is all he wants to know and all he wants to talk about. Many of the things that people like Christians and missionaries (both banned words by the way) want to talk about are a distraction and a barrier to…  well…  loving God and loving others.

THINGS I LIKED (and this will be my format for future comments during this reading project):

1. Carl quotes Paul (p. 30) from 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 and this is the text that guides his witness.  Actually, Carl would say that Jesus guides it – this merely explains how. He knows nothing but Jesus and him crucified. The rest sort of follows and he invites the rest of us to join him in doing the same…

2. Knowing nothing but Jesus means his followers don’t need to defend Christendom, its history or its reasons. If it is really all about Jesus, then taking on and defending the religious history of the West (p. 48-55) doesn’t help. Carl tells us not to do it.

3. The tendency to draw a circle that defines insiders & outsiders and to try to persuade people to come inside by thinking the way I do isn’t helpful and it isn’t the way Jesus rolled. Carl opts instead (p. 90) for the invitation Jesus made to his disciples in John 6:60-64 to have him inside us – not everybody liked that idea, even in Jesus’ day!

4. I really like Carl’s stories – if you want to hear more, click on our HGSCF website and scroll down to the talk he gave in the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard in 2005. Imagine forming a discussion group on the Gospels (p. 92) and naming it “What the Hell?” I laughed out loud. On the other hand, his story about following Jesus (Isa) to Basra (p. 132 ff.) left me shaken at the hardness of my own heart.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. Given his simple focus on knowing nothing but Jesus and speaking only of him I was left wondering how then to make sense of the whole Biblical narrative. Of course, if I ask Carl he might just say, “Gee, I don’t know. But, speaking of Jesus…”

2. Carl’s context in Colorado Springs differs significantly from Cambridge. I understand his interest in drinking coffee and working at Poor Richard’s Bookstore downtown. I tend to agree that this is where Jesus would be hanging out and drinking his double espresso. The question I have is, where is he hanging out here in Cambridge where we all swim in a strange brew that mixes power with fear, academic achievement with posturing and does it all in a manner that my friend Dave Schmelzer calls Grim Drivenness? It isn’t a new question or an academic one for many of us. Where is he and what would it mean to know nothing but Jesus here. Does the way of Jesus look different in Harvard Yard?


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