Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Book Reviews: The Challenge of Jesus.

1. Summary of Material

As an overarching and organizing thesis of Dr. N.T. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus, he states “Christian traditions have often radically misunderstood the picture of Jesus in those Gospels, and only by hard historical work can we move toward a fuller comprehension of what the Gospels themselves were trying to say.” (pp. 10-11.) He then extends this thought, as follows: “I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship.” (p. 15.)

Examination of these two concepts together exposes at least a couple of subtheses. First, Dr. Wright believes that the historical Jesus can be known through rigorous application of historical methods; and second, that this understanding can improve one’s relationship with Christ and his mission.

Operating under this rubric, Dr. Wright then breaks his analysis down into chapters dedicated to “The Challenge of Studying Jesus,” “The Challenge of the Kingdom, “The Challenge of the Symbols”, “The Crucified Messiah,” Jesus & God,” “The Challenge of Easter,” and “Walking to Emmaus in a Postmodern World.”

In chapter six’s “The Challenge of Easter”, Dr. Wright built a persuasive case that Easter’s “[r]esurrection meant reembodiment” and more. (p. 135). He supported this thesis with several arguments coming from the Gospel accounts, 1 Corinthians 15, logic and reason. I thought this section generated the most persuasive power and demonstrated the most coherence.

2. Critique of Material.

While I generally agree with Dr. Wright’s thesis that historical (and other academic) methods can be marshaled and applied to gain a more accurate portrayal of Jesus than perhaps is otherwise prominent in the church today (see, e.g. p. 10), this book did not meet his stated thesis. The book was not remotely a historical work, although the author constantly referred to himself as a historian. (See, e.g., pp. 192.) It contained very few footnotes or support for his conclusions. Related to this general criticism, I found The Challenge of Jesus to contain three (3) fundamental flaws.

First, the book was remarkably derivative. Dr. Wright admits up front that the book was compiled as a result of lectures given some years ago. (pp. 9-10.) On top of this fact, the book draws from other of Dr. Wright’s works. (See, e.g., p. 121; 122-23; and p. 90.) Dr. Wright discloses much when he says: “I can do no better than repeat what I have written elsewhere.” (p. 121.) As such, I thought the book was largely superficial, and it read like a transcript of a talk or sermon.

Second, given these foregoing realities, this book was not a particularly scholarly work. That observation in itself does not doom it. However, given the subject matter of the book and the stinging criticism that “[m]any Christians have been, frankly, sloppy in their thinking and talking about Jesus, and hence, sadly, in their praying and in their practice of discipleship” (p. 10), I consequently was hoping for a more scholarly treatment in the pages that followed.
Third, the book repeatedly refused to delve into related or troubling issues or complexities. It simply cast them aside with words to the effect of “That’s beyond our scope.” (See, e.g., p. 147 [“there is no space here” for details].) I found these regular “dear reader” notes to be obstructive and noninstructive. Perhaps a brief summary, or short of that, some sourcing so the reader could actually investigate the issues for himself or herself would have been a better choice. Otherwise, it cements the perception that the book is a mere recapitulation of a series of talks.

Notwithstanding these critiques, the book provided a succinct and salient discussion of postmodernism in chapter seven. Dr. Wright’s summary hits the target: “Where modernity thought it could know things objectively about the world, postmodernity has reminded us that there is no such thing as neutral knowledge. Everybody has a point of view, and that point of view distorts; everybody describes things the way that suits them. There is no such thing as objective truth. Likewise, there are no such things as objective values, only preferences.” (p. 151.)

While Dr. Wright is no postmodernist (see, p. 170) he does seem to sympathize at some level with the critique. For example, he characterizes it as a “necessary judgment on the arrogance of modernity.” (p. 154.) I agreed with Dr. Wright that the postmodernism cannot be ignored. To blithely continue to try to sell modernity to postmodernists is futility. As a result, I particularly resonated with Dr. Wright’s practical suggestions about how Christians can bridge the divide, or at least attempt to. (pp. 185-86.) This was perhaps the book’s best innovation.

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