The thesis is that the gospels are about how god became king, which happened by Jesus living and dying and rising as Israel’s representative and substitute, and then filling his people with the Sprit in order to enable them to be the same sort of ‘suffering-kingdom-bringers’ as he was. If we ask Tom wright what it means for God to be king, it means that there are some people in communities following Jesus who try to bring God’s justice, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, which often may involve suffering in order to bring it about.
The corollary of this, which is never addressed in the book, is that the substantiation of this claim must involve at least some churches, at least some of the time, doing this sort of thing. His example of churches getting it mostly right are the early Methodists during the lifetime of the Wesleys. They had what Wright would consider correct doctrine on the whole; they worshipped and shared the sacraments; they worked to help the poor; and they evangelized, spreading the message of God’s forgiveness for individuals and desire to bring justice to the downtrodden. Thus at least some Christians at least some of the time have indeed lived in a way that follows from the message of Jesus, even if they did not have Tom Wright’s insights to aid them. (The problem of any fall narrative of lost meaning and practice is how to account for the subsistence of said meaning without it being entirely lost or entirely obvious, until some thinker comes along to put it back on the map (Girard, Milbank, Wright)).
At one point Wright asks why else people practice justice unless because of Jesus? But that overlooks all the people who do it without believing in Jesus and therefore elides the crucial question (no pun intended). And the question is this: if God’s reign, and therefore the validation of Jesus as messiah, requires the church living in a certain way, a) has the church does this often enough to substantiate the claim? b) is the church sufficiently different in living in this way from other groups that it does in fact stand out? If so, there is at least a case to argue that the church has some access to and help from God; if not, presumably Wright’s whole argument falls down. (Wright does not take up what this means in relation to Judaism).
Wright bases his case on a historical approach to Jesus and a close textual reading of the gospels and entire Christian Scripture (using the Protestant canon). But it seems to me that either he does not realize or chooses not to address the result of his argument. If the church does not live up to this way of witnessing to God it suggests that either Christianity is false and Jesus was wrong, or that God’s reign is fragmentary, fragile, temporary. The most frustrating aspect of the book is that it never ventures into the territory in which it needs to make it’s case. It simply assumes (or appears to) that if this is the real message of the gospels (and I do find his readings often persuasive – that is not the level of my dispute with him – but nor am I a biblical scholar and I know there are many dissenting from his reading) then that settles the matter. But it does not. It only establishes the idea that if this is the correct reading of the gospels then Christianity should have made a difference to a) how different groups of people live (i.e. the church should produce people who live in the way Wright suggests); and by extension b) that this message embodied in a community would also start to influence other areas of life.
But Wright never addresses these questions. His work can be read as a kind of biblical propaedeutic to Milbank’s argument in Theology and Social Theory, in which Milbank argues exactly that: Christianity is a distinct metaphysical view of the world and produces a distinct community, the church, which is notable above all for its ontology of peace, its love, its lack of exclusion, all of which makes it superior to other groups. Milbank, as is well known, argues that a great deal of modern thought, from the sixteenth century onwards, is simply a traduced version of theology; that earlier, medieval political and philosophical thought was on the whole better because it was not secularized, but that as secularisation begins the church begins to fail to bear its witness and politics and society start to go downhill too. At one point he dates the beginning of this ecclesial decline to the 11th century, but more usually to the ontology of Duns Scotus. Wright is aware of developments in political theology; or at least he makes reference to Schmitt and Nietzsche, and he must know about the existence of Theology and Social Theory, but he does not discuss it. But that is not the point here. What I want to bring out is the way in which these two very different, and perhaps even independent (though surely not entirely) arguments converge, and that both suggest – Wright implicitly, Milbank explicitly – that Christianity, if it is true, should result in a church that is demonstrably better than the society around it, but that this has not always been the case, but that with the insights of these scholars, the church can now get back on track.
So there are two main questions: a) has or does the church ever lived up to this? b) Since it hasn’t always done so, what are we to make of the idea that the true message of Christianity, or just true Christianity and therefore the true church, has either sporadically existed or existed for a eleven centuries and then not for the next ten? (Wright implies that non-Western Christians do much better, and that the Enlightenment is the real problem, but I doubt he would take such a simplistic view if he was pausing to spell it out). Presumably one could just say that the message is there in the texts waiting to be discovered from time to time, even if its fully embodied form is lacking in the church. Between the church’s tradition, creeds, liturgy and the scripture itself, there is enough to piece together the real meaning of God and Jesus even if it is not explicitly known or practiced in the church of the day. That does not seem particularly implausible to me.
So the real crux is the first question, about whether the church is different, whether it does live up to its message. 1) is this message unique to the church? One needs here a decent grasp of comparative religion that I don’t have. 2) is this message a good one? 3) granted the church does sometimes live up to its message, has it done so sufficiently often and well to merit belief in the message of the gospels? If Christianity did invent personal forgiveness, if it did invent the idea of reason all the way down and of peace all the way down (i.e. that all of creation was both rational and peaceful, with no chaotic and irrational residue), if Jesus can be seen as consummating God’s work begun in ancient Israel and thereby starting to deal with evil as a whole (Wright), should we believe this on the basis of the sporadic achievements of the church? From these considerations one must also move on to think about supersessionism, triumphalism, colonialism, etc.
For a popular audience or those unfamiliar with Wright’s work, the book could be very interesting. Its writing is accessible, clear, smooth. But there is nothing substantially new for those familiar with his earlier writings. This is not wrong in itself, but the book makes the claim that the church has forgotten what the gospels are about and now Wright is about to tell us. Those in the latter category expecting some kind of revelation will therefore be disappointed. Those wanting the implications of the claims worked out will have to look elsewhere.