Book Review — Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues by N.T. Wright
N.T. Wright is the world’s foremost theologian and historian on the New Testament, and has done a tremendous job over the past couple of decades in grounding scripture into its historical context. His ideas and studies have had a huge impact; it’s very difficult to pick up a Christian non-fiction book today that doesn’t cite or reference to him in some way and for some reason (including my own work).
Within this book, Wright is once again on top form. Bringing his sharp thinking to contemporary issues and how scripture addresses these. The book begins by addressing the false dichotomy of Science or Religion, emphasising the Epicurean mind-set that pervades today within religious and secular circles (a theme which is an undercurrent under most of the chapters in this book), and then moves onto asking whether Adam needs to be seen as a historical figure and exploring our understanding of Genesis. Over the course of the book issues such as Women in ministry, the nature of evil, Church and Culture/Politics and Eschatology are all discussed. Through each of these topics Wright provides a thoughtful and considered biblical exegesis of scripture, which avoids the errors of fundamentalist (a black and white reading of the text that ignores scripture’s own context and simultaneously ignores the discoveries of other methods of investigation, such as Science and History) and libertarian approaches.
Even though some of these questions are asked by those outside of the Christian faith, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to them — although, I’m certain it would be helpful to those who are thoughtfully asking those questions. The book’s main audience is the Church itself, as it seeks to help steer those who already read scripture to a more “biblical” and considered understanding of what the Bible is/isn’t saying on these topics. For example, Wright’s view on Genesis (which is the same as that of John Walton’s) will certainly pose a challenge to those who hold to a literal reading of the text and who refuse to embrace the insights that have been brought to light by scientific cosmology, physics and biological evolution, as well as lexical studies of ancient literature. The same could also be said of his Eschatology (a study of end-times); which thankfully moves away from a dispensationalist approach of a “magic bus” version of Jesus that saves all on-board from an evil material existence which an angry God is set on destroying, towards a God of love who is reclaiming his good material creation and who has acted within history to place His creation project back on track. Both of these approaches are ones that I personally welcome and agree with as they make a better sense of the larger meta-narrative of the Bible.
If you’re someone who is new to the writings of Tom Wright, than this book is a great starting point that will whet your appetite. However, be aware that most of the chapters in this book have been adapted from speeches given by the author, as noted in the book’s introduction: because of this, there will be many positions posited by Wright that will leave new readers thinking, “How do you come to that conclusion?” This, in my opinion, is not a bad thing, as most of the hermeneutical work behind N.T. Wright’s perspective has been developed more fully in his other works — such as his acclaimed “Christian Origins and the Question of God” volumes — and the absence of this only helps to keep this book to a slimmer size, making it accessible to a more casual reader. Some brief light is shed within this book on these areas, but it’s to these other works that the reader will need to go. And I’d certainly encourage those whose curiosity has been peaked to do so.
Personally, after reading some of those other scholarly works, I’ve greatly appreciated “Surprised by Scripture”; as it takes some of that previously worked out theology and begins to wrestle with how that plays out in practise.
Overall, this is a yet another great book from great scholar, and I highly recommend it to you. As per his other works, N.T. Wright has continued to save Jesus and Scripture from a “Westernised and Enlightenment-reactionary Christianity”. Bravo.
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