Archive for May, 2009

Review of Christopher Wright’s new book on tough questions

May 21, 2009

Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflection on Tough Questions of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 224 pp.

This book is a very personal account by an Old Testament scholar struggling with some problems raised by reading the scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, in our modern culture. He realizes that these questions can easily become a genuine stumbling block for many and that even believers need to face them rather than suppress them, hoping they will go away. One of the real strengths of this book is that the author does not set himself up as an objective authority, but views himself as a pilgrim who struggles with these problems just as much as anyone else. When a book like this is written, sometimes one is left wondering whether it is too much of a concession to contemporary culture, but as Wright reminds the reader, these problems—the mystery of evil and suffering—did not arise with contemporary culture: they arose in the biblical period itself. From Abraham on there are many precedents for questioning God and his ways in the world. You will not learn how to lament in the contemporary western church with its therapeutic mindset and saccharine spirituality, but you will learn it in the Psalter where it is a dominant key. From the outset of this book, Wright puts believers at ease with their doubts and welcomes the questions of unbelievers—they are all in good biblical company! Wright himself uses a psalm which voices a radical doubt in God’s goodness to provide the lens through which he will consider his topic. Psalm 73 presents a deep-seated doubt of a believer that arose because of the injustices of life. This doubt was virtually impossible to dislodge and almost “carried the day” in the believer’s mind until there was a profound experience of transcendence in communal worship. The resulting new vision of life was won at a high cost, but for Wright the fact that the old ingrained doubts were not erased from the psalm is important. It gives them a legitimate voice which needs to be heard, even if now seen within a more comprehensive theological vision. Wright then begins to consider in order the following subjects: the mystery of suffering and evil, the conquest of the Canaanites, the cross, and the end of the world.

Wright begins by dealing with the problem of evil and suffering. An important point is made immediately, namely that this is only a problem if one has a theological vision which holds together simultaneously the goodness and godhood (omnipotence and sovereignty) of God. For polytheism evil is just a part of the fabric of reality, located in some of the gods as well as in the world. For the various forms of eastern monism, ultimate reality is beyond good and evil and the distinction is only apparent. For modern naturalism, reality is just the sum of materialistic forces. Can one really speak of evil or even good in the absence of any objective frame of reference? However, Wright points out that the Christian faith (and I would add, Judaism) believes in both the omnipotence and goodness of God and thus has a genuine problem in the face of evil and suffering.

The author then considers three aspects of the problem of evil: mystery, offence and defeat. He points out that the Bible never speculates about the origin of evil; it describes its entrance into the world. This fact of evil is largely attributed to the fall of the human race and the consequence disaster for the planet. Wright proceeds to make connections between the serpent in the Garden, Satan and the angels, but does so cautiously and states that his conclusions are still shrouded in mystery. His main point is that evil defies rationality: it is not to be understood but to be resisted and ultimately expelled. Wright further argues that the Bible gives the resources for human beings to lament, grieve and protest the horrific offence of evil. Finally the Bible clearly shows that evil will one day be ultimately defeated. The message of the Apocalypse is seen to be supremely relevant here with its final vision of the end.

Wright makes some valuable observations in this section but I thought he might have considered the creation of free agency as a helpful, partial explanation for the mystery of evil. In other words, the freedom for human beings to make their own decisions and to chart their own destiny, whether to embrace God or reject him, could at least partly explain the presence of evil—evil being then defined as the rejection of God. Otherwise God would have created creatures who would be automatons which would be incompatible with genuine love. Genuine free choice at the beginning, then, creates the potential for evil.

The next major topic is the putative genocide of the Canaanites during the conquest. Wright shows that there are three popular ways that Christians try to deal with this problem but they are in fact “dead ends.” First, this is decidedly not an Old Testament problem that the New Testament puts right because there is much about the love of God in the former and plenty of divine wrath in the latter. Secondly, the Israelites were not wrong about God’s command to kill the Canaanites. Rather the conquest is integral to God’s unfolding plan in the Bible. To argue against this would distort fundamentally the meaning of the biblical text. Finally, the conquest is not simply a matter of allegory either. Wright makes the valid point that “it was not allegorical Israelites who attacked or allegorical Canaanites who died.” As for a proposed solution, Wright counters the three dead ends with three roads that can help navigate the way through this problem. First there is the road of historical context which sheds light on aspects of the violence. For example, Israel may well have been using ancient near eastern conventions for the rhetoric of war, which often exaggerated violence and was not to be intended literally. Moreover God may well have accommodated his revelation to the cultural conventions of the time (e.g. herem was practiced by a number of cultures). He certainly did this for practices like divorce, so in theory he could have used violence in war for the same purpose. The conquest is also portrayed within the Bible as a unique and limited event.

The second roadway is that of God’s sovereign justice. It is clear that Canaanite culture was not neutral and innocent but had deteriorated to the point where it was morally depraved and therefore deserved just punishment. In fact the Israelites experienced the same judgement when they sunk to the same level. The third road through this problem is that of God’s ultimate plan to save the world. The temporal and limited action of God to judge the Canaanites takes place within God’s great plan to save the entire world including Canaanites. If the Canaanites bore the violence of judgement for their sin, God himself in Jesus Christ bore the violence of judgement on the cross for the sin of the world.

In these chapters Wright may be accused of “wanting to have it both ways.” For example, if the violent destruction was not as bad as depicted that would seem to diminish the importance of God’s justice in history and on the cross. However, I think Wright is genuinely presenting evidence that he has found in his research as an Old Testament scholar in order to try and bring to bear all possible evidence on this difficult issue. I think that his consideration of the larger biblical theological issue of God’s ultimate desire to bless the nations is absolutely vital to understanding this problem. The Canaanites in the second millennium BCE presented a roadblock to this blessing which had to be dealt with.

The third major theme is that of the Cross and it is considered with three questions: Why, What and How? The question as to the why of the cross is simply found in the Love of God. It is a certain fact of Scripture but totally inexplicable, given the fact that humanity in general, and especially Israel, is so recalcitrant. The question as to what happened at the Cross is found in the word atonement which has so many ramifications: coming home, mercy, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation with God and one another, justification, cleansing and new life. It can all be summed up laconically: “[The cross] was an act of God in which God in Christ put himself in our place in an act of substitution for our benefit…”(p. 125). The question as to how the cross achieved salvation is developed in contrast to modern and postmodern views which do not accept the idea of penal substitution. Wright argues convincingly that only this concept of substitution explains the Cross of Christ. He points out that often contemporary scholarship tries to understand the Cross with other stories while “ignoring the one story in which it is actually set –the biblical story of God’s dealings with Israel and of God’s mission to bring blessing and salvation to the world” (p. 145).

I particularly thought that this chapter was timely, given the recent spate of literature which depicts the substitution concept as divine child abuse: God the Father abusing his son Jesus on the cross. It is certain that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, which shows that the Trinity had a cross purpose but was not at cross purposes! At the same time the biblical evidence is absolutely unequivocal that Christ was a sin-bearer, and became a curse for us, the just suffering in place of the unjust. Contemporary theories often start with different frames of reference than the Bible, and thus it is not unheard of today even to hear about the cross being God’s apology for all the suffering he has caused for the human race. We are told then that we need to forgive God.

The last theme is that of the end of the world. Wright discusses all the many “cranks and controversies” that surround this topic. The sheer speculation spawned by critical events, the concepts in the popular evangelical sub-culture like the millennium, the rapture and the land of Israel, all get sane consideration. There is a noteworthy sobering conclusion to this chapter: “But it is tragic if Christians take their beliefs more from fictional novels and even comics and Hollywood movies than from a careful study of the Bible itself and of the solid tradition of Christian faith through the ages of the church” (p. 170). When pondering the climax of history Wright describes three pivotal events: the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgement. Finally, it is observed that the Bible does not end with an end but with a new beginning: a newly transformed earth with a garden-city at the centre.

This is an important book. Wright writes personally, pastorally and apologetically. He writes with a great knowledge of biblical theology, the biblical text, and also a great deal of life experience. Although this is not a scholarly book, I never had the feeling that the answers proffered are “pat.” At times I felt I was overhearing a sermon or two with the many personal illustrations and the use of many verses of hymns. Subsection titles like “The Lamb with a Plan,” and “A Room with a View” contributed to this impression. Yet there was a refreshing honesty to the book and a pastoral sensitivity, which made for easy reading. I think that a good target for the book would be the believer struggling with these important questions. That means all believers!

I appreciated Wright’s grasp of biblical theology and ancient near eastern history in dealing with many of the issues, particularly that of the Conquest. If one were to judge the rhetoric of the Reformers by modern standards, one would be hard pressed to judge them in a positive light. However when the language is viewed within the context of its time, it becomes more understandable. Similarly, when students of the biblical text have no knowledge of ancient history and culture, they can fail to understand the biblical text. It is so easy to read back into the text contemporary meaning and so completely distort the ancient meaning.

The book shows the power and promise for biblical theology to deal with difficult questions. First of all, as Wright indicates, many of the questions come from the Bible itself. The Bible not only welcomes our questions, it legitimizes them and probably puts them in far rawer form than we would ever dare. I am reminded of Karl Barth’s observation that all modern atheists and agnostics seem like such innocuous, genteel folk beside Job! Secondly, biblical theology frames the book with its focus on Genesis at the beginning and Revelation at the end. Thirdly, biblical theology “centers” the book on the Cross, which is seen as absolutely crucial to not only the whole plan of salvation but also as an answer to the problem of evil. I believe a book like this is far more satisfying than reading a book which deals with these questions at a more abstract and systematic level.

Yet I am left wondering why an important section of the Bible which specifically deals with many of the problems raised in the book has been left out of the discussion. I am thinking of the Wisdom Literature of Job and Ecclesiastes. It seems to me that these books plumb the depths of suffering and mystery. I think they could have shed some light on both. But probably there were practical reasons for this omission.

Finally, a book like this is desperately needed. Many people in the church do not want to face these types of issues. They would rather sing their praise songs, drink their coffee and have their ears tickled. This book meets a massive need. Within the last twenty-four hours, I have met three individuals who demonstrate this fact. First, a mother whose Christian daughter at the age of 21 is suffering with chronic, incurable pain, and for whom this is “a gigantic spiritual challenge.” Secondly, a Christian medical student who had just witnessed an abortion and was deeply troubled about what to do. Thirdly, a person reading Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire, a disturbing account of the Rwandan genocide perpetrated in a largely Christian nation. The God I don’t Understand can help believers face up to reality.

Thank you Christopher Wright for taking some time from your scholarly projects to shed some needed light on these very personal and yet universal questions (Prov. 15:23b).