Reading Project: The Resurrection of the Son of God
If you’re anything like me, you tend to accumulate books far beyond your capacity to read them. In my case, these books tend to migrate from the nice brown Chapters box (always so exciting to see these boxes arrive!) to the coffee table in our living room (where they are daily in plain view, crying out: “read me”) to a pile of books on another table in the living room (a pile in which they steadily descend to the bottom over a period of weeks), to my office where they sit on the side of my desk where my “really should have a look at this” file is located, to the top shelf of my desk (in order to make room for other things I really should have a look at), and finally to my bookshelf, their final resting place, where they sit side by side with any number of other books which have undertaken the same sad journey. It’s kind of pathetic.
One of the books that has made this pilgrimage of neglect is N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. I got this book as a gift from my wife two Christmases ago, right after I had completed a course at Regent called “The Life of Jesus” with Prof. Rikk Watts (brilliant teacher, difficult but rewarding course!). The main text for this course was Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God which (among other things) locates Jesus very much within a first-century Jewish context, as first and foremost the (strange and unexpected) fulfillment of the hope of Israel. It was a really good book—it challenged a lot of my conceptions about who Jesus was, and trained me to always ask how Jesus would have been understood and received in his own context before moving on to how he might address ours.
The Resurrection of the Son of God is part three of what I think Wright intends to be a six volume series on the identity of Jesus and the story of Christian origins, (The New Testament and the People of God is part one; I read parts of this one in Watts’ class as well). It’s an amazingly ambitious project—the first three books are each upwards of 500 pages of densely footnoted, exhaustively researched text.
Anyway, I had every intention of reading this book when I first got it, but thesis work kind of took over and because it wasn’t really related to my topic, it fell by the wayside. After I was done my thesis, it was time to pack up and leave Vancouver—not a great time for heavy reading. And since we’ve been here in Nanaimo? Well, I just flat out haven’t got around to it (I always assumed being a pastor would be the portal into a carefree life of leisurely and uninterrupted reading and contemplation… Alas.).
Well, enough with the excuses! I have decided that now is the time to tackle this book (we’re still close enough to New Years for resolutions, right?). I’ve set Good Friday as the completion target (it is, after all, a book on the resurrection). The math works out like this: 738 pages ÷ 90 days = just over 8 pages/day, or around 60 pages/week. Entirely doable, I think. It is a big book and the subject material is dense, but I expect it will be a rewarding book as well. Wright is one of the more compelling voices out there on questions of the historical Jesus and Christian origins—one well worth reading.
So, if there’s anyone out there who has the book and hasn’t read it (a rather small demographic, I suspect) or would like to re-read it, feel free to join me on this pre-Easter reading project. I intend to blog about it a little as I go, so you can participate in that way too if you’d like. I think that the question of the historicity of the resurrection is among the more important ones out there from a Christian perspective, and a flat-out interesting one from any perspective. I’m looking forward to an intriguing and informative 90 days.
At the seminary I attended, a Presbyterian (PCUSA) seminary, it was rare to find a professor or student who believes that Jesus really rose from the dead. One professor said in a class that he did believe Jesus really rose from the dead, and the students made fun of him for it. They were, of course, less likely to admit at church their own disbelief in the resurrection – their job security depended on pretense. The rationalized that compromise. They said that resurrection did not matter. Some said it is the way Jesus lived that matters and he showed us how to live as God wants to live. Others, those who subscribed to forms of liberation theology, said that nothing the Bible says really matters because God is revealed in the experience of the oppressed, not in the Bible. (Some even said the Bible is itself oppressive.)
I have the impression from the excerpts from his book on the internet that Wright does believe that Jesus did rise from the dead and is alive. I have the impression that his work is something like apologetics, defending the resurrection as one might attempt to defend the existence of God. Is that true? Do you know what he believes?
As for me. I sometimes say that my disbelief is much larger than my faith, but that I just feel fortunate to have any faith at all. I think Christianity depends on the resurrection being real, on Jesus being real and alive now too. I am sometimes impressed with liberal theologies, especially Paul Tillich, but in the end they leave me in despair. At the same time, the question of the reality of the resurrection goes to the core of my disbelief. It is only in those moments when my faith overpowers my disbelief that I feel hopeful.
I share your assessment of what Wright’s up to, Ken. He might never label this work (or the previous volumes) as an “apologetic,” but that’s certainly how it reads. Technically, he’s doing history and biblical studies. This is also how he self-identifies as a scholar. But the more I read of him the more I’m convinced that his biblical studies and his history has an underlying apologetic impetus. He’s very aware of the postmodern context into which he’s writing – a culture that has lost the ability to believe in any one big story, much less one with as many “unbelievable” beliefs as Christianity.
Into this context, he unambiguously argues that Jesus really did rise from the dead and really is alive and really will return. I’ve obviously just begun this book, but based on some of his other work I can say that he really does believe these things. And one of the (main?) reasons believes in doctrines like the resurrection is because it makes the most sense of the historical data.
I very much resonate with your doubt – especially on this issue. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to believe. But one of the things Wright never tires of pointing out is that it wouldn’t have been any easier for people in the first century world to believe it. Nobody was expecting it. It was an awkward fulfillment of Israel’s hope. It very much has the look and feel of a strange and bewildering event that people were simply forced to deal with and to reevaluate their experiences and expectations of God accordingly. The fact that a movement like Christianity arose which defined itself and was emboldened by this core event is hugely significant for Wright.
For me, the resurrection is the point at which the whole show stands or falls. If I didn’t think that Jesus really did rise from the dead, I wouldn’t be a Christian. The social ethic is impressive, and how Jesus lived is certainly worthy of imitation. But a good example of how to live doesn’t address the deepest existential questions we have as human beings. There are lots of good examples of how to live. I certainly feel that Jesus rises to the top of that list, but it’s not like human history is bereft of worthy candidates for emulation. If Jesus hasn’t really conquered death, if he hasn’t really defeated evil, then he is nothing more than an interesting historical figure. I can’t devote my life to an interesting historical figure, and I certainly can’t worship one.
Here I throw my lot in with Paul: If Christ has not been raised our faith really is futile. I suppose there’s a sense of desperation in my belief in the resurrection. I need it to be true. Does that make it nothing more than wish-projection? Maybe. But it’s also possible that the resurrection meets our deepest existential needs because we were created for those needs to be met.
(Sorry for the long response. This is important stuff for me, so it’s easy for me to get going…)
I appreciate every word of your “long response.” This is “important stuff” for us all. The idea you suggested at the end, that “the resurrection meets our deepest existential needs because we were created for those needs to be met,” seems to make sense of life, more sense than the “wish projection” theory offered by psychology, and more than the chance and necessity theory offered by science.
Thanks Ken. Much appreciated.
Is that a dare? The book has taken a similar path our household, so perhaps a joint reading venture would be the motivation I need to take it off the shelf! No guarantees yet, but I will think about it :).
Sure, let’s say it’s a dare. Let’s shake the rust off together!
You lucky ducks. If I was done my stinkin’ thesis, I’d join you.
Once more, I’m “Left Behind”…
Ah, but if dig back into your NT notes, J, you’ll remember that you actually want to be “Left Behind”… So really, you’re the lucky duck!