My Top Ten Books of 2009 (#3)

surprised.jpg #3. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright
#4. Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, by Francis Chan
#5. This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence, by John Piper
#6. The Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones
#7. Words of Life: Scripture As the Living and Active Word of God, by Timothy Ward
#8. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall
#9. Calvin, by Bruce Gordon
#10. Water of the Word: Intercession for Her, by Andrew Case

You get to be in the Top 3 of 2009 if you made me weep.  That’s the standard.

There were only three books that did it, and Wright’s was the most erudite of the three.  Surprised by Hope is Tom Wright’s attempt to set the record straight on what the Christian hope for the future really is.  Under the influence of a lot of bad evangelical pop-theology from the last several decades (and before), most Christians seem to have a view of what is to come that is at best lacking some important elements of the biblical hope, and at worst badly distorts the Bible’s teaching about the end of the age.

Wright asks, “What are we waiting for?  And what are we going to do about it in the meantime?  Those two questions shape this book” (xi).  He expands: “This book address two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly together.  First, what is the ultimate Christian hope?  Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, [and] new possibilities within the world in the present?  And the main answer can be put like this.  As long as we see Christian hope in terms of ‘going to heaven,’ of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated.  …But if the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for ‘new heaven and new earth,’ and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together” (5).

The opening chapters of the book examine and expound carefully and masterfully the Bible’s teaching on resurrection—thoroughly dispelling the common Christian misconception that our ultimate hope is to be disembodied ‘souls’ floating around in a distant cloud world—and on the nature of the new heavens and new earth.  Benefiting richly from this part of the book entailed a disciplined setting-aside of many of my preconceptions about what is to come for believers and letting my ideas be rebuilt from the ground up as my eyes bounced between Wright’s book and my open Bible.

The result is what brought me to tears.  This correction (or, perhaps, “transformation” is the right word) in my thinking about what is to come both incorporated most of the ‘loose ends’ of biblical teaching that I had ignored in my conception of “where it’s all going,” but also opened up new and unspeakably beautiful vistas for me in terms of how I view the world, how I understand what God is doing, and how I understand my role in it.  The biblical vision for the Church is so much larger and more expansive than merely “let’s get people saved so that they can go to heaven.”  This is part of it.  But there is much more, and our grasp of God’s Plan is small until we see the rest.

Part III of the book, “Hope In Practice: Resurrection and the Mission of the Church” was simultaneously the most wonderful and most questionable part of the book.  Wright attempts to lay out several ways that a more fully biblical understanding of what is to come should shape the way we follow the risen Christ and “do church” now.  Many of them are marvelous (e.g. his thoughts on politics, evangelism, and how Easter should ‘look’ in our churches), but some of them are big stretches (e.g. some of the things he says about beauty: “Beauty matters, dare I say, almost as much as spirituality and justice” [222]). It’s also unfortunate that Wright had to make room here (quite unnecessarily) for his very much disputed and, I would argue, unbiblical understanding of the doctrine of justification (cf. 140).

Those caveats bring this book down from #1 or #2, but do not tarnish it nearly enough to oust it from my top 3.  It is an excellent and desperately needed book.  I’ll close with, perhaps, my favorite quote:

“When we reintegrate what should never have been separated—the kingdom-inaugurating public work of Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection—we find that the gospels tell a different story.  It isn’t just a story of some splendid and exciting social work with an unhappy conclusion.  Nor is it just a story of an atoning death with an extended introduction.  It is something much bigger than the sum of those two diminished perspectives.  It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as it is in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’s followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice.  Atonement, redemption, and salvation are what happen on the way because engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they can in turn be rescuers.  To put it another way, if you want to help inaugurate God’s kingdom, you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus’s saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project.  …Heaven’s rule, God’s rule, is thus to be put into practice in the world, resulting in salvation in both the present and the future, a salvation that is both for humans and, through saved humans, for the wider world.  This is the solid basis for the mission of the church” (204-5).

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3 thoughts on “My Top Ten Books of 2009 (#3)”

  1. For close to 2,000 years Christians have been endeavoring to spread the gospel of salvation to whomever will listen. This is wonderful. It affects the lives of many for the next life. In the same time period Christians have tried to do good for those less fortunate throughout the world. This is also wonderful.

    But alas this “doing good” doesn’t change the world we live in. We are able to help individuals, but the fallen state of man surpasses our abilities. Of course Christ can overpower the downward pull of this world. He can do it in a heartbeat. We on the other hand are unable. Put your hope in what He is already doing. He is already performing the miracle of spreading faith around the world.

    God’s plan is going exactly the way He intends it to. We already have our marching orders. Our marching orders are to assist in the spreading of the gospel, which is being done by God. We need not “fix” His already perfect plan.

  2. Lyle,

    You know that I’m always interested in what you have to say, but don’t you think it’s a little presumptuous to continue weighing in on the subject matter that these books cover when you haven’t read the books? I mean, Wright would agree with some of what you’re saying and he would disagree with some of it, but he has very good, sound, biblical reasons for what he says. So… do you see what I’m saying?

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