Book Review: The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright

The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion

Book Review by Calum Samuelson

Since its publication in 2016, this book by N.T. Wright has had ample opportunity to both encourage and frustrate many Christians. Both reactions are understandable and justified. Many excellent reviews have already addressed important factors in this work such as Wright’s exegesis, caricatures and (updated) eschatology. Consequently, this review will focus on two positive elements which seem particularly relevant for supporters of the Jubilee Centre and Relational Thinking. Before that, however, a few general criticisms are necessary.

First, this book suffers from verbiage, repetitive arguments and distracting parenthetical remarks, which make it longer and more complicated than it needs to be. More significant in the mind of this reviewer, however, is a poor alignment of content with the purported popular audience. As others have noted, this book would probably not be a good introduction to the topics it discusses because of the way it so strongly reacts against specific and stereotyped characteristics of Protestantism. Still, there is legitimate reason to be concerned that it may become a de facto introduction for many young people with high regard for the author. Despite these limitations, two commendable features merit consideration here.

The first is the way in which Wright emphasises the vital nature of narrative in the Bible, which resonates with the way Jonathan Burnside maintains the importance of narrative in understanding biblical law. In Wright’s mind, the main problem of the Protestant Church today is not so much an incorrect grasp of theology as a shallow, myopic one. In typical Wrightian fashion, he insists that we must draw on the long, rich history of Israel—involving vocation, covenant, exile and messianic expectations—to truly make sense of what Jesus did on the Cross. For those of us accustomed to concise doctrinal statements, Wright’s approach can initially feel somewhat overwhelming, but in the long run it equips us better to situate the vast riches of Scripture.

Perhaps the most important benefit of this approach is the way it enables us to sidestep false dichotomies by holding in tension various shades of meaning within the grand portrait of God’s plan. Within the context of a narrative it becomes more natural to recognise sin as both a culpable choice and an enslaving power. The pressure to favour ‘Penal Substitution’ or ‘Christus Victor’ dissipates as we grasp the dynamic drama in which both models play a real, important role. The Gospels (traditionally seen to lack ‘atonement theories’) come alive as stories in which every detail acts as a carefully-curated piece to the ‘puzzle’ of Christ’s death. Wright’s interlaced explication on this theme (ch. 10) is superb.

It is precisely with a view to such a broader understanding that we come to a second commendable element of the book: conceptualising the righteousness of God. Wright has no intention whatsoever of dismissing the righteousness of God per se, but rather hopes to help readers conceive of this righteousness in a more organic, Jewish, relational way.

Wright famously translates the controversial Pauline phrase dikaiosynē theou (usually translated as ‘righteousness of God’; cf. Rom. 3:21-26) as ‘God’s covenant faithfulness’, which in the present book maps neatly onto God’s behaviour in the carefully considered metanarrative of Israel. This translation eschews abstract, Platonic notions of divinity whilst firmly cementing our perception of God in a relational context—the best way to understand God’s righteousness is through his interactions with his people. What is more, the ‘covenant faithfulness’ has a sort of double relational sense as it is through this intimate covenant that God extends his personal love to the rest of the world. Israel, then, is called to nurture relationships with the rest of the world as a part of its covenantal relationship with God. Indeed, one wonders if Wright’s translation may be advantageous for Christians wishing to highlight the relational components of Scripture.

In conclusion, this book can be recommended (with reservation) for the way it exhorts Christians towards a holistic, integrated grasp of the biblical narrative. It is ironic that some who criticise the book do so on the basis that it lacks a clear, pithy ‘take-away’—which is precisely the type of mind-set Wright is urging us to move beyond. Still, this is hardly Wright’s best publication. Readers wishing to digest Wright’s intricate arguments on justification and atonement will likely find his academic articles more useful than this slow, meandering ‘popular’ work. Additionally, those unfamiliar with the typical Wrightian agenda surrounding a bodily, Jewish understanding of mission and vocation would be better off reading more focused books such as The Challenge of Jesus.

 

This review was first published in the April 2018 edition of our Engage News Magazine.

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Category: News and Reviews

April, 2018

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