Book Review: How God Became King by N. T. Wright
Do you find yourself longing for a fresh perspective on the gospels? If so, you may want to pick up a copy of How God Became King by N. T. Wright. This book continues Wright’s legacy of producing work that skillfully bridges the academy and the church while being fresh, insightful, and engaging. For those who appreciate what Wright brings to the table in this regard, this book will not disappoint.
Wright begins with the problem at hand, “We have all forgotten what the four gospels are about” (ix), and then takes on the task of reminding us. The book is divided into four main sections. In part one, Wright states that we have ignored the “middle” of the gospels, the story of Jesus’ life between his birth and death. The creeds have contributed to this oversight as they pass “directly from his virgin birth to his suffering and death” (11). Wright also presents the opposite problem stemming from critical scholarship: the privileging of the middle part while screening out the supernatural bookends, the virgin birth and the resurrection. Both of these approaches have, as Wright argues, led to an inadequate and distorted view of the gospels, one that does not rightly keep the kingdom in focus.
In part two, Wright attempts to bring clarity by suggesting adjustments to how we look at the gospels. He utilizes the metaphor of a sound system with four speakers, each representing a way that the church has tried to answer the question of what the gospels are about. The problem is that some speakers are turned up too loud while others are not loud enough. To hear the “music” of the gospels more clearly, Wright suggests some recalibration on these four speakers:
Speaker #1: The gospels are “the climax of the story of Israel” (65). Wright argues that this speaker needs to be turned up. The backstory for the gospels is the story of Israel. Thus, the culmination of this story as found in the gospels must be the culmination of Israel’s hopes: the establishment of God’s kingdom.
Speaker #2: The gospels are the story of Jesus as God. Wright argues that this speaker, although true of the gospel story, is turned up way too loud. As Wright asserts, the divinity of Jesus has been so over-emphasized that we have failed to discern from the gospels “which God they are talking about and what exactly it is that this God is now doing” (84).
Speaker #3: The gospels are reflections of the early church. Again, while Wright does not deny that the interests of the early church influence the interests of the gospel writers, he thinks this speaker is blaring far too loudly. As Wright says, “The gospels are, and were written to be, fresh tellings of the story of Jesus” and yet still “precisely” telling this story (125).
Speaker #4: The gospels are “the story of the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of Caesar.” (129). Wright conjectures that this speaker has not even been plugged in. His challenge is to open our eyes (and ears) to the imperial symbolism that portrays God’s kingdom as superior to that of other kingdoms, and specifically in that context, Rome.
Part three focuses on the interrelationship between the kingdom and the cross, as Wright points out that the gospel writers emphasized Jesus’ suffering and death as the means by which God becomes king on earth. As Wright asserts, “for the gospel writers themselves, there was never a kingdom message without a cross” (211). The fourth part of Wright’s work is a brief section answering the vitally important “What now?” question. Here he issues a few challenges, one of which is to go back to the gospels with fresh eyes and see the true message at the heart of each one: God becoming king through Jesus.
As usual, Wright’s work evidences careful scholarship, a solid knowledge of the gospel texts, and a firm grasp of the historical and cultural milieu in which they were written. In my perspective, his insights are right on the mark. The challenge to give renewed attention to Israel as the backstory to the gospels—not only for the sake of understanding these texts but also for recognizing the Old and New Testaments as one continuous story—is solid. Wright also does well to highlight the significance of allusions to the Roman Empire in the gospels, which certainly lines up with the overall thrust of the Old Testament; Rome stands in a long line of empires in scripture that oppose the people of God. Furthermore, he offers what I believe are appropriate exhortations to the church to adjust its thinking on the gospels.
Perhaps the reason I find Wright’s book so compelling is that it resonates powerfully with my own journey. In my early days of faith and ministry, I experienced a great deal of confusion over these very “middle parts” of the gospels. What were the parables, miracle stories, logs of Jesus’ travels, and descriptions of his sometimes odd interactions with people really about? It seemed that even the best of Bible teachers hardly knew and their main idea for these passages was often the same refrain: “Jesus is God.” I remember thinking that there is an incredible amount of scripture verses communicating the same exact main idea! Couldn’t God have said that with fewer words? Furthermore, I thought if no one else has been able to offer any more compelling insights on these passages, I certainly wasn’t going to be able to. So, I turned my gaze toward other parts of the New Testament and avoided studying and teaching the gospels. This aversion continued into seminary, where when given the choice, I focused on anything and everything that was not called a “gospel.” I distinctly remember vehemently asserting that if I were to ever get a doctorate, “It would certainly not be in the gospels!” And, of course, as the “never say never” idiom often holds, here I am, doing that very thing. While I do not owe Wright for that change of heart, I do owe it to a couple of these very truths that I discovered when doing research on one of the “middle parts” of the gospel of Matthew. I began to see the gospels come alive in a fresh new way, and as I have since taught the gospels with these fresh lenses, I have watched these principles inspire students to develop their own passion for these amazing books.
Wright’s work is a gem for church leaders and lay persons who want to deepen their knowledge of the gospels. It also issues an important challenge to all of us to take a fresh look at Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with these principles in hand and allow the riches we gain to inform our theology and Christian practice. With the potential it offers to illuminate these important scriptures, Wright’s book is not only worth having on the shelf, but worth passing on.