NT Wright’s Inaugural Lecture: ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’

It was nearly four years ago now when I had the joy of hearing NT Wright lecture in St Andrews. It was one of the James Gregory Public Lectures, and his topic was ‘Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?’. Since then, of course, Tom Wright has been appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at that same university, and where just last week he gave his Inaugural Lecture titled ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’. Here’s a snippet:

The four gospels … are thus appropriately named ‘gospel’, in line both with Isaiah 40 and 52 and with the contemporary pagan usage. They themselves, in telling the story of how God became king in and through Jesus, invite their readers to the imaginative leap of saying, ‘Suppose this is how God has done it? Suppose the world’s way of empire is all wrong? Suppose there’s a different way, and suppose that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, has brought it about?’ And the gospels themselves, of course, contain stories at a second level, stories purportedly told by Jesus himself, which were themselves, in their day, designed to break open the worldview of their hearers and to initiate a massive imaginative leap to which Jesus gave the name ‘faith’. The gospels invite their readers, in other words, to a multiple exercise, both of imagining what it might have been like to make that leap in the first century (both for Jesus’ hearers and then, at a second stage, for their own readers) and, as a further stage again, of imagining what it might be like to do so today. For too long gospel study has been dominated by the attempt to make the gospels reflect, simply, the faith-world of the early church. Why, after all, the radical critics used to say, would the early Christians have been particularly interested in miscellaneous stories of what Jesus actually said or did, when all that really mattered was his saving death, making the gospels simply ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’? The conservative response has been that early converts would naturally want to know more about this Jesus in whom they had come to place their faith. But this stand-off, on both sides, has usually failed to reflect the larger question: that the gospels tell the story of Jesus not out of mere historical anecdotage or faith-projection, but because this is how Jesus launched the kingdom of God, which he then accomplished in his death and resurrection. Even to hold this possibility in one’s head requires, in today’s western church, whether radical or conservative, no less than in the non-Christian world, a huge effort of the imagination.

This imagination, like all good right-brain activity, must then be firmly and thoroughly worked through the left brain, disciplined by the rigorous historical and textual analysis for which the discipline of biblical studies has rightly become famous. But, by itself, the left brain will produce, and has often produced, a discipline full of facts but without meaning, high on analysis and low on reconstruction, good at categories and weak on the kingdom.

You can read the whole lecture here.

One thought on “NT Wright’s Inaugural Lecture: ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’

  1. The Raising of the Cross by Dennis Haskell

    His strangely y-shaped body
    is angled to the earth
    as he is lifted up out of it
    like a tree whose only fruit is flesh,

    like death on a candlestick,
    and all our hopes
    that there is a body beyond this body,
    more clear, more pure, more insubstantial,

    is locked on this tattered figure,
    even his beard looking ragged
    as a surrounding thief’s
    in a B-grade movie. Oh the relief

    if this were not art but truth
    soaring above us, firm and whole,
    the scratchings of paint merely symbols
    substantial, insubstantial as the soul.

    Like

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