Tuesday, August 23, 2005

For All God's Worth

I recently finished reading For All God's Worth, a great little book by N.T. Wright. Subtitled True Worship and the Calling of the Church, the book is a series of reflections on Christian worship and mission stemming from Wright's tenure as Dean of Lichfield Cathedral in England. Cathedrals, as Wright notes in the introduction, have an interesting purpose within the Church of England: on the one hand, they are to be centers of authentic Christian worship; on the other hand, they are intended not to be self-contained retreats but rather to be beacons that reflect the light of the Gospel into their surrounding communities. Along these lines, the book divides into two major sections: the first half addresses what exactly is meant (or should be meant) by Christian "worship," while the second deals with the way in which true worship inevitably results in mission to the world outside the church. Unlike some of Wright's denser, more theologically-driven works, this book is a series of brief yet insightful reflections.

Part One, "The God Who Is Worthy of Praise," looks at what worship truly is, especially as it seeks to proclaim who God really is. Wright notes the ease with which people fashion the god that they want, reflecting their own desires in creating something to worship. Ironically, these self-created gods rarely inspire praise. On the other hand, the Trinitarian God of the Scriptures is a direct affront to any desire to create our own deity: the Trinity is too unpredictable, too dangerous, too unfathomable.
The Trinity is not something that a clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they've got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab. The only time they laid God on a slab he rose again three days afterwards.
Yet "God on a slab" is precisely where our knowledge of God must focus. As Wright notes, it is in Jesus that we see the face of God's love for the world. It is through the cross of Jesus that we must understand God. Our worship should not focus on our efforts to "do something" for God (though a God worthy of worship should certainly inspire action), but on what God has already done through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This central act displays God's love, God's power, and all the other attributes which we cannot help but celebrate. Worship, for Wright, is the Church's single most important purpose, because the constant posture of declaring God's greatness back to Him trains our hearts and minds to proclaim that same goodness out into the world.

Part Two, "Reflecting God's Image in the World," deals with issues stemming from the Christian mission to the world, such as how the Church's proclamation of the Gospel confronts the surrounding world. A clear understanding of grace brings Christians into service as forgiven sinners, realizing their need for the Spirit's empowerment to complete their vocation in the world, and Jesus's call to repentance to Israel serves as the model for the Church's own mission. Wright notes that, as a model, there is not a one-to-one correspondence, because Jesus was primarily calling Jews back into adherence to Torah, which they largely were failing to keep (despite their scrupulous outward appearances). But, as Wright asks, how exactly does this translate for the majority of Christians, whose evangelism and mission are geared primarily towards Gentiles? The answer is that the Fall has left a broken world plagued by pain and suffering, as well as the perception that life should have more meaning that it seems to have. The root of this emptiness is universal sinfulness resulting from man's refusal to worship the Creator (a la Romans 1). Wright argues that the Church's mission should confront this sad state of affairs with the fact that Jesus' death and resurrection have created a new humanity in Christ, and that God uses the Church in His ongoing project of new creation (to be consummated at Christ's return).

The book is not without some controversy. One chapter focuses on ecumenical efforts within the Church, and Wright expounds on his understanding of "justification" language as public vindication that one is within the covenant community. As such, it is the basis upon which all Christians can come together, especially in table fellowship (particularly at the Lord's Supper). Regardless of whether Wright's understanding of "justification" language is correct, I think he makes some great points on unity within the Body of Christ. We often get the cart backwards when we attempt to make doctrinal agreement a prerequisite for sharing the Lord's Table. Rather, the very act of sharing the Supper together creates the setting within which doctrinal disagreements can be discussed and -- God willing -- resolved. Admittedly, I would think there would need to be some boundaries, but Wright's thoughts on the subject are a welcome correction to schismatic tendencies.

Overall, this is a great little book. For those unfamiliar with Wright, it is probably a good introduction, as it is simultaneously easy to read while remaining thought-provoking. It also demonstrates Wright's method of establishing the historical and cultural contexts within which the Scriptures were written, while still paying careful attention to the actual text. Christians don't always achieve this balance, and in this regard, Wright is definitely worthy of emulation.

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