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N T Wright on C S Lewis

The man. The myth.

N T Wright on C S Lewis

Postby postodave » 27 Oct 2008, 23:43

I found this which I think has never appeared in these pages and wondered what people thought:
http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=20-02-028-f
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Postby Sven » 28 Oct 2008, 19:18

Excellent, thanks!
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Postby Wixenstyx » 28 Oct 2008, 21:20

That was a fun read. At first I half expected him to reveal that C. S. Lewis was the older man on the board in the opening example, and I thought, "C.S. Lewis? Really?" It just didn't seem like the sort of thing he'd do, based on what I've read about him. ;)
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Postby rusmeister » 02 Nov 2008, 03:15

Wright himself doesn't mention Lewis's de-emphasizing of the importance of the Church, although he does refer the Sacraments.

His reference to the Judaic "Incarnational principle" bears spelling out (for me, certainly). After all, we understand the Incarnation specifically as "God became flesh". (that's what "carne" means - meat, flesh.) Most religions have had the idea of a local god invisibly present in a shrine, and of symbolic acts that transfer the spiritual to the carnal. How, then is the "Judaic principle" he refers to different from that?

Otherwise, yeah, good article.
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Postby JRosemary » 02 Nov 2008, 13:15

Take a look at this paragraph, Rus. Wright spells out what he's referring to:

N.T. Wright wrote:What Lewis totally failed to see—as have, of course, many scholars in the field—was that Judaism already had a strong incarnational principle, namely the Temple, and that the language used of Shekinah, Torah, Wisdom, Word, and Spirit in the Old Testament—the language, in other words, upon which the earliest Christians drew when they were exploring and expounding what we have called Christology—was a language designed, long before Jesus’ day, to explain how the one true God could be both transcendent over the world and living and active within it, particularly within Israel.


There was an idea of God literally dwelling in the Temple--I think this is what Wright is getting at. However, at the same time, it was viewed as obvious that no building could possibly contain God. Solomon, in fact, makes both statements at his dedication of the original Temple in First Kings:

"I have surely built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in for ever." (First Kings 8:13)

And

"But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?" (First Kings 8:27)

Add to this another complication: in Jesus's day, there was a great deal of ambiguity regarding the Temple. Prophets had criticized it and even called to question whether God truly desired the sacrifices offered there. The Sadducees--these were the Kohanim and Levites: the hereditary priests of the Temple--had aligned themselves with the Roman occupiers and were largely despised for it.

And the Pharisees, meanwhile, had long since come up with synagogues--houses of study--where the emphasis was on study, prayer, repentance and acts of loving-kindness. While the synagogues were a response to diaspora and not a direct attack on the Temple system, they nonetheless presented another way to worship which many found more compelling...and, of course, once Herod's Temple was destroyed, the synagogue became the standard and the sacrifices once offered in the Temple were officially replaced with 'prayer, repentance and acts of loving-kindness.'

You can probably see a hostility to Temple worship in this friendly conversation between Jesus and a scribe. The scribe asks Jesus which commandment is first of all--in other words, which mitzvah is his favorite? Jesus comes up with two: one taken directly from the Sh'ma in Deuteronomy and the other from Leviticus:

And one of the scribes heard them debating. Knowing that Jesus answered well, he asked him, “Which commandment is first of all?”

Jesus answered, “'Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ No commandments are greater than these.”

And the scribe said, “You speak the truth, teacher, when you say that He is one and there is none beside Him; and to love Him with all your heart, and with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself—this is worth more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

And Jesus, seeing that he answered wisely, said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
(Mark 12:28-34)

You see how the scribe manages to criticize the Temple? Nevermind those animal and grain sacrifices--the scribe agrees that these two mitzvot summon up what's more important. Both the scribe and Jesus seem firmly on the Pharisee side here: both agree that the Temple system is not the true--or at least not the exclusive--form of religion for Jews. It is, at best, quite secondary.

Wright also mentions Shekinah. The Shekinah is the feminine presence of God. Wikipedia describes it pretty well (and in detail):

The Shekhinah is held by some to represent the feminine attributes of the presence of God (shekhinah being a feminine word in Hebrew), based especially on readings of the Talmud.[1]


Where manifest:

The Shekhinah is referred to as manifest in the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem throughout Rabbinic literature. It is also reported as being present in the acts of public prayer, ("Whenever ten are gathered for prayer, there the Shekhinah rests" Talmud Sanhedrin 39a); righteous judgment ("when three sit as judges, the Shekhinah is with them." Talmud Berachot 6a), and personal need ("The Shekhinah dwells over the headside of the sick man's bed" Talmud Shabbat 12b; "Wheresoever they were exiled, the Shekhinah went with them." Megillah 29a).

In the absence of the Temple:

The Talmud expounds a Beraita (oral tradition) which illuminates the manner in which the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is to sprinkle the blood of the bull-offering towards the Parochet (Curtain) separating the Hekhal (sanctuary) from the Kadosh Kadoshim (Holy of Holies):

"[And so shall he do in the midst of the Tent of Meeting] that dwells (shokhen) among them in the midst of their impurities (Leviticus 16:16). Even at a time when the Jews are impure, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) is with them.

A certain Sadducee said to Rabbi Chanina: Now [that you have been exiled, you are certainly impure, as it is written: "Her impurity is [visible] on her hems." (Lamentations 1:9). He [Rabbi Chanina] said to him: Come see what is written regarding them: [The Tent of Meeting] that dwells among them in the midst of their impurities. Even in a time that they are impure, the Divine Presence is among them. (Talmud Tractate Yoma 56b)

Forms of manifestation in Jewish sources:

The Talmud reports that the Shekhinah is what caused prophets to prophesy and King David to compose his Psalms. The Shekhinah manifests itself as a form of joy, connected with prophecy and creativity: Talmud Pesachim 117a) The Talmud also reports that "The Shekhinah does not rest amidst laziness, nor amidst laughter, nor amidst lightheadedness, nor amidst idle conversation. Rather, it is amidst the joy associated with a mitzvah that the Shekhinah comes to rest upon people, as it is said: 'And now, bring me for a musician, and it happened that when the music played, God's hand rested upon him' [Elisha] [2 Kings 3:15]" (Pesachim 117a). Thus the Shekhinah is associated with the transformational spirit of God regarded as the source of prophecy:

After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines; and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a timbrel, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they will be prophesying.

And the spirit of the LORD will come mightily upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man. (1 Samuel 10:5-6 JPS).

The prophets made numerous references to metaphorical visions of the presence of God, particularly in the context of the Tabernacle or Temple, with figures such as thrones or robes filling the Sanctuary, which have traditionally been attributed to the presence of the Shekhinah. Isaiah wrote "I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the Temple." (Isaiah 6:1). Jeremiah implored "Do not dishonor the throne of your glory" (Jeremiah 14:21) and referred to "Thou throne of glory, on high from the beginning, Thou place of our sanctuary" (Jeremiah 17:12). Ezekiel spoke of "the glory of the God of Israel was there [in the Sanctuary], according to the vision that I saw in the plain."


Wright also refers to "Wisdom, word and spirit" as 'incarnational' principles. The Bible contains much 'Wisdom literature'--where Wisdom is personified as a feminine voice. By 'word' I presume Wright refers to the Torah (which, for Jews, can either mean the five books of Moses or the totality of Jewish teaching.)

In synagogues during Saturday morning services, there are two points where there's a procession down the aisle with the Torah scrolls. We reach out and touch the Torah with our hands, prayer shawls or prayerbooks and then touch our mouths, so as to ingest the word of God and make it part of us. Unfortunately, I don't know how old this practice is offhand. (We do the same thing with mezuzahs, of course, which have a bit of the Torah inscribed in them.)

As for spirit--well, you'll find references to this in the Bible. For example, God tells Moses to "''Take to yourself Joshua, son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit.''

I don't have my Hebrew Bible with me at the moment, but the word used for spirit is most likely 'ruach'--it's a word that means either wind or spirit (in either case with God as its source.)

At any event, these are the things I think Wright is referring to when he talks about an 'incarnational principle' in Judaism.
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Postby rusmeister » 02 Nov 2008, 17:38

This is all clear, JR - my understanding and definition of "Incarnation" is clearly far narrower than Wright's. It means "becoming flesh" - no less. This is distinct from God's activity in the world without flesh.
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Postby postodave » 02 Nov 2008, 23:10

Actually Rus I think that's a good point. We can call those ideas in Judaism incarnational because we are looking back from the idea of God becoming man in Jesus. We can see them as paving the way but they are not literally incarnational and I'm not sue how many Jews would be comfortable with the use of that word. On the other hand there are passages in the OT where God does seem to be quite literally incarnate - the man who wrestles with Jacob is the prime example.
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Postby JRosemary » 02 Nov 2008, 23:51

rusmeister wrote:This is all clear, JR - my understanding and definition of "Incarnation" is clearly far narrower than Wright's. It means "becoming flesh" - no less. This is distinct from God's activity in the world without flesh.


Ok--gotcha. And yeah--I kind of agree. See below for more...

postodave wrote:Actually Rus I think that's a good point. We can call those ideas in Judaism incarnational because we are looking back from the idea of God becoming man in Jesus. We can see them as paving the way but they are not literally incarnational and I'm not sue how many Jews would be comfortable with the use of that word. On the other hand there are passages in the OT where God does seem to be quite literally incarnate - the man who wrestles with Jacob is the prime example.


Yes, Jacob wrestling with God is one place where you find a very 'physical' depiction of God. God walking in the Garden of Eden is another.

And in a couple of places--for example, when God and Moses argue--biblical translations tend to say things like 'God was angered.' But the Hebrew says, "God flared his nostrils." Ok, that's probably not meant literally, but still...

(Of course, rabbinic commentaries deal at length with these issues and don't usually come down on the side of God taking a physical form.)

And you're right--you won't see the word 'incarnational' used in Judaism very often. Judaism generally acknowledges the divine spark in each person; but the religion won't proclaim a particular person as God incarnate or say that a particular person was uniquely divine and human. To most Jews, that would be to compromise monotheism. While both Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic religions, they tend to understand monotheism differently.
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Re: N T Wright on C S Lewis

Postby Zattara08 » 02 Dec 2008, 15:40

Interesting article! Thanks for the link!

I was wondering if you think that N.T.'s attempt in his book titles helps him sell books? Does grabbing onto the coat tails of Lewis peddle more books?

I have read both surprised by hope and simply Christian but I did not find the clarity of speech that Lewis is so known for? A little nitpicky I know but I find that a lot of people who are not Christians read Wright. (Thank you Colbert Report) Why do you think he has such a readership among non-christians? Especially given that he is not exactly a liberal theologian?
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Re: N T Wright on C S Lewis

Postby Karen » 02 Dec 2008, 18:02

I was wondering if you think that N.T.'s attempt in his book titles helps him sell books? Does grabbing onto the coat tails of Lewis peddle more books?


I don't think he's grabbing Lewis' coattails so much as he is paying him homage. Wright felt (rightly so) that what was needed was a sort of revised and updated Mere Christianity for the 21st c. that also addressed some points which Lewis left out.

Why do you think he has such a readership among non-christians?


Does he? And if so, how do we know this? (Colbert is Catholic, BTW.)

I think Wright has a large readership in general because he writes very well, is clear (at least compared to many modern theologians), and because people want to understand a different 'brand' of Christianity from the American evangelical one, which is what most people in the US think of when they hear the word 'Christian'.
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Re: N T Wright on C S Lewis

Postby Leslie » 02 Dec 2008, 18:17

Zattara08 wrote:Why do you think he has such a readership among non-christians?


My guess would be that his emphasis on the original gospel proclamation--Jesus is risen and he is Lord--breaks free of much of the modern spin on the Christian message, and interests those who either have not heard of, or are wary of, the modern versions. By reaching back to what Jesus actually would have meant within the context of first-century Judaism, he is able to frame the gospel in a way that is not bound up with modern Western middle-class values, and with the Enlightenment dichotomy between public discourse and action, and private faith, and thus make it fresh and appealing to post-modern minds.
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Re: N T Wright on C S Lewis

Postby Zattara08 » 03 Dec 2008, 05:08

Concerning N.T. Wright, he was on the Colbert report and received a very generous greeting. He actually did very well to by the way!

Many of the non-Christians that I work with are familiar with his work and do not forget that Anthony Flew was heavily influenced by Wright in his recent conversion (if you may call it that) to deism. It is very true that bringing Christianity back to its basics was Wright's goals. Especially his four proofs for God. Powerful stuff. However, he still is a rather conservative scholar (maybe except for his ideas of pauline literature) that is looked at without the usual stereotypes associated with the label. I just wonder why that is? The only other person I can think of like that is maybe Ravi Zacharias?

And I hope I did not imply that he was grabbing onto Lewis' coattails as a negative thing. I just wonder if that has sold more of his books and if he benefited more from that association then his book itself? I guess overall I'm just interested if Wright could be 80 years from now what Lewis is to us today?
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Re: N T Wright on C S Lewis

Postby Karen » 03 Dec 2008, 13:26

However, he still is a rather conservative scholar (maybe except for his ideas of pauline literature) that is looked at without the usual stereotypes associated with the label. I just wonder why that is?


I think because his conservatism is Anglican, not American evangelical. Theologically, he's post-millennial and a partial preterist and so doesn't believe in the Rapture and those attendant readings of Scripture. Politically (which is so entwined with stereotypes of conservative Christianity) some of his opinions are what we would consider liberal: against the Iraq War from the beginning, for relief of Third World debt, etc. He's something of an iconoclast to both right and left, which is one of the reasons I like him so much!
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Re: N T Wright on C S Lewis

Postby postodave » 04 Dec 2008, 00:24

He is like Lewis in that he has written both scholarly and popular books. However his scholarly books are more directly theological whereas Lewis's were in the field of literature. Personally I didn't like Simply Christian. He is a good communicator but it's his more scholarly work that is most impressive. He is not really a full on post millenialist. He once was but came to reject one specific aspect of traditional postmillenialism (the conversion of the Jews bit. He does not think all Israel shall be saved refers to large numbers of Jews becoming Christians.) But his eschatology is optimistic and I think he is right even where he would differ from a full on postmillenialist like Keith Matheson.
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