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Reviews

How God Became King

Steve Tomkins

Getting to the heart of the Gospels
NT Wright
SPCK, 304pp


The first thing to say about this book is that, if you are going by the title alone, it isn't about what you might think it's about! When I saw the main title, I was slightly taken aback and wondered whether Tom Wright had deviated from his usual field into the study of the Psalms or maybe the Kingship of Ancient Israel. He has done neither of these things.  As the subtitle indicates this is well and truly in his field, as the book offers a lens through which we can read the gospels more clearly and in a more informed way.

As with all of Tom Wright's books How God Became King is clearly argued and well structured.  Part one sets out the problem, which basically is that 'Western Christianity has simply forgotten what the gospels are really about'. Wright starts by setting up a portrayal of those who ignore or forget the life of Jesus, whether it be by concentrating exclusively on Jesus' birth, death and resurrection or by rushing through the gospels to Paul and his theology about Jesus' death. He goes on to address questions around the historical Jesus and the impact of research on the historical Jesus on people's perception of who Jesus was.  He then examines some of what he calls the inadequate answers to the questions of why Jesus came.

The second section of the book begins to lay out Wright's own response to the problem. With a characteristically vivid analogy, he likens the reception of the gospel story to a set of quadraphonic speakers some of which are turned up too loud and some down too soft and one, he even suggests, has been left in the attic covered with dust. His four speakers are a recognition that the gospels are a continuation of the story of Israel; that the story of Jesus is the story of Israel's God now truly become king; that this story is, at its heart, a story of God's renewed people; and that it is a story which tells of a clash between God's kingdom and Caesar's. Wright argues that the speaker of the story of Israel has been turned down too soft, that the second two (the story of Israel's God and the story of a people renewed) have been turned up too loud and that the final one (the clash of the kingdoms) has either been turned down too soft or left in the attic entirely.

Part three then suggests how listening to these four speakers will help us to understand the gospels better. Wright concludes this part with what he acknowledges is a digression, arguing passionately for seeing the kingdom and the cross not as separate but as a part of one another and most importantly of all, of seeing the story of Jesus as establishing the fact that the kingdom had indeed come in power. In the climax of the argument of the book,  Wright maintains  that the 'story Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell is the story of how God became king - in and through Jesus both in his public career and in his death he then begins to explore the consequence of this, and in part four looks at what difference this all makes for our understanding of the creeds.

As with all of Wright's books How God Became King is stimulating - crisp in its argument, engaging in its style and challenging both in the breadth and depth of material covered and in the conclusions reached. Anyone who is serious about getting to grips with the nature of the gospel and what it tells us about who Jesus is must read this book. It is like a brisk walk in the park on a windy day - it will blow away vast quantities of cobwebs and leave you invigorated and stimulated.

Having said this, however, I struggled with certain parts of the book - not in terms of understanding them as Wright is always admirably clear and robust - but in terms of working out who was being addressed in the book. I imagine that if you are someone who has, in fact, forgotten the life of Jesus (the issue he addresses in chapter 1) or are a fan of the major trends in current historical Jesus research (the issues he addresses in chapter 2) or indeed repeat the creeds without thinking about them much (the issues addressed in chapter 11), then you will feel that Wright is addressing you directly in this book and you will then be challenged to decide whether you agree with his diagnosis of what you think not to mention his proposed cure. My problem is that I don't think any of these things. So while I deeply appreciated the gems he scattered on the way about the nature of God and the story of Israel, for example, and the analogies he used to illustrate his points, I never really felt he was talking to me and so was less engaged in the argument than I might otherwise have been.

The other major issue is that although he does refer to the variety of the gospel accounts and to the fact that they tell the story in four dimensions, Wright's proposal that the four speakers he identifies should be turned up to balance each other feels a little like one size fit all.  Modern speaker systems give you the options of adjusting your output depending on the music being played - classical and rock music need a different balance.  The problem is that I would balance my speakers differently depending on what gospel I was reading and, to extend the metaphor further, bring in additional equipment for different gospels.

This book is classic Tom Wright, clear, accessible, robust, engaging and challenging. Some people will agree with all he says; others with some parts and not others but it is impossible to read his writing without reflecting long and hard about what you think - and that after all is the call of all Christian disciples.

Paula Gooder