Finished Reading: The Day the Revolution Began by N. T. Wright

When the good Bishop N. T. Wright has a new book out it’s an automatic purchase for me at this point. And Wright does not disappoint with The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright examines the meaning of Jesus’ death in his usual lucid style, with a focus on what understanding the first-century Christians would’ve had of that death.

Wright keys on Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15 that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”. This launches him on a review of the Old Testament idea of salvation and forgiveness of sins, and how for Israel “forgiveness of sins” was closely tied to the covenant promise of restoration from exile.

Wright then takes the reader through the various New Testament discussions of the meaning of the crucifixion to make the case that “salvation” isn’t really primarily about individual salvation (though individuals are saved), but is rather about the restoration and blessing of the whole earth through Israel in fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham.

Wright, as usual, says some things that undoubtedly set some conservative theologians on edge. Notable among these is his contention that Jesus’ death isn’t really about some sort of penal substitution. That, says Wright, is still buying into a system of works righteousness – even if the works aren’t our works – that isn’t borne out in the Bible’s view of God’s love as shown in His covenant promises.

Wright makes the case that salvation is really about much more than we are led to believe. And while he acknowledges that theologians will typically provide a more nuanced view, he believes (and I agree) that at the lay level in evangelicalism, the understanding of salvation is very individual and transactional – people sin, which makes God angry, a price must be paid, Jesus pays that price to step in the way of God’s anger, people are saved to go to heaven. I don’t think that Wright would disagree with any of those statements… from a certain point of view. However, his picture of salvation is much wider and more appealing. It’s really worth a read and consideration.

This volume would be a nice companion piece to go alongside Surprised by Hope – which itself is still the volume I’d encourage people to read if they need an intro to Wright. Good stuff.

NTW on ‘a central part of the Christian vocation’

[F]ollowers of Jesus have no choice. A central part of our vocation is, prayerfully and thoughtfully, to remind people with power, both official (government ministers) and unofficial (backstreet bullies), that there is a different way to be human. A true way. The Jesus way. This doesn’t mean “electing into office someone who shares our particular agenda”; that might or might not be appropriate. It means being prepared, whoever the current officials are, to do what Jesus did with Pontius Pilate: confront them with a different vision of kingdom, truth, and power.

— N. T. Wright, The Day The Revolution Began, p. 401

Finished reading: a quick compendium

Because I’ve been lazy and not keeping up:

The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies – and What They Have Done to Us by David Thomson
An extensive trip through the history of filmmaking. I’m interested in movies far more than I get the opportunity to watch them, so this was an interesting read and gives me lots of movie watching gaps to fill in.

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Tyler Anbinder
This came on the tail of visiting Manhattan for a week for work. A really fascinating read starting with the first white settlers in New York and carrying on through the late 20th century.

The Believer by Joakim Zander
A thriller novel that hits a little too close to home, including a wanna-be jihadist and shady government forces at work.

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson
A time-travel novel in which the present day has a gate into one possible past, but only to a specific time the 1870s. More thoughtful than I anticipated.

Dune by Frank Herbert
Caught up with a classic I’d never read. Really enjoyed it. Now I suppose I’ll get sucked into the whole series.

Another view of ‘love of neighbor’

I was catching up on my backlog of On Being podcasts and came across a fascinating discussion with writer Alain de Botton. de Botton is an atheist, but provided a description of the idea of love of fellow citizen (in my words, “neighbor”) that was insightful to me.

MR. DE BOTTON: …I think you’re onto something huge and rather counterintuitive because we associate the word “love” with private life. We don’t associate it with life in the republic, with civil society.

But I think that a functioning society requires two things that, again, just don’t sound very normal, but they require love and politeness. And by “love” I mean a capacity to enter imaginatively into the minds of people with whom you don’t immediately agree, and to look for the more charitable explanations for behavior which doesn’t appeal to you and which could seem plain wrong, not just to chuck them immediately in prison or to hold them up in front of a law court but to…

MS. TIPPETT: Or just tell them how stupid they are, right?

MR. DE BOTTON: Right. Exactly. We’re permanently — all sides are attempting to show how stupid every other side is. And the other thing, of course, is politeness, which is an attempt not necessarily to say everything, to understand that there is a role for private feelings, which if they were to emerge, would do damage to everyone concerned. But we’ve got this culture of kind of self-disclosure. And as I say, it spills out into politics as well. The same dynamic goes on of, like, “If I’m not telling you exactly what I think, then I may develop a twitch or an illness from not expunging my feelings.” To which I would say, “No, you’re not. You’re preserving the peace and the good nature of the republic, and it’s absolutely what you should be doing.”

I really like this definition of love of neighbor that way – to work to understand them by giving them the benefit of the doubt, to look for the most charitable explanation for their position. We as Christians could take that idea to heart.

Finished reading: Now: The Physics of Time by Richard A. Muller

Another random library selection, and a nice change of pace from history and theology. In Now, Cal Berkeley professor Richard Muller sets out to provide a layman’s-level discussion of the nature of time and how the domain of physics interacts with and helps explain it.

Muller provides an engaging discussion about relativistic time dilation, the big bang, quantum effects and “spooky action at a distance”, and his own thoughts about what it is that causes time to move only forward. It’s not entirely for the faint of heart, but he at least is good enough to leave his derivation of equations into appendices rather than embedding them within the body text. The Goodreads reviews of the book seem to be a bunch of physics nerds giving the author flack for his approach, but to this engineering nerd who isn’t deep into physics, it was just fine.


Now: The Physics of Time

Finished reading: Instrumental: A memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music by James Rhodes

I’ll confess I’d never heard of James Rhodes prior to picking this book up at the library. Turns out he’s about my age, and a British classical pianist who has had some amount of popular culture impact in Britain trying to make classical music less culturally stuffy and more accessible to the masses.

Instrumental isn’t nearly so much about music as it is about a man trying to come to grips with the effects of some horrifying abuse he underwent as a young boy in primary school. I’ve never read an account that so directly describes the horror and brokenness that an abuse victim can feel. One of Rhodes’ escapes is music, but he vividly describes others that are much less beautiful and much more self-destructive.

Rhodes does mention a couple handfuls of favorite classical pieces through the book, which someone has already arranged into a convenient Spotify playlist.

Instrumental is a worthwhile read but not for the faint of heart.

Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music

Finished reading: A Wretched and Precarious Situation by David Welky

Found this one on the New Books shelf at the library and figured hey, why not? Welky tells here the story of a handful of Arctic explorers who followed up on Robert Peary’s claim to have seen an Arctic continent he called “Crocker Land” (named after one of his financial sponsors).

Want to trek for multiple years living off pemmican, hardtack, and the internal organs of whatever bears and musk oxen you can hunt? Lose your toes to frostbite? Go (in some cases, at least) more than a bit loony? Early 20th century Arctic exploration might be for you!

Welky’s writing is engaging and the story is an adventurous one. After reading it, I think it’ll be at least a week before I stop feeling cold.

A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier

Bullet points for a Wednesday afternoon

  • I’m glad I signed up for the 0530 kickboxing class, but it’d really help if I’d go to bed earlier at night. Short sleep + workouts = ouch.
  • Also = zzzzzz. The folks at the coffee stand know my order (large Americano) now and have it going when I walk up.
  • Not so great: realizing 45 minutes in that what you thought was a one-hour Webex meeting is actually a two-hour Webex meeting.
  • Better: having said two-hour Webex meeting only take an hour.
  • My diet that’s supposed to be accompanying my kickboxing class isn’t helped when my wife buys two-pound cinnamon rolls from the local bakery.
  • I’ve been busy enough lately that I started drafting this on Tuesday morning and just finally published it on Wednesday afternoon.
  • On balance, I’m not really complaining about the cinnamon roll.

Finished Reading: Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear

The buzz on this one had been going around Twitter for a while, so I was glad to pick up a copy and read. Michael Wear is a young guy who, not even out of college, worked as the White House lead for evangelical outreach during President Obama’s first term. Reclaiming Hope is part memoir of those years and partly Wear’s suggestions for how to repair political engagement with religion.

On the whole, I think Wear did a good job of identifying points where both the right and left failed in opportunities to find common ground that could’ve made legitimate progress on issues important to religious conservatives. However, I think his admiration for President Obama causes him to pull his punches in the second half of the book.

In the first half of the book, Wear reveals himself as something of an Obama fan boy as he details all of the President’s speeches that reveal the depth to his personal faith. (I’m not disputing these – I have great admiration for Obama’s faith – but the tone is pretty fawning.) When Wear starts assigning blame in the second half of the book, though, the blame is never to Obama directly, but always to the “administration” or the “White House”.

Overall, it’s a good little memoir, and Wear has some good thoughts to share about how we might find progress forward on issues significant to people of faith.

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America