jQuery Slider

You are here

AUSTRALIA: Resurrecting faith - N. T. Wright cited

Resurrecting faith - N. T. Wright cited
Not all Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus, reports religious affairs writer Jill Rowbotham

April 13, 2006

JESUS "dies" every year on Good Friday but rises on Easter Sunday and church attendance is resurrected with him.

More than 4.5 million Australians will make time for tomorrow's services of remembrance or Sunday's services of rejoicing. Some will do both.

Secular citizens should not assume such devotion is automatic. Some believers stay away, and some of those who go are not really believers, at least not in the bodily resurrection. The latter include some high-powered Christians.

Attesting to this is one of the Church of England's heaviest hitters, the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, who was in Australia recently on a lecture tour. An eminent theologian, an expert on the historical and biblical Jesus and a staunch believer in the resurrection, he baulks at denouncing those who are not.

"I have friends who I am quite sure are Christians who do not believe in the bodily resurrection," he says carefully, citing another eminent scholar, American theologian Marcus Borg, co-author with Wright of The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.

"But the view I take of them - and they know this - is that they are very, very muddled. They would probably return the compliment.

"Marcus Borg really does not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead. But I know Marcus well: he loves Jesus and believes in him passionately. The philosophical and cultural world he has lived in has made it very, very difficult for him to believe in the bodily resurrection.

"I actually think that's a major problem and it affects most of whatever else he does, and I think that it means he has all sorts of flaws as a teacher, but I don't want to say he isn't a Christian.

"I do think, however, that churches that lose their grip on the bodily resurrection are in deep trouble and that for healthy Christian life individually and corporately, belief in the bodily resurrection is foundational."

On that basis, there is no problem in Australian churches: according to the most recent figures, compiled in 2002 by the Christian Research Association's Philip Hughes, a whopping 83 per cent of people who attend church monthly or more often believe in the bodily resurrection.

Surprisingly, so do a fair number of the general population, 40 per cent or thereabouts. About 35 per cent were neutral or unsure and 26 per cent disagreed.

"A lot of liberal Christians would say resurrection is really about Jesus coming back to his followers in a new form and it was not a physical form," Hughes observes. "As far as a lot of people in the pews are concerned, I don't think that the exact form of the resurrection is critical.

"While some people may consider that the resurrection was not an event that could have been recorded scientifically, I do not know any Christian who says the resurrection did not occur in some sense."

Wright understands even firm believers can jib at the notion that Jesus died and re-emerged into life, but says it is not a new problem: "It's not that modern Western culture makes it difficult to believe in the resurrection; it's always been difficult to - indeed, impossible - to believe in the resurrection. In the ancient world nobody believed it."

Most of the Greeks believed in an afterlife spent in Hades, he says, but they agreed there was no resurrection: death was irreversible. The Jews believed in it, but in what Wright has called an imprecise and unfocused way.

But the earliest Christians concluded, on the basis of the empty tomb and the later appearances of Jesus to his followers, that easily the best explanation for these events was that Jesus had risen from the dead. The further, theological step was that God was responsible for raising him.

Wright is among those who have concluded the same thing.

Those who cannot believe it have offered a plethora of other explanations of what could have happened, including theories about the cause of Jesus' death. Last year, for example, an article appeared in the Thrombosis and Haemostasis journal with the catchy title: "Did Jesus Christ die of a pulmonary embolism?" (The journal's answer: yes.)

Some think that his post-death appearances to followers were visions and another theory is that he died on the cross, was buried and his followers later removed his body and reburied it elsewhere.

Among those who believe he didn't die are the subscribers to the swoon theory, which holds that he lost consciousness and was laid in the tomb, where he recovered. Speculation about his "after" life varies.

In recent years the world's readers have been treated to a colourful scenario courtesy of American novelist Dan Brown, whose The Da Vinci Code has become a publishing phenomenon. It has sold more than 40 million copies and sales are set to surge again with the release of a paperback edition in the US market for the first time, followed by a movie of the book, starring Tom Hanks, which will premiere in mid-May.

Christian groups are gearing up to expose the various heresies contained in Brown's plot, which revolves around the premise that Jesus' bloodline survived because he had a child with Mary Magdalene. The secret dynasty was the true Holy Grail, a term hitherto applied to the cup from which he drank at the last supper with his disciples before he was killed.

Wright has been dealing with da Vinci-style phenomena for years and is matter-of-fact about the anti-theology in Brown's book, which is, he says, a variation on the gnostic heresy that flourished in the early centuries after Jesus lived.

Gnosticism was a rival version of Christianity that was suppressed in the early church by what became the orthodox view. The recently published Gospel of Judas, translated from Coptic, for example, is a gnostic text that claims history's great betrayer was acting on the orders of Jesus.

"The really interesting thing about The Da Vinci Code is why, granted it's such manifest rubbish, do people want to take it seriously?" Wright asks. "Why has it been such a runaway bestseller? It's not because it's a page-turner, because there are millions of page-turners out there."

He theorises that it says what modern Westerners want to hear.

"The mythology about Christian origins that so many people in the Western world want today is a form of gnosticism in which self-discovery, particularly discovery of gender-based aspects of 'myself', whether it's the sacred feminine or whatever, is hugely important.

"Learning that in fact the heart and centre of genuine spirituality is not about my insides but about God coming in love and grace to do something fresh for me is not what people want to hear.

"In other words, people don't want what Christianity authentically offers: they want this substitute called gnosticism in one of its many forms; and The Da Vinci Code plays right in," Wright says.

"I have seen this over 20 years: every two or three years somebody else writes a book saying that Jesus didn't think he was the son of God, didn't die on a cross, or didn't rise from the dead, and that really he was like a sort of Buddha figure, teaching us that if only we look deep within ourselves, we will find a new sort of authenticity.

"When I saw Dan Brown I said this is just another of those, except that he's written it in the form of a racy novel, so it kind of catches on a bit more."

The background for this musing about spirituality and meaning is postmodernism. Wright says Christianity lost a firm grip on Western culture when its grand narrative - that Jesus provided a way for the world to be saved - was displaced by the grand narrative of the Enlightenment, which relied instead on science and rationality. This in turn has been attacked by postmodernism, which deconstructs everything.

What, then, can modern Christian leaders do to emulate the success Brown has had with gnosticism? How can they ensure Christianity "catches on a bit more"?

"My agenda, culturally, is to find our way through postmodernity and out the other side into whatever new worlds are waiting to be born," Wright says. "And I think the church has what it takes to help Western culture make that journey."

The detail is reduced to the notion that actions speak louder than words and the best proselytising is done when non-Christians are so struck by the example of a believer's life that they ask what makes them so different.

"Jesus was going around 'doing the kingdom', healing the sick, cleansing lepers, feeding the hungry, he was celebrating at a party with all the wrong people, transforming people's lives and saying cryptic things such as: 'Let me tell you what the kingdom of God is like'," Wright says.

"The church has it the other way around. It has tended to say: 'We must say it, say it, say it as clearly as possible and if there is any energy left over, we'll do a bit of it as well."'

Wright was delighted when one of his theology students returned from a summer in Zambia and told the provost of his university that he was planning to do development work in the Third World. On being quizzed about why he wasn't studying politics and economics, he replied: "Because theology's so much more relevant."

Wright says: "He had seen that what was happening in these African villages was they were worshipping Jesus exuberantly and then going out and 'doing' it, then coming back and worshipping, and then going out, and they were making a real, transformative difference.

"That's why churches are full in Africa."


Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top