Over the past month in my limited free time I have been working my way through N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. This is the first thing by Wright that I have read, and I was quite impressed. The primary theme of the book is examining the ramifications of the Christian doctrine of resurrection. Wright defends a Biblical understanding of the resurrection and debunks a lot of popular misunderstandings in the process. Given that I am currently a student in the academy, I found these arguments particularly pressing. There is a great deal of concern and consternation amongst post-modern thinkers regarding living “embodied” lives, or recognizing that as human beings our lives are situated within our physical bodies living in a physical reality. In many ways this aspect of post-modernism is a reaction against a dualistic split between a disembodied soul and physical body which is more characteristic of Platonic thought than orthodox Christianity. In this sense, Christians have something real to say to our culture on this issue: material reality and physicality are not evil (as Gnostics would claim), but are at the center of our vision of eternity, which will be both embodied and physical. I would agree with Wright that having a proper view of the Resurrection of Christ is essential for living our day to day lives with balance and purpose. This world is not simply filled with cannon-fodder for Armageddon, for us to use and abuse in anticipation of the Earth’s final destruction. Instead, anything done for God in this world, to quote a popular movie, will echo in eternity…an eternity of embodied life in which heaven and earth are joined.
Two other points in particular jumped out of Wright’s book at me. In discussing the divergent approach towards epistemology taken by modernist and postmodern thinkers, he proposed a third way. He called this approach an “epistemology of love”. I am not sure exactly what he meant by this, or if it is even viable from a philosophical standpoint, but it is certainly a beautiful metaphor. The basic idea, drawing from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, is that knowledge of a thing or person is gained primarily through love. We know most truly that which we love. Again, I don’t know how literally this idea is meant as a philosophical option, but it certainly points out the failure of the cold logic of modernism to account for what makes us human…without lapsing into the utter subjectivity of a radical post-modern approach.
The other idea I found particularly compelling was Wright’s discussion on beauty. Consider this quote:
I believe that taking creation and new creation seriously is the way to understand and revitalize aesthetic awareness and perhaps even creativity among Christians today. Beauty matters, I dare say, almost as much as spirituality and justice.
As someone who has devoted my career to the performing arts, this idea resonates with me. It reminds me of Tolkein’s conception of “sub-Creation”, in which humans glorify God through exercising their creative capacities. This is not an argument for creating “Christian” art which only appeals to a small subculture of like-minded individuals, or an argument for mediocre artistic endeavors to create “Christian” alternatives to mass culture. Rather, in Wright’s words, it is a movement to create art which “comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection” which can “express and respond to both at once”. This is a conception of religious art worth exploring!
I would conclude by stating that the points I have made are in some ways secondary points to Wright’s primary argument. I would certainly recommend Surprised by Hope for anyone, Christian or not, interested in the Christian answer to the question: “what happens to us when we die?” Contrary to many of the myths perpetuated by our culture, the answer might be surprising.