Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
N. T. Wright
HarperOne, 2012
282 pp., 25.99

Buy Now

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

How God Became King

Putting creed and canon back together.

For the past decade I've endeavored to be something of street preacher in my neighborhood. Granted, when I came here it wasn't my neighborhood. I was marked as an outsider, not only because everyone around here seems to know everyone else, but also because I'm white. And in this Southern town, white folks don't belong in Walltown.

Everyone knows this, but no one communicated it more clearly than the young guys who used to stand on the corner, just four doors down from our house. I used to wave when I'd pass by them. They wouldn't wave back. For months, they never said a word. They only glared.

The month we moved here, one of these guys on the corner was shot in the street by another guy who drove by, stuck a gun out the window, and pulled the trigger. A friend happened to be driving behind the car that slowed down to shoot. He stopped his car, jumped out, and asked the guy who'd been hit in the elbow if he needed a ride to the hospital. "Naw," this young man said, gritting his teeth and pressing his hand against the wound. "I'll be alright." The next evening, the same car drove by again, taking better aim this time. We learned at his funeral that the young man shot dead on our corner was named Robert.

When our household of outsiders invited a guy from Walltown who was returning home from prison to come and live with us, we started to hear secondhand what the guys on the corner were saying. When we first came, they'd thought we were a police house, sent to monitor drug traffic. Then some said we were a plant from the local university—part of a secret plan to take over the neighborhood. Finally, they settled on calling us a church house because every Sunday and Wednesday they watched us go in and out of the Saint Johns Missionary Baptist Church, our Bibles in our hands.

About this time, the guys on the corner start talking. I learn their names and they learn mine. A couple of them start stopping by the house for dinner. Whenever I get a chance, I stop by their corner to catch up. One day, a fellow named Andre—who likes to rap when he talks—says to me, "You're a preacher, uh huh. / You want to talk theology, don't you?" I ask him what's on his mind. "Well, I'm a Muslim," he raps, hands flying up and down, "I'm a Muslim because / Christianity's about what you believe in your heart, / but Islam is about how you live."

I'm a Christian who grew up singing "King Jesus is all / he's my all and all." I get up every morning and go to bed every night praying, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." But I cannot argue with Andre. The Christianity he has seen is a feel-good spirituality, a get-me-through-another-week kind of faith. "Crack religion," some folks around here call it. But Andre prefers the real thing. Still, these theological conversations on the street corner are what make me into a street preacher—not the "turn before you burn" type, but something more akin to Paul on Mars Hill, always probing to see where God fits in. Always asking questions. One day I say to a guy who's run the streets since he was thirteen, to a young man who thought he was king when other people started selling his drugs for him, "Jesus said, 'If you live by the gun you'll die by the gun.' " There's no good use for a gun in this neighborhood, I tell him. And he says to me, "You oughta tell that to the police." Jesus is well and good for the church house, but out here on the street, he says, religion can get you killed.

He asks the same question Andre asks, the same question these guys have been asking me for a decade: What does your Jesus have to offer a guy like me? "As I have both studied and written about Jesus and the gospels," writes N.T. Wright in his newest offering, How God Became King, "I have had the increasing impression, over many years now, that most of the Western Christian tradition has simply forgotten what the gospels are really about." This celebrated scholar and former bishop of the Church of England seems to agree with the guys who hang out on the corner in Walltown. "What we need is not just a bit of fine-tuning, an adjustment here and there. We need a fundamental rethink about what the gospels are trying to say."

For the scholarly Wright, the first question to ask is, How did we ever forget the main point? How did the Jesus who ignited a popular movement by promising abundant life to marginalized people like the guys on the corner in Walltown become an irrelevant idea that scholars write about or an otherworldly deity that pious people worship? The answer is not simple, but Wright makes it comprehensible. It is a tragic accident of history, the sad result of thinking that the gifts the Holy Spirit offered at one moment in history can simply be packaged and delivered to our contexts today.

Wright's gift for clarity rests in his ability to make crucial distinctions, and the one most central to this book's argument is the historical difference between the creeds and the canon. The creeds, Wright observes, are doctrinal statements that Christians developed to answer the particular challenges of the 4th- and 5th-century church. In their context, they make perfect sense. But because they are a response to particular heresies, they necessarily do not say everything that must be said about who God is, why Jesus came, and what the Spirit is doing in the world today. This, Wright says, is why we have a canon—four gospels that have their own story to tell. And most of what they have to say is about the gap that comes between Jesus being "born of the virgin Mary" and "suffering under Pontius Pilate." That is, the gospels, by and large, cover ground that the creeds skip over with a comma.

In the great storehouse of Christian tradition, we have both creed and canon. But in the midst of the particular challenges that the Western church faced at the dawn of the modern era, creed trumped canon and doctrinal claims seemed more important than the story that the gospels tell. Wright masterfully demonstrates how this tendency is common to those groups that have most vehemently disagreed with one another in the church and the academy—conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives. We all seem to have agreed that creed and canon are separable, some clinging to doctrine whatever the cost, others saying that Jesus is an interesting historical figure, even if he wasn't God.

At the core of this book is an invitation to re-read the gospels—to hear them as the story of how God became King by paying attention to the ways they make claims about four themes that were central to the hopes and longings of 1st-century Israel. Those themes are the story of Israel, the story of Israel's God, the hope of God's renewed people, and the conflict between God's rule and the kingdoms of this world. For all of its value as a clear and concise argument about the meaning of Christian faith itself, this book is at its best highlighting Wright as a Bible teacher. The gospels come alive in these central chapters, singing the song that all of creation longs for, flowing like living waters in a dry and weary land. I wanted to stand on the corner and read several passages aloud.

But for all of his gifts as one of our best contemporary Bible teachers, Wright is not content to end this exploration with applause from guys like me who love the Bible anyway: "Part of the tragedy of the modern church, I have been arguing, is that the 'orthodox' have preferred creed to kingdom, and the 'unorthodox' have tried to get a kingdom without a creed. It's time," Wright says, "to put back together what should have never been separated." This work of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again is the work of communities that read the gospels and recite the creeds, living God's mission as the body of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Wright concludes by saying that the answer to this riddle isn't in the power of "all the king's horses and all the king's men." It's in little communities who try to live by the power of the Spirit in a place like Walltown.

This, I fear, is where Wright is most likely to be misunderstood: after so many years of Christendom, the news that the gospels are really about "how God became King" may come to some—especially those who worry that the Western church is in decline—as an invitation to rebuild our institutions, renegotiate our relationship with the power structures, and reclaim a sort of theocracy. I live in the Christ-haunted South. We're always susceptible to the promises of a Jerry Fallwell. But this is not the hope that the guys on our corner ache for, nor is it the good news Wright is proclaiming. "The implicit ecclesiology of all four gospels is a picture of the complex vocation of Jesus himself," Wright says. It is "to be kingdom-bringers … first because of Jesus' own suffering and second by means of their own." The Revelation is right: we will, one day, rule the nations. But we'll only get there the way Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father—by suffering with those who've been pushed to the margins until we learn to see together, through creed and canon alike, that another world is possible. Indeed, it's beginning to appear right now in our conversations on the corner and around the dinner table.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an associate minister at St. Johns Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. The Rutba House, where Jonathan lives with his family and friends, is a new monastic community that prays, eats, and lives together, welcoming neighbors and the homeless. He is the author most recently of The Awakening of Hope: Why We Preach a Common Faith, just published by Zondervan.

Most ReadMost Shared