Glenn recently posted his thoughts on this book, and sparked my interest in a volume which has been working its way up my reading pile for the last few weeks. Yesterday I finally had the chance to sit down and read the first couple of chapters, and at this early stage these are my thoughts in progress. Please note that I am blogging this as I read the book, so at two chapters in it is naturally incomplete.
I tend to read too fast. It means I can get through an astonishing number of books in a year, but when it comes to digesting the more thoughtful texts I have to deliberately slow down. If I don't force myself to take it easy, I may as well not read the book at all.
Surprised By Hope is NT Wright's examination of a right Christian understanding of what happens when we die, and what happens next. He begins with the assertion, with plenty of supporting illustration, that we have lost the notion of 'bodily resurrection' and all its implications for life now and later, and that when most of us use the word 'heaven' we are meaning something very different to what is portrayed in Scripture.
A natural first question is, "so what?"
Surprised By Hope, 2007, SPCK, p37:
What role does a belief in life beyond the grave play within the larger issues which face us in Christian life and thought? Karl Marx famously spoke of religion as the opium of the people. He supposed that oppressive rulers would use the promise of a joyful future life to try to stop the masses from rising in a revolt. That has indeed often been the case. But my impression is that this is what happens when the 'religion' in question includes the Platonic downgrading of bodies and of the created order in general, regarding them as the 'vain shadows' of earth, which we shall happily leave behind at death. Why try to improve the present prison if release is at hand? Why oil the wheels of a machine that will soon plunge over a cliff? That is precisely the effect created to this day by some devout Christians who genuinely believe that 'salvation' has nothing to do with the way the present world is ordered.
When I was studying at Bible college, we had a lecturer in doctrine who spent a great deal of time exploring with us the various views of the 'end times' (hear phrases like 'pre-millenial' and 'post-millenial', and shudder). An American, he acknowledged that while the debate between these various positions had been a big deal in the US, it hadn't really come to anything in the UK. Yet he impressed on us — and convinced me — that whatever beliefs we claim to hold or actually hold about what will happen in the end, and what will happen to us then or if we die beforehand, have tremendous implications for how we approach day-to-day life in the here-and-now.
As the title of the book suggests, it's about the nature of the hope that we, as Christians, claim.
The first two chapters are a quick survey of some of the beliefs and assumptions about death and 'after-life' that are expressed in our Western society and in the Church, and a fascinating survey it is. Wright then lays out the path the book will take, exploring past beliefs about life after death, presenting the 'ultimate Christian hope' — what is a right, Biblical understanding? — and concluding with what all this means for life as it is lived, right now.
Surprised By Hope, 2007, SPCK, p41:
Our task in the present... is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.
That's an assertion that excites me, and that has me eager to read the rest of the book.