Sunday, February 23, 2014

Half Way There! (sort of, well, not really, actually)

I just finished "Book I" of N.T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God. That's 569 pages down, only about 1000 to go. So, it's not really even close to half-way, even though I'm done with 2 of 4 parts.

So, what do I think so far? Well, pretty good. I mentioned previously that the first part (= 350 pages) is all background. The 100-page chapter on Judaism (ch. 2) is really good, though I'm not sure about everything in it. (I can see why Wright wants to relate Shammai to violent resistance against Rome, and then to link Paul to Shammai, but do we actually have any evidence for this?)

I really liked ch. 6, about Paul's 'symbolic praxis', and I sorta liked ch. 7, about the 'story' that formed the basis of Paul's worldview. I only 'sorta' liked it because I only sorta understood it. I guess I can fall back on my tried-and-true excuse that I'm not a NT scholar, so someone more up-to-speed on all the discussion surrounding Paul's theology would probably have an easier time of it. Or maybe Paul is just really difficult to understand sometimes, which makes Wright sorta difficult in explaining him. I don't get the impression that Wright thinks it's all that difficult to understand (though he is the one that needed 1600 pages to explain it!). After several pages of dense discussion of the role of Torah in Paul's theology, he says: "The resolution of the paradox, then, is easy [...]" (p. 514). Oh, thanks. Or later, in the same chapter in his section on Jesus in Paul's 'story': "Once we place this element of the Jesus-story within the Israel-story we studied in the previous section, all becomes clear" (p. 526). Well, it's not exactly clear to me. Anyway, I think this is a good chapter, but I am going to have to re-read it, especially the sections on Torah and Jesus.

Chapter 8, the last in "Book 1," is brief (30pp.) and helpful. It addresses the "five worldview questions," or, as Wright likes to call them "Kipling's 'honest serving men." Who are we? Where are we? What's wrong? What's the solution? What time is it? The discussion in this chapter serves as a nice summary of the stuff on Paul so far in the volume.

Now some random interesting bits:
Even there, however, Paul believes that the forces of evil are already in principle defeated. (That phrase 'in principle' is helpful up to a point; yet is also a way of saying, 'We can't easily put into words how the "now" and the "not yet" function in relation to one another.' It is at least better than the arm-waving phrase 'in a very real sense', which, as students, clergy and politicians often need reminding, means 'I very much want to assert this but I haven't yet figured out how.') (p. 547)
I'm sure I've used the phrase "in a very real sense" before, and it's nice to see someone call us (including me) out on it. Now that I think about it, it does seem like a phrase that means just what Wright says, or maybe it even means "in a sense that does not actually correspond to what we normally think of as reality." I suppose "in principle" is better. But "in a very real sense" also sounds like something I could have heard or read from Wright before. Which brings me to this:
We should not imagine, as in Cullmann's famous image of D-Day and V-Day, that Paul supposes the present time to be a matter of a steady advance, with the world gradually getting better and better as God (or even the church) engages in a kind of 'mopping-up operation', eliminating bit by bit pockets of resistance to the restorative justice which God has established and is establishing in the Messiah. Any attempt to read church history that way is manifestly doomed to failure, but, more importantly, there is no sign of such a 'progressive kingdom' in Paul. (p. 548)
I do not want to disagree with Wright's point here, but as I read this--where Wright says that the present time is not a 'mopping-up operation'--I thought for sure that I had read Wright say in another book that the present was indeed a kind of 'mopping-up operation'. A little googling reveals the following:
Paul's vision of the Christian life is thus (as has often been pointed out) of a life lived between D-Day and VE-Day. The decisive battle has been won; the battles we face today are part of the mopping-up operation to implement that victory. (Following Jesus [1994] p. 21)
Well, it's been 20 years, so I guess he's changed the way he presents Paul's idea of the present time. Fine. I guess I might appreciate a note alerting us to the change. Anyway, I've never read Following Jesus, so I'm guessing that Wright used the image of 'mopping-up' in some other of his work also, though Google wouldn't tell me which.

Wright has a rather long section on how the 'messianic time' is equivalent, for Paul, to the Sabbath (555-61).
The great 'now' of the gospel, in other words, is the fresh reality for which the antecedent signpost was the sabbath. (p. 555)
My proposal here is that his emphasis on 'the now time', the time when the Messiah is ruling in heaven over all things in heaven and on earth, implies within the Jewish mindset at least that the new creation has been accomplished, and that the 'Sabbath', not in terms of cessation of work but in terms of God's dwelling in, and ruling within, the new world he has made, has been inaugurated. (p. 559) 
This is a mere hypothesis, because Paul does not actually talk about the Sabbath. This is apparently a new suggestion, and Wright thinks it quite daring: "This rather dramatic proposal--the kind of thing wise friends advise one to publish in a recondite journal rather than a mainline monograph [...]" (p. 560). Wright has put together a nice argument, but it must remain speculative simply because, again, Paul doesn't talk about the Sabbath. Actually, that's part of the reason Wright makes the proposal: he notes that the Sabbath is "omnipresent both in second-Temple Judaism and through to the present day, yet otherwise astonishingly absent in Paul" (p. 555).

Final note. Wright mentions again "Sander's pack animals" (not under that title this time, though), and he now seems more open to the idea:
how we wish we knew what sort of inns Paul stayed in, how he transported the Collection-money, whether he did indeed travel with animals as beasts of burden, what he liked for breakfast ... so much of his own 'culture' is hidden from us, and we can only guess. (p. 564)

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