Monday, April 04, 2005

Wright on Evil 

I watched Wright’s Channel 4 programme on evil last night (thanks to a friend who videoed it for me; we don’t have a TV, but we have a video player and monitor). For those who are wondering, he is against it. I was disappointed with the programme, but not really any more than I had expected to be. Television is not a very good medium for theology; even a communicator as gifted as Wright cannot easily express his message on it. Wright’s presentation was essentially a very condensed version of his Westminster Abbey lectures on evil and the justice of God (available online). The problem is that Wright’s treatment of evil consists of a very developed argument. Such arguments do not translate well onto the screen. By the end of the programme one could imagine that most viewers would fail to understand the complex logic of Wright’s presentation. I also felt that there were certain elements missing or muted, that are usually present in Wright’s treatment. There were also some ambiguities that made me wonder to what degree Wright was constrained in the expression of his position. One of these ambiguities was the current status of the Jewish nation. Are the Jews still the chosen people of God? I can’t imagine Wright’s position on such issues going down well in many circles. There was also the question of the place of the wrath of God at the cross. This dimension seemed to be absent from Wright’s presentation. I believe that evangelicals who watched the programme will wonder where the penal aspect of the cross went to (although I think that Wright emphasized aspects that should be regarded as more primary). I wondered where they went to too, although I know full well that Wright has argued in favour of penal substitution in many different contexts before. Perhaps you can only go so far on public television. Having begun with a broad-brush presentation of the problem of evil, Wright moved into a treatment of God’s solution to the problem. He worked from the calling of Abraham, through the conquest of the land, to the exile and the expectation of a future Messiah (cryptically spoken of in such passages as Isaiah 53). The focus of Wright’s presentation was on a Christus Victor account of the atonement, following on from a brief account of Christ’s public ministry. Evil is concentrated in one place and Jesus goes right into the eye of the storm to defeat it. Evil is defeated at the cross and the new world order is ushered in by the resurrection. [The Christus Victor motif is the primary one for Wright in all of his writings, taking priority over other perspectives on the cross, but not excluding them. Penal substitution comes under the category of Christus Victor for Wright: God’s confrontation with the powers of evil must bring about the proper condemnation of the powers in me and my deliverance from them, which necessitates penal substitution.] The programme then turned to the manner in which we must deal with evil in this day and age. This part seemed to be a bit detached from what had been said previously. Somewhere after the description of the death of Christ the gathering force of the argument seemed to dissipate. Wright himself has warned of the danger of failing to go beyond the cross as the greatest statement of the problem of evil and moving into an understanding of the cross as the great solution to the problem of evil. Wright’s argument from the beginning promised that the cross provided this, but I did not feel that the argument delivered as much as it could have done. What was given was a challenge to forgiveness, with a number of examples from South Africa. It was good enough, but it failed to go much beyond treating Jesus as a great example or moral teacher. This is sad, because Wright’s theology has many powerful things to say to this issue that were not said. Many liberals would not disagree too much with what was said in this final section. If the presentation had been clearer they should have done. Wright needed to address more directly the question of how our practice of forgiveness grows out of Christ’s achievement on the cross. He also needed to speak of the new world order that the gospel creates and how this provides a solution to the problem of evil. Perhaps more of an emphasis upon the resurrection would have helped. Of course, his argument was too involved for television as it was; adding these extra elements would not have helped the lay viewer. There were a few other aspects of Wright’s approach that disappointed me. For one, I think that it would be far more helpful if he worded himself more carefully when speaking about Satan. One could easily be excused if one got the impression that Wright denies the existence of Satan. He doesn’t, but his refusal to speak of Satan as a ‘personal’ entity (for involved theological reasons) leads to unfortunate confusion. In passing, I think that Wright’s account of the quasi-personality of Satan might go some way towards opening up his understanding of hell and the removal of man’s ‘image-bearing-ness’ within it. I was also disappointed that Wright seems to over-accent political evil and mute his expressions of the evil that exists within each one of us. This is characteristic of a number of his works and, along with some of his proposed political solutions, frustrates me somewhat. Overall, I felt that the programme was far too full. You simply cannot say that much and expect a lay television audience to take it in and properly digest it. Those who want to encounter a far better account of evil from Wright should be directed to his Evil and the Justice of God lectures, which are quite excellent.

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