A key word for Tom Wright in his book Surprised by Hope: is “muddle.” That word best describes how so many Christians think about life after death and resurrection and the like. Wright aims to end the muddle. One of the finest forms of theology is to enter into a problem and resolve it; another is to clarify muddle. Wright does that in this book.
Wright begins with the muddle in his own church, illustrated by the famous lines of Canon Henry Scott Holland (St. Paul’s), and it might good for you to look through this poem to see what you think is Christian theology and what is not … it’s a good test case for this book.
Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
Wright calls this into question, not only because it is not Christian theology but also because it is ripped from its context and suggests Holland had different ideas than he had. Here’s how Wright responds: “It offers hollow comfort. By itself, without comment, it simply tells lies. It is not even a parody of Christian hope. Instead, it simply denies that there is any problem, any need for hope in the first place” (14). Then he contrasts that with the famous lines of John Donne, “Death be not proud … Death, thou shalt die.”
Somehow Christians have oscillated between death as a vile enemy and a welcome friend. He knows “heaven” is not understood properly by most Christians — we’ll get to this later in this series — and then he enters into more of the muddle. Here is some more:
Hymns — he picks on John Keble’s “Till in the ocean of love we lose ourselves in heaven above.” And John Henry Newman’s reference to a previous life with angels and the blatant Platonism of “Abide with Me” in “Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee.”
The Christian Year — he picks on some Christmas hymns (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Away in a Manger”) and then suggests Christmas has become too central with no energy left for the most important event of Easter.
Funerals — he enters here (he comes back to this later in the book) into issues with cremation and how many conceive it. I like this:
“if someone came to these funeral services with no idea of the classic Jewish and Christian teaching on the subject, the funeral services would do little to enlighten them and plenty to mislead them or confirm them in their existing muddle” (25).
“Frankly, what we have at the moment isn’t, as the old liturgies used to say, ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead’ but the vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end” (25).
The robust Christian doctrine ties together work in this world with the Life to Come.
Now this teaser to what is to come: “Scripture, in fact, teaches things about the future life that most Christians, and almost all non-Christians, have never heard of” (27).