One of the pleasures of recording on the inside cover of a book the date you finished reading it—I’ve been doing that now for over a decade—is that, when you return to it, you can instantly imagine yourself back in time. When I recently opened Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for instance, to start it again, I was surprised to find “June 2004” scribbled on the flyleaf. That was the month after I graduated from college, and seeing that date enabled me to recall some fascinating juxtapositions.
That summer I had also read The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays, a tour of the various canonical voices and a proposal about how their harmonies may be received in contemporary ethical discourse. Hays’s book seemed an appropriate choice because I’d spent the last two years poring over thousands of pages of New Testament scholarship written by Hays’s good friend and comrade-in-arms N. T. Wright, who was then the bishop of Durham. (Hays and Wright see many issues in the same light, and their voices complement one another well, though not to the extent that they simply blend.) In the most recent of Wright’s books that I’d read at the time, Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright gives his interpretation of the so-called historical Jesus. He finishes with “The Return of the King,” a section whose title, Wright tells his readers, is an homage to J. R. R. Tolkien—another author I’d been reading in 2004, having finished The Lord of the Rings for the third time in January of that year.
This confluence of authors—Tolkien, Wright, and Rowling (the last one I’d forgotten about until I glanced at my handwriting in Sorcerer’s Stone)—goes a long way, I think, toward explaining the appeal that Wright’s theology had for me in those days. Having loved the dramatic sweep of Tolkien’s narrative, and having caught a glimpse of a derivative (but no less delightful) arc in Rowling’s tales, I was primed to embrace a biblical theology like Wright’s, whose major buzzwords were “story,” “narrative,” and the associated terms of literary analysis.
Wright’s theology, now on display brilliantly, yet again, in his massive new two-volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God, is one that reads the Bible as if it belonged on the shelf next to works about Middle Earth and the demise of the dark wizard Voldemort. It proposes a unifying “metanarrative” that binds the two Christian testaments together. And it sees a resurrected monarch—think of Aragorn’s coronation at the White City in the third Rings volume, or Harry’s final victory in the blasted ruin of Hogwarts, his wand held tremblingly aloft—as the culmination of a long-running story that began in Genesis with Abraham’s call and wended its slow way through Israel’s exodus and the careers of her prophets. Reading authors like Tolkien or Rowling can be a kind of praeparatio evangelica for taking up Wright’s tomes. It’s entirely unsurprising that someone like my recently college-graduated self would arrive, via Gondor and Godric’s Hollow, at Wright’s doorstep and conclude, “I’ve come to the right place.”
Now, as I scribble “January 2014” underneath “June 2004” in the first Harry Potter book, I find myself wondering how I’ll react ten years from now when I pick up the book again. I’m no longer reading Wright and Hays for the first time. Instead I’m reading the Lutheran biblical scholar Ernst Käsemann. (Käsemann was a pupil of Rudolf Bultmann and died in 1998.) In his day, Käsemann resolutely opposed the kind of narrative intepretation that Wright has advocated so powerfully. In a lecture delivered in various venues around the United States in 1965–66, Käsemann fiercely criticized an emerging trend in Pauline interpretation that, he judged, had “lost its past revolutionary fire and [was] now planting conservatively laidout gardens on the petrified lava.”
What worried Käsemann was a reading of Paul that treated the apostle’s theology of salvation history as if it were a narrative of progress, always onward and upward, like a bumpy but discernibly ascending stock chart. Käsemann maintained that Paul never viewed history that way—as if Abraham’s call, Israel’s election, David’s monarchy, and the Messiah’s final appearing were successive chapters in a linear, well-ordered storyline with a specifiable beginning, middle, and end. According to Käsemann, the problem with a scheme like Wright’s, in which a promise-making God meets a covenant-keeping people, is that it can downplay, or even sideline altogether, the moments of sharp discontinuity, the moments of slippage and rupture, in which divine fidelity encounters only human failure and disobedience: moments such as Sarah’s laughter when Abraham is told she will bear a son, or David’s adultery and murder when God promises him an heir.
The roots of Käsemann’s nervousness about “salvation history” as a theological category lay partly in the then-recent German past, in which “a conception of salvation history [had broken] in on us in secularized and political form with the Third Reich and its ideology.” Refusing to posit a narratable development—a doctrine of sanctification writ large, as it were—Käsemann insisted that whatever “story” the Bible contained was a highly paradoxical one, a story of God acting, by way of his promising word, to raise the dead, to bring life out of nothingness. At every stage of “salvation history,” and not just at the time of primordial chaos in Genesis 1, the plan of God advanced only by way of apparent retreat. And at every point, that power—the divine “righteousness,” Paul called it in his Epistle to the Romans—performs its work in counterpoint to human waywardness and rebellion. “Sarah’s laughter,” Käsemann wrote, in a highly memorable flash of poetry, “is faith’s constant companion.”
As I reread Harry Potter now, and have begun thinking about when I might reread The Lord of the Rings, I realize that the line connecting Rowling’s and Tolkien’s epics to Wright’s biblical theology may not be as direct as I once thought it was. With Käsemann’s voice in my ear, I am noticing more narratological chaos, bewilderment, and defeat in Rowling’s books than I saw before. I’m more alert to how the story doesn’t proceed smoothly or predictably but instead depends on something rather like the antidote Käsemann found in the Reformation doctrine of the justification of the impious.
Think of how Harry, throughout the seven books, never feels that any of the magical skills he’s acquired in his training at Hogwarts have prepared him for his final showdown with Voldemort. Dumbledore, his wise mentor, keeps Harry guessing about his own schemes for the Dark Wizard’s downfall, and only in the sixth book, near the end, is Harry finally given some intimation about how he might accomplish his decisive assault on Voldemort. But even then, the victory comes only after Harry has died. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”: That line from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians was chosen by Rowling as the epigraph to the seventh Harry Potter book.
Likewise, consider the ending of The Lord of the Rings. Faithfully and admirably, Frodo has set his face like flint toward Mt. Doom, unwavering in his determination to cast the perilous ring into the flames. And yet, when he arrives, his nerve fails. He suddenly decides to keep the ring for himself, and would have succeeded in doing so if it weren’t for the treacherous Gollum, who seizes it at the last possible moment before succumbing to his own death. It was only, as Tolkien later opined in a letter to a reader, that “strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy”—which earlier Frodo had bestowed on Gollum, thereby preserving him for his final tragic role in the drama of the ring—that effected the bizarre “eucatastrophe” of the ring’s destruction and Middle Earth’s salvation. It certainly wasn’t Frodo’s moral resolve or perseverance, in and of itself, that won the day.
There is, it seems, more than one way to learn to read the Bible as a coherent story. One approach, represented by N. T. Wright’s covenantal, salvation-history model, stresses continuity and consistency, the onward rush of the story toward its “climax.” The other way stresses, in Käsemann’s words, “broken hopes and realized stupidities, disagreeable developments and vain service, broken existences and triumphant worldliness.” And, in the midst of all that human wreckage, it also stresses the single thread that alone makes any of it anything other than sheer waste: the strange, unpredictable element that we might call (with Tolkien) Mercy or (with St. Paul) the divine “righteousness”—the power of God for salvation that works its magic through death and resurrection.
If I weren’t already convinced, these confluences would be enough to persuade me of the joy and stimulation that come from jotting in the pages of my books the months and years when I read them.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.