Bishop N.T. Wright is arguably the most prolific biblical theologian of our time. Capable of treatises that challenge long-cherished interpretations of doctrines – such as his expansive Paul and the Faithfulness of God addressing justification- Wright’s versatility shows through in a different approach targeted both to the believer and to the intelligent seeker. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (Harper Collins, 2006; Amazon Kindle edition) is one such book.
Part One, “Echoes of a Voice,” invites the reader into a conversation. By examining injustice (and the human desire to correct it), the “hidden spring” of an undeniable thirst for spirituality in the human heart, relationships between persons and the role of beauty for meaningful existence, Wright examines longings common to all human beings, asking important questions for whom the only sensible answer is God.
Part Two launches into a review of who God is and how God has chosen to relate to creation. He briefly reviews (pp. 60-63)- and dismisses – traditional approaches to God, including what he calls “Option 1,” namely, pantheism (“all is God and God is all”), panentheism (“all is in God”), and “Option 2,” deism (where God creates then removes himself). In its place, he proposes Option 3, a scheme where heaven and earth are “overlapping and interlocking” (p. 63). The biblical narrative of both Old and New Testaments bears witness to this engagement between Creator and Creation, but why is such engagement necessary? Wright clarifies (p. 66):
In particular, this God appears to take very seriously the fact that his beloved creation has become corrupt, has rebelled and is suffering the consequences.
With this premise given, much of the rest of the book (including Part 3) falls into place as a solution to a problem. The Kingdom of God (chapter 7), Jesus as the one who rescues and renews (chapter 8) and New Creation (chapter 16) can be viewed in this light. Other themes include worship (chapter 11), prayer (chapter 12) and the nature of Scripture (chapter 13), to name a few. In each case, Wright keeps things simple, remaining faithful to his goal of helping those who are new to faith or considering following Jesus.
A great strength of the book is its stories. Wright is quick to spin a tale, such as the powerful dictator who decided to control the unpredictability of springs and the floods they cause by paving them over. In their place, he introduced a complicated system of pipes from which water would flow. What happens when people realize that there is far better water to drink than the bland brew that comes out of rusty pipes? Religion taps the deep wells that authorities have forbidden and that many have forgotten, springs that – when tapped – can produce unexpected results. Wright (p. 20) concludes:
September 11, 2001, serves as a reminder of what happens when you try to organize a world on the assumption that religion and spirituality are merely private matters, and that what really matters is economics and politics instead. It wasn’t just concrete floors, it was massive towers, that were smashed to pieces that day, by people driven by ‘religious’ beliefs so powerful that the believers were ready to die for them. What should we say? That this merely shows how dangerous ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ really are? Or that we should have taken them into account all along?
Where Wright shines is his treatment of the meaning of resurrection. While he fleshes out his eschatology in greater detail in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper Collins, 2008), in Simply Christian (p. 114), he previews his later thoughts: “Resurrection isn’t a fancy way of saying ‘going to heaven when you die.’ It is not about ‘life after death’ as such. Rather, it’s a way of talking about being bodily alive again after a period of being bodily dead.” In any case, Wright places his accent in the same place as the New Testament, namely, on resurrection as the cornerstone of Christian faith and the basis of Christian hope.
(Read my review of Surprised by Hope by clicking here.)
Simply Christian isn’t flawless. A survey like Wright’s doesn’t have the space to delve too deeply into topics. One example is his description of King Saul’s reign as a “false start” (p. 77). There’s no acknowledgment that Saul’s reign has been estimated as having lasted between 10 and 40 years. By comparison, David ruled for 40 years (1 Kings 2:11) so Saul’s reign was a healthy duration by any measure.
This is the second book I’ve read by N.T. Wright. His writing are appealing in large part because they major on interpreting the biblical witness, avoiding a speculative, philosophical approach to theology. Though he doesn’t allude to John Wesley, one can’t help but think that Wesley would have been a fan of the former Bishop of Durham.
Photo credit (N.T. Wright): Patheos.com