The American Christian scene is an exciting place these days–also a noisy, bullying place. We are charmed or alarmed by high-flying debate about The Da Vinci Code, the politics of the Religious Right, “lost” gnostic gospels, prosperity gospels, culture war, homosexuality, the Left Behind novels, the ethics of poverty and global warming, the prospect of more terrorism in God’s name.
We are charmed or alarmed by high-flying debate about The Da Vinci Code, the politics of the Religious Right, “lost” gnostic gospels, prosperity gospels, culture war, homosexuality, the Left Behind novels, the ethics of poverty and global warming, the prospect of more terrorism in God’s name.
So overheated and distracted is the religious marketplace that the story of the Christian message itself becomes the real lost gospel.
Reading Simply Christian, I’d forgotten how much I missed a conversational, self-deprecating witness to the reasons for faith, written without hysteria. Step by step, N.T. Wright invites readers to make sense of Jesus as God’s “rescue mission” to humanity, the human condition standing uncomfortably sandwiched between heaven and earth, haunted by a four-fold yearning for justice, spirituality, healthy relationships and beauty.
Wright has become a prominent Christian voice–a rare combination of New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, a theorist, pragmatist, and communicator. In his hands, Christianity is the sane and poetic alternative to two rival spiritual views of earth. The first is pantheism, which says everything is infused with the divine current (even evil, apparently). The other is deism, envisioning God as a shrugging, distant deity who refuses to care about this world or intervene in its sorrows.
Christianity is a third way. In Jesus, something cosmic happened. Jesus is the personality in whom “heaven and earth have come together once and for all,” the ultimate overlap between God and humanity. Jesus’ work was not to offer a new teaching but literally to bring “God’s future into the present” and make it stick. He unleashed a new creation. Believers are beckoned to take up their proper adult role as agents of this new reality, right now, keeping this big picture in view, not getting derailed by hermeneutical sideshows.
“In particular, we are all invited–summoned, actually–to discover, through following Jesus, that this new world is indeed a place of justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty, and that we are not only to enjoy it as such but to work at bringing it to birth on earth as in heaven,” he writes.
“In listening to Jesus, we discover whose voice it is that has echoed around the hearts and minds of the human race all along.”
The tendency of much Jesus talk today is to invoke a floating messiah who is cut off from the rough-and-tumble of ancient Judaism. Wright refuses to do this, situating Jesus firmly in his Jewish setting. His point is to take the whole Bible seriously, identifying Jesus as the embodiment of God’s dream found in Genesis and Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament, the dream of creation healed and restored.
Wright is a classic Christian apologist offering orthodox sentiments. (“Faith,” he says, “cannot be forced, but unfaith can be challenged.”) His descriptions of, say, the Ark of the Covenant or panentheism, are often elementary. (Disappointingly, the book has no index.)
In two instances, he swerves away from conventional expectation. He believes it’s a mistake to say Jesus offered a new route “by which people can ‘go to heaven when they die.'” The modern obsession with a heavenly afterlife is a medieval notion, he argues. He won’t deny that “our present beliefs and actions have lasting consequences,” but the point of Christianity is to wake us up to this new creation that Jesus made possible and join God’s purposes.
Similarly, he resists using words like infallible and inerrant to defend the Bible. Insistence on those words comes out of a quarrelsome, limited North American Protestant milieu.
“Ironically, in my experience, debates about words like these have often led people away from the Bible itself and into all kinds of theories which do no justice to scripture as a whole–its great story, its larger purposes, its sustained climax, its haunting sense of an unfinished novel beckoning us to become, in our own right, characters in its closing episodes.”
He adds: “Listening to God’s voice in scripture doesn’t put us in the position of having infallible opinions. It puts us where it put Jesus himself: in possession of a vocation, whether for a lifetime or for the next minute. Vocations are fragile, and are tested in performance. That is what it’s like to live at the intersection of heaven and earth.”
The book’s title invites comparison with another Anglican don speaking chattily about matters of faith to a generation at war, the author of Mere Christianity. Is N.T. Wright the new C.S. Lewis?
The remarkable Lewis created a new mode of everyday theological speech for the electronic age (he did radio talks during World War II), and western Christendom has been searching for successors ever since. Wright is similarly engaging, free of jargon and mental clutter, but he is not as flashy as his predecessor, nor given to the same unstoppable torrent of sternly schoolmaster-style analogies.
In a nervous 21st century climate, though, Wright is refreshing for his buoyancy, his lack of bitterness. He is determined to hear scripture speak and hear himself think, and keep before him the deep outlines of a great cosmic romance, God’s search for us in this broad “holy land” called the world.
Ray Waddle, a writer based in Nashville, Tenn., is author of Against the Grain: Unconventional Wisdom from Ecclesiastes.
Click here to order Simply Christian from Amazon.com.