nt wright’s "simply christian"

I’m about 2/3s through NT Wright’s book, Simply Christian, from earlier this year (you have to say that with people that publish a book every couple of months or so). I’m enjoying it, because I enjoy reading and listening to him. His sense of the broader narrative of the canon of Scripture is really helpful, as well as his relentless grounding of Jesus in the history and culture, the Story of Israel.

In the first section, he asserts four universal intuitions of humanity: justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty. Chapter by chapter (one on each of these subjects), he presents the questions begged by our experience of life in this world. Why do we have a sense of what justice is, or that it is real, but do not realize it in our societies or ourselves? Why do the vast majority of people today and people of the past in all parts of the world share a sense of spirituality–that divinity exists and that we can experience divinity somehow? Why do we have a sense that we are made for relating with others, yet even our best relationships are bumpy and include hurt in the midst of any joy we have from them? Why do we feel such an attraction to beauty in the world, but sense that it is still incomplete and transient–not perfect and lasting as we imagine beauty ought naturally to be? Wright calls these four senses “echoes of a voice,” suggesting that we experience the effects of the Real Thing, but they seem illusory and ambiguous to us. There must be some way of explaining these experiences, common to all humans everywhere and in all times. What overarching story would make sense of this?

In the second section, Wright offers the Christian Story from the Old and New Testaments as the one that makes the most sense. He sketches the contours of God, Israel, the Kingdom, Jesus, and the Spirit, and offers hints here and there of the Church. It’s a sweeping presentation of the biblical story. Wright emphasizes the importance of hearing the narrative of Scripture in his works generally and he has crafted this book (thus far) with a narrative presentation in the front of his mind.

I’ll write more about the third and final section of Simply Christian when I finish it. But I will offer a few thoughts here.

I like the book so far because Wright grounds his presentation of Christianity in the whole story of Scripture. Jesus is not uprooted from his location in the Jewish story in order to save individual persons from hell because of their sins, according to Wright’s presentation. Wright does not mind pressing against this, generally conservative evangelical, understanding of salvation in order to present a more biblically grounded one instead. Beginning with the “echoes of a voice” section, he seeks to tap into the context of our world and people today. The echoes he identifies ring true to me.

Where I would press the book is primarily in its self-understanding as to who it is written for. It purports to be written for persons outside of Chrsitian faith, but interested. I have questions about its effectiveness for that purpose. Wright’s vocabulary and writing style, while I enjoy him, do not strike me as particularly inviting for someone to pick up and dig into unless they are pretty well educated and/or enjoy thinking and grappling over heady stuff. If that is the case, it may well be exactly the book needed. That being said, I could see it being tremendously helpful for some thoughtful Christians who need a better grounding in the faith and who need to attain a more robust understanding of salvation, santification, heaven, etc.–one that is more richly biblical.

The other thing is that, we have come to expect Wright to press our buttons and boxes and offer truly fresh insights that still happen to be rooted and connected vitally to historical orthodox faith. But that is not the point; it is meant for introduction. It seems more suited for the already initiated or well educated. Here, it is likely missing its original mark.

One of the ironies of the landscape of Christianity in America today is that those who are more evangelistically concerned about getting people converted to Christ have misread God’s salvation, imagining an escape from their fleshly body into heaven after death (and away from hell) as being essentially what salvation is about. This view un-contexts Jesus and finds little warrant in the narrative of Scripture. In this case, some chapters and verses of Scripture are marshalled to offer support. But these are uprooted from their canonical location, thus giving them a new, truncated narrative context (the one we’ve created by plucking them out and reading them in the order in which we have placed them). Instead, Wright presents a view that the coming of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus, to be who Israel was called to be for the sake of all humanity (and all creation for that matter), so that we may be saved unto him and be included in his work of new creation, bringing about a new heavens and a new earth is really where it’s at biblically.

The former, supposedly more “conservative” view is less substantial and, it seems to me, less conservative–if by “conservative” we mean truer to the Christian Story told by Scripture. The latter view seems to me to be more aligned with the biblical witness on the matter and is considerably more robust and rich an understanding.

That’s all for now… Thoughts?

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7 thoughts on “nt wright’s "simply christian"

  1. How would an introduction for a person exposed to a post-christian world differ from someone who simply has not been initiated into the christian faith?

    Sounds like a better book for my younger brother who is struggling with his faith in light of his Jewish roots, the failure of his church/community, and the bad experiences he has had with Christians who abused the exclusivist positions then Mere Christianity.

  2. I’m curious as to how you might answer that question…

    Wright definitely places Jesus squarely within Judaism. For someone interested in how Christians see the relationship between Judaism and Jesus, I would think this a helpful book.

  3. Hey Guy,

    First time long time:) It is interesting that this book is supposed to be the modern version of “Mere Christianity.” It is interesting that Mere Christianity is also no easy read for people who do not prob deep, yet has been a very effective book for thinking people. What is more interesting to me is that I think part of Lewis’s effectiveness is that he spoke as a layman and not as a clergyman. Sort of an outsider by first appearance but really a subversive insider. Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham which means he falls squarely on the inside. So wil people resonate with him as well? I think people are willing to wrestle with Lewis because he comes to them from the outside, I wonder if Wright will feel as approachable for people.

  4. Gavo:

    You bet. Hope you enjoy. May I recommend The Challenge of Jesus by NT Wright, if you haven’t read it yet. An excellent book, and my first introduction to him.

    Matt:

    Great to have you, thanks for the comment. Yeah, you’re making a good point here. I was thinking about the first thing (Lewis demanding a thinking engagement of what he was saying), but hadn’t thought of your second observation–Lewis writing as a layman (incidentally, I love when he says that he thinks it best to leave certain things to the theologians, since, after all, he’s a layman of the Church of England–as if he wasn’t one of the most remarkable intellectuals of the 20th century and quite capable of thinking with great theological depth!).

    I hope Wright will succeed in being approachable. I think his narrative approach, which places Jesus squarely within the story of God and Israel, and Lewis’ Mere Christianity are great companions for one another.

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