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?