Friday, 13 October 2006

Tom Wright: Simply Christian

In his little book Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2006), the distinguished New Testament scholar N. T. Wright offers a lively and refreshing introduction to Christian theology (and I’m grateful to SPCK for a review copy). In 16 short chapters, Wright outlines the broad terrain of Christian belief, beginning with general human experiences of longing (chapters 1-4), before discussing the story of the Old and New Testaments (chapter 5-10) and the meaning of the Christian life today (chapters 11-16).

The book’s central metaphor is that of “echoes.” In our longing for justice, our hunger for spirituality and relationship, and our delight in beauty, we are hearing “echoes of a voice” – and it is in the story of Jesus that we “recognize the voice whose echoes we have heard” (p. 61).

Wright points out that Christianity “is not about Jesus offering a wonderful moral example,” nor is it about Jesus “accomplishing a new route by which people can ‘go to heaven when they die,’” nor about “giving the world fresh teaching about God.” On the contrary, “Christianity is about something that happened” (pp. 78-79). Through Jesus, “God’s future has arrived in the present” – now, “[i]nstead of mere echoes, we hear the voice itself: a voice which speaks of rescue from evil and death, and hence of new creation” (p. 100).

Our unfulfilled longings are thus echoes of the voice that has now spoken in the resurrection of Jesus: “When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty rose with him” (p. 100). Further, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity derives directly from what took place in Jesus: “God, the true God, is the God we see in Jesus of Nazareth” – and this God “not only happens to love us,” but “he is love itself” (p. 118), so that “within the very being of this God there [is] a give-and-take, a to-and-fro, a love given and received” (p. 102).

In his discussion of worship, sacraments, prayer and scripture, Wright offers a generous and irenic approach, and he emphasises the importance of active participation in the life of the Christian community. Above all, he says, the Christian life is “the new way of being human, the Jesus-shaped way of being human, the cross-and-resurrection way of life, the Spirit-led pathway” – it is life lived in anticipation of “the full, rich, glad human existence which will one day be ours when God makes all things new” (p. 189). Thus Christian ethics is not about mastering certain rules and moral guidelines: “It is about practising, in the present, the tunes we shall sing in God’s new world” (p. 189).

And what is God’s new world all about? It is the perfection of our created world, the fulfilment of all our longings for justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty. Our role is to be “agents” of this new creation in all that we do – “in symphonies and family life, in restorative justice and poetry, in holiness and service to the poor, in politics and painting” (p. 202). For the new creation does not lie only in the future: “new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds and stewards of the new day that is dawning. That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian” (p. 202).

Tom Wright’s Simply Christian is a remarkably fresh, concise, and – in the best sense of the word – simple depiction of the Christian faith. It is grounded in a deep awareness of the fact that we learn who God really is only in the story of what God has done in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

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