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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, Ben. I bought and read Simply Christian around the time it came out in May and was not disappointed. It is at once comprehensive and compact; it is already being called the Mere Christianity of our times - though of course Wright is in a different ball park from Lewis theologically.

I like the way Wright is adept at the apt and wry metaphor. After his nod to a kind of natural theology - where he launches his image of the echoing, whispering voice (e.g. in the intimations of justice and beauty) - when he begins to talk "proper" theology he says: "None of these by itself points directly to God. . . At best, they wave their arms around in a rather general direction" (p. 49).

Or, again: "A great many arguments about God . . . run the risk of behaving like someone waving a torch upwards into the sky to see if the sun is shining" (p. 50).

Wright is also a master of the put-down which is ironic without being (too!) cruel, e.g. when it comes new age spirituality and postmodern nostrums, particularly when they are flavour on the month in the church. Like:

"When Jesus' followers asked him to teach them to pray, he didn't ask them to divide into focus groups and look deep into their hearts. He didn't begin by getting them to think slowly through their life-experiences, to discover what types of personality each of them had, to spend time getting in touch with their buried feelings . . ." (p. 141).

And Wright's short, final chapter on ethics is actually quite lovely, emphasing, as it does, simple kindness. And speaking of peace and forgiveness (my and your recent posts), Wright suggests that "Violence and personal vengeance are ruled out, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear" (p. 193). And though he then acknowledges a legitimate use for governmental force, he emphasises that "The Christian gospel challenges us to grow up morally in ways never dreamed of by much of the world" (p. 194).

Mind, along the way there are things here that will piss off both liberals and evangelicals. Which is, perhaps, the book's ultimate accolade!

Stephen G said...

Thanks for the review. I'll pull a copy out of the library sometime soon and give it a read.

A while back Wright did a DVD series "Living Faith: Exploring the Essentials of Christianity". Do you know if the book is related to this?

churchpundit said...

Good summary of the book! I think Wright's greatest contribution, as a historian, is his emphasis on what God has DONE in Christ, as you said. If we could keep our eyes on that truth, I think it would eliminate lots of garbage AND increase joy. Thus spoke churchpundit!

T.B. Vick said...

Good review Ben. I just bought this book three days ago so I am anxious to tucker down with a nice glass of wine, light up my pipe, and read the book!

Looks like a rich Pinot Nior would go nicely with this book. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben. I was delighted to find Simply Christian as I was working thru Wright's commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter's Bible series (another 'WOW!').

Question: Beginning on p 118 Wright speaks to the issue of Christ's self knowledge - "...many Christians have taken a wrong turn...[speaking] of Jesus as being 'aware,' during his lifteime, of his 'divinity'..."

Can any of you point me to sources that discuss this perspective more fully? Wright's example of the Garden of Gethsemane has always been a sticking point for me in regards to buying the Evangelical party line (Jesus knew he was God).

Anonymous said...

ben, great review and i agree with your overall take on the simple beauty of the book. i did find his gender discussion a little off putting, particularly if the point was to introduce Jesus. I just wondered if that could distract from his main point about relationships. Thoughts?

Michael F. Bird said...

Excellent review. I'm sending my brother a copy for Christmas.

Stephen G - I think SC and the DVD series have some similarities, but the DVD is really an intro to the Bible.

T.B. Vick - Mate, only even read Wright with Wolf Blass yellow label, it's a beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon! My copy of RSG is tinged with red pages due to my wine stained fingers touching the pages.

David Williamson said...

Yes, a really great review of an important book.

I would love Tom Wright to do a book on time management, given that he - like Alister McGrath - seems somehow able to produce three "big" books in the time it takes us to read one!

It seems to belong to a genre of proclamation which includes:

1. Mere Christianity, CS Lewis
2. Basic Christianity, John Stott
3. Our Faith, Emil Brunner

I'd be most interested to know of any others which are worth reading and recommending.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

You've succeeded in making me want to read this, Ben.

Ben Myers said...

Jim, on the question of Jesus' self-understanding (and I definitely think it's a mistake to say that Jesus "knew he was divine"), you could also look at Marinus de Jonge, God's Final Envoy: Early Christology and Jesus' Own View of His Mission (Eerdmans 1998) -- this is one of the most helpful books that I've read on the topic.

Mike: speaking of wine stains, just last night while I was sitting at my desk (working on an article about Barth's reading of Zwingli and Calvin) I bumped over a glass of Shiraz, and had to scramble madly to save a pile of books from wine-soaked ruin! Strangely, my first thought was not "Quick, save the laptop!", but: "Quick, save the Gesamtausgabe edition of Barth's lectures on Zwingli!"....

(Fortunately, no books were harmed in this incident.)

Jim said...

Appalling... And I mean spilling wine near Zwingli! A seldom mentioned danger in drinking is the fact that one may spill something on a book- one of the most wretched side effects.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid my book stains tend to be chocolate rather than Shiraz - and usually come from nodding off over Barth in bed. At least "sweet" dreams are guaranteed - double!

Ditto, by the way, regarding Jesus' self-understanding: he was not an Apollinarian!

byron smith said...

Jim - Wright discusses it at much greater length in Jesus and the Victory of God - particularly Part III 'The Aims and Beliefs of Jesus'. Within this, chapter 11 deals with messiahship, chapter 12 with the meaning of his death, and chapter 13 looks ahead (I guess Wright wanted to deal with resurrection at this point, but then his proposed 70 pages blew out to the 700 page Resurrection of the Son of God).

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks for the review, Ben. I went to hear him speak at the Washington Cathedral during his book tour promoting Simply Christian. I found his talk to represent his laudable ability, as Kim mentioned, to "piss off both liberals and evangelicals." He succeeded in this within the first five minutes, as he strongly criticized the far right and far left for their equally Gnostic pseudo-Christianity.

I also asked the first question in the following Q&A session. I asked him how he thought his book might contribute to the current ecumenical situation in light of Lewis's own intentions with Mere Christianity. Sadly, he avoided my question altogether. He did a rather poor job of responding to people, usually skirting the issues instead of addressing them. His talk was fine, but the session afterwards left the evening on a low note.

Ben Myers said...

That's a shame, David -- when I went to his talks here in Brisbane earlier in the year, the Q&A times were great. (And in an email relating to this thread, Wright says that the Q&A times are usually the highlight for him too!)

Perhaps in Washington he was feeling a little tired from all that travelling? "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Bishop of Durham..."

Anonymous said...

Generally speaking, the trouble with bishops are that they are generally speaking

T.B. Vick said...


Thanks for the wine tip - I'll get a bottle of Wolf Blass yellow label, tucker down, smoke a bit, and read the book. I knew there had to be a good wine for this occasion! ;-)

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

David Williamson asked for further good books in this genre. From more liberal perspectives, there's
Langdon Gilkey, Message & Existence.
Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity.

An African-American edition to the genre is James H. Evans, Jr., We Have Been Believers.

A fairly good evangelical Baptist addition (from someone who, Jim West will be thrilled to know, was also a Bultmann scholar!) is
Morris Ashcraft, Christian Faith and Beliefs.

Karl Barth's Credo is a classic in the genre.

Any others? I am looking forward to reading Bishop Wright's.

Anonymous said...

Three books specifically on the Apostles' Creed by outstanding theoloians are:

Helmut Thielicke, I Believe (1965)

Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Apostles' Creed in the Light of Today's Questions (1972)

Hans Küng, Credo: The Apostles' Creed Explained for Today (1992)

And a recent book by a Barthian Welshman: D. Densil Morgan, The Humble God: A Basic Course in Christian Doctrine (2005)

Ben Myers said...

And another great book in the same genre:

Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Fortress, 1973).

This is probably my favourite book in the genre, although sadly it is long out of print. Perhaps those good people at Wipf & Stock will one day do a nice reprint...?

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I like Jenson, but he's a just a little bit too Lutheran for an Anabaptist like myself to feel completely comfortable. (Of course, "comfort level" is hardly a criterion for reading theologians!0

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben (Marinus de Jonge) and Byron (Jesus & the Victory of God). I've ordered both.

Also ran across a 4-part audio at of Wright's IVP conference where part 3(I think it was) on God and Jesus spoke to this issue.

Ben Myers said...

Hi again Jim: glad this was helpful. In case it's of interest, the argument in Jesus and the Victory of God is also presented in a summarised form as one of the chapters in Wright's little book, The Challenge of Jesus.

Bob said...


N.T. has a chapter devoted to "Jesus' Self-Understanding" in "The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God" (Oxford).

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

David Williamson asked for further good books in this genre. From more liberal perspectives, there's
Langdon Gilkey, Message & Existence.
Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity.

An African-American edition to the genre is James H. Evans, Jr., We Have Been Believers.

A fairly good evangelical Baptist addition (from someone who, Jim West will be thrilled to know, was also a Bultmann scholar!) is
Morris Ashcraft, Christian Faith and Beliefs.

Karl Barth's Credo is a classic in the genre.

Any others? I am looking forward to reading Bishop Wright's.

kim farbisius said...

Generally speaking, the trouble with bishops are that they are generally speaking

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