Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense
by N. T. Wright.
Harper Collins (San Francisco) 240 pp., $29.50, cloth, 2006.
Tom Wright is the author of many scholarly and popular books, including a popular-level translation and commentary of the New Testament (the For Everyone series). His recent elevation to Anglican Bishop of Durham has not slowed his prolific output (though scholars and pastors from all Christian traditions continue to wait impatiently for the final volumes in his scholarly Christian Origins series, the most recent volume of which, the justly celebrated Resurrection of the Son of God, came out in 2003).
In Simply Christian, he presents us with a book in the tradition, as the title indicates, of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and John Stott’s Basic Christianity. Its purpose is to introduce the Christian faith to the secular reader, a task made necessary by cultural and intellectual changes since the mid-twentieth century, not least the rise of postmodern (more accurately, hypermodern) thought. It compares favorably with its predecessors, standing out for its refusal to innovate on Christian doctrine while being fully engaged with the best contemporary scholarship and creative and winsome in presentation.
Wright organizes his argument around an appeal to universal human instincts—justice, beauty, spirituality, and relationships, demonstrating their grounding in a reality affirmed by the Christian witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in history. His prose is straightforward and conversational, if only occasionally elegant, and is used to good effect in gently clearing away the ignorance, assumptions, and prejudice prevalent among many readers in our increasingly post-Christian and essentially Gnostic age. He presents the good news of the Christian message in a way that people in this context should understand.
Wright’s target audience should find his treatment of the foundational questions like the possibility of real knowledge, the reliability of the Christian scriptures, and the historicity of the resurrection masterful, clear, and persuasive. He debunks the Enlightenment’s privatization of faith (and the Christian capitulation to it known as pietism), helping us understand afresh the world-shaking implications of Jesus’ actions and identity. We have to get these core understandings right, for as he says,
[o]ur vision of the road from here to there, from creation to new creation—in other words, the way we are called to live in the present—will vary not just according to what we conceive to be the final destination, but according to the whole way we understand God and the world.
His careful focus on the resurrection of the body is strictly orthodox, but will appear innovative for many, as resurrection is the Christian doctrine most in need of recovery today. If the Christian testimony is to be believed, Jesus is the only one who has overcome death, and this marks him as the world’s true lord. Wright reminds us that in this understanding, the task of Jesus’ followers is to work with God as he puts the world to rights. Heaven is not the final Christian paradise—paradise refers to new creation, the new heavens and new earth. The attentive reader will note radical disparity with both evangelical and liberal theology. This theme should also be read as Wright’s corrective to some shortcomings in Lewis’s Mere Christianity. As Wright notes in a recent lecture on that best-selling book, while Lewis obviously believed in the bodily resurrection, in discussing Jesus he oddly fails to mention Jesus’ resurrection at all, and his treatment of “heaven” ends up more Platonic than biblical. Wright’s understanding correctly reconnects theology with ethics, Sundays with workdays, offering grounding for responsible action in the present.
Wright has extensive training and a sure and innovative touch in history, theology, and biblical studies—and he is no slouch in philosophy, spirituality, languages, and literature. He is, shall we say, on solid ground in these areas. To switch metaphors, one reason many of his Christian critics come from the strict Calvinist tradition is that Wright is doing work that has the potential—I do not exaggerate—to break through misunderstandings that have endured literally for centuries.
This said, the book has shortcomings. Wright demonstrates a failure to grasp fundamental economics. When he talks about this topic (it is, unfortunately, a part of the opening chapter), the prose descends from timeless to tiresome. Where one expects to see a renewed vision for meaningful human action grounded in the witness to a resurrected savior, Wright stops short at a baptized neosocialism.
In his opening chapter on justice, for example, Wright makes repeated recourse to such fundamentally inaccurate stock phrases as “the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.” No one will deny that economic injustice exists, but in these sections Wright too often sounds like he’s channeling a pandering presidential candidate or a Labour MP. Reliance on such long-since exploded ideas, most notably what writer Paul Beston has called “the fallacy of finite wealth,” are a recurring irritant in an otherwise inspired discussion, dragging the reader out of a vision for new creation and inexorably back into the stale divisions of left and right.
On one hand, this failure insulates Wright from any accusation of conflating Christian faith with Western democratic capitalism. He would cheerfully flunk most fundamentalist and many evangelical cultural litmus tests (rejecting their very premises, of course). Perhaps this may earn him more sympathetic readers on the left. One might even argue that his economics is merely an unfortunate tangent from his commendable vision of the radical claims of Christ on all areas of the material and present world.
On the other hand, there is a theological point to be made (aside from the unintended irony of untrue statements in a book about the Christian faith). If Christian believers are to engage in transformation on an economic as well as a “spiritual” level, we must do so with a properly Christian understanding of economics, which lies in a proper understanding of human nature. When Paul says that “all have sinned,” this includes the poor as well as the rich. The poor are not mere objects of compassion; they are subjects in their own right.
Christians have a responsibility to care for the poor and to promote justice in economic as well as other spheres, but an economic fatalism that relies on tired slogans and guilt consigns poor people to perpetual poverty. Worse, it strips them of an essential humanity, ignoring their own responsibility to respond to God’s call to holiness rather than succumbing to envy of the rich; to work rather than submit to the slothful escapism of modern entertainment; to trust in God’s abundant provision rather than submit to soul-sucking dependence on the state. If, as Wright reminds us, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, then statist or globalist solutions that promote undue reliance on Caesar’s resources are not only counterproductive, they are sinful.
Wright in other contexts has been an advocate for Third World debt relief, which is a laudable effort on its own merits but unlikely to actually alleviate the causes of Third World poverty. I am reminded of a 2005 interview in Der Spiegel with Kenyan economist James Shikwati where he begs the West to stop sending aid to his continent. One wishes Bishop Wright would spend a few weeks with Dr. Shikwati, or even just turn his formidable scholarly attention to learning how wealth is really created by reading Thomas Sowell or F. A. Hayek.
Wright also discusses justice in the political and military spheres. The flaws here are not so egregious as his economics, but several statements reveal a similar lack of preparation resulting in a regrettably incomplete argument. In particular, one looks in vain for any acknowledgment of the millennia of Christian thinking on war. There are times—and our present dealings with Islamic totalitarianism is one of them—when laudable examples like Desmond Tutu in South Africa simply do not apply. As with Gandhi in India, Tutu was dealing with a situation where appeals to principle and to international opinion were effective. Today we regularly face situations where such appeals seem actively counterproductive, and—to generalize myself—Wright’s blithe generalities fall short of the present need.
As Lesslie Newbigin—who lived through Indian independence—wrote in 1994, “I hear too many Christians saying, in effect, that the Church can have nothing to do with power, that its only function is to protest and demonstrate against all the powers.” Unfortunately, he argues, this is a dangerous form of nostalgia: “We cannot do without a theologically grounded Christian doctrine of the state. We must not fall into the error of dividing physical force as bad from soul force (satyagraha) as good. That is the old Manichean heresy. There is no going back.”
Wright is orthodox and I don’t think he falls into the Manichean trap, but in this area he strays too close to its edge. While one might argue that this subject moves beyond the “simply Christian” into “complicatedly Christian,” and thus beyond the scope of this book, its omission is in the end unacceptable given both that Wright’s core message is to remind us that Jesus is the present world’s true Lord and that the topic of war has always been a concern of Christian theology. (The same omission is far more egregious in Wright’s new book Evil and the Justice of God.)
Newbigin is absolutely correct: What he calls the “doctrine of the state” is an area desperately in need of a considered approach like that which Wright provides elsewhere in this volume. It is pointless, to take an example not at random, to talk about justice while effectively abjuring any use of power to end injustice. Anglicans have regularly rejected pacifism, so Wright’s treatment here seems grounded more in unthinking acquiescence to the—again, ever so tiresome—multilateralist globalist utopianist conventional wisdom of his culture than in rigorous historical and theological considerations. Wright’s scholarship is so brilliant that it is frankly disappointing to see him fumble so badly in applying it, not least because, given the book’s careful scope, much of this critique could be bypassed merely by the author’s using a more nuanced tone. Until this is corrected, a necessary supplement to this book—worth reading on its own merits—is Daryl Charles’ recent Between Pacifism and Jihad, on the Christian just-war tradition.
The novelist and recent Christian convert Anne Rice blurbs Simply Christian on its cover as a book that is sure to become a classic. Given its winsomeness she may be correct. Given its theological substance, I hope she is correct. But the probability will increase if Wright reassesses his reliance on stock polemic and makes some adjustments for the second edition.
Peter L. Edman is director of research at The Trinity Forum and webmaster for the Russell Kirk Center. He lives in northern Virginia.