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a quick review of a really great book…
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Simply Christian
by N.T. Wright
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Until I began to read and listen to the work of N.T. Wright, the phrase “putting the world to rights” wasn’t in my vocabulary. Today, I think it is the best short description of what I believe the Kingdom of God is all about. In his book Simply Christian, Wright expands on what he believes is the “echo of a voice (p.3) which we hear in our imaginations and our subconscious and in our universe. These four longings, the longing for justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty are woven through this short book which is unpretentious and seasoned with great metaphors and analogies.

“Isn’t it odd” he writes, “that it should be like that? Isn’t it strange that we should all want things to be put to rights but can’t seem to do it?” (p. 8) We all dream of justice, but justice remains elusive. We can say justice is a naïve child’s dream, or that it waits beyond the Jordan, or we can recognize the echo of the voice of God whispering to us that God will indeed put the world and us back to rights. Wright begins with justice and he doesn’t soft pedal it, he insists that “faith makes waves in the world” (p. 15) and that this should be expected.

Wright crafts a metaphor in chapter two which he turns on those of us who have been raised in Western culture. He reminds us that 9/11 “serves as a reminder of what happens when you try to organize a world on the assumption that religion and spirituality are merely private matters, and what really matters is economics and politics.” (p. 20) The story of the hidden spring is meant to remind us that we are created to be spiritual beings, not consumers and producers who bow to the narrative of materialism. We have been created thirsty, he says, and this is what we should expect. This hunger not only points us to God but to each other and to the world.

The chapter entitled Made for Each Other acknowledges that though we are made for communities, though we are social creatures, our selfishness often drives us to solitary lives which turn in on themselves in a myriad of ways. This self enclosure actually drives us a bit mad if we take it too far. He subtly takes on radical individualism and presses home the idea that we belong to each other but we’re tragically confused as to how. This chapter contains a very interesting section about sex which I think is actually very provocative. He argues that we should embrace gender identity and any attempt to alter it is actually just a form of denial. Wright says that “sexual activity burns a pathway into the core of our human identity and self-awareness.” (p.35) This doesn’t sound too radical in American evangelical circles, but in Western Europe, that’s a pretty radical statement. To deny this reality is to dehumanize ourselves and others. Surprisingly, he views death as one of the only voices left in this materialistic culture, which can awaken us to the reality that we need each other – that we hear in our relationships with each other the echo of a voice.

Using the metaphor of an unfinished work by Mozart which was discovered on accident, Wright declares that the world is full of beauty but that it is incomplete. The beauty of the earth is the echo of the voice, but it is not the voice itself. In this chapter he deals with the questions of truth. Wright cuts to the chase explaining that when someone wants to talk about how we can know truth as an abstraction, one must always inquire as to what they mean by “truth” and, for that matter, what one means by “know.” It might seem strange to treat this subject in the chapter on beauty, but it works. He works with the theme of the complexity of this beautiful world, finally asserting that “within that complexity, we should be careful how we use the word ‘truth.’” (p. 50)

Wright deconstructs the dualistic view of heaven and hell with an incredible economy of words. He draws the conversation into a few sentences describing the already/not yet kingdom. Playing with the question of how God’s space and our space might interact or intersect he deftly dismisses pantheism and panentheism as well as the Gnostic or Deistic tendencies found especially in the West. Wright opts for what he calls a coterminous (p. 63) universe in which God’s realm and the one we live in overlap.

Chapter six is a really nice recap of the story of Israel and the classic Wright theme of new creation and the end of exile. I won’t cover this since his work on these themes is so well known, except to say that he is really building a doctrine of God based on the story of Israel. Chapter seven is a quick, but thorough explanation of what the gospel of the kingdom of God actually means. He then turns his attention to what it means to call Jesus the Messiah. He sharply critiques the characterization of Jesus’ work on the cross as something which chiefly concerns life after death. Resurrection isn’t “a fancy way of saying ‘going to heaven when you die.’” (p. 114) He says it is being bodily alive after a time of being bodily dead. Wright says that it is in the risen Christ that we cease to hear only echoes and hear the voice itself. Wright then spends two chapters talking about the Holy Spirit and what it might mean for us to actually live by the Spirit. These two chapters round out what is really a thoroughly Trinitarian apologetic.

The final section of the book is largely concerned with Christian practices: worship, prayer, scripture, evangelism, etc. He acknowledges the formative power of worship and espouses the use of liturgy in worship. He argues for the Eucharist as the center of worship and ends with an acknowledgement that all of these are communal in nature. His sections on prayer and scripture are very straightforward and sort of unremarkable. In the chapter The Story and the Task, he argues in very simplistic terms for his 5th act hermeneutic in interpreting the scripture. It is to be done in community and the point is to equip the church for its work in the world, not simply to fill our heads with knowledge.

Finally he addresses ecclesiology saying that the church exists to worship God, to work for God’s kingdom, and to encourage one another. Emphasizing baptism as the entrance into the community, he characterizes the church as the family of God.

In my opinion, there is really not very much to critique in this book. It is not a scholarly effort, it’s really perfect for exploration in small group settings. Wright is a pretty articulate writer and for someone who has his sort of academic prowess, he has a pretty incredible knack for writing these short books without big words. This book could serve equally well as an introduction to Christianity for a total outsider, and a re-curving corrective for a recovering fundamentalist. I’m completely excited about the prospects for using this book in a ministry context.

About Tim Suttle

Find out more about Tim at TimSuttle.com

Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of RedemptionChurchkc.com. He is the author of several books including his most recent - Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), & An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals.

Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. The band's most recent album is "Straight Back to Kansas." He helped to plant three thriving churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13622039784981099775 Dan

    Thanks for the review Tim. Some of my newbie friends found Simply Christian thick. I disagree of course. Wright is attempting to provide practical expression of his New Testament studies, particularly he is attempting to describe “inaugurated eschatology,” or more simply, “the present reality of the new kingdom Jesus began at the resurrection.” Personally, I think he needs to write another book on this… something easier. In lieu of this work, Simply Christian is great for the time being as it is. But I’d recommend a priori The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. This book is great for people who “just don’t understand the entire message of the Bible and who Jesus thought he was (and is).”
    Gratia

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10974397437648079481 Tim Suttle

    That’s interesting – I disagree as well. I actually find Wright to be extremely readable and easy to understand especially in “Simply Christian.” He doesn’t even use big words without carefully defining them and he’s incredibly organized in his writing. All of his conclusions follow his arguments…it’s all coherent. What more do they want?

    Wright’s life work is his 6 volume series (he calls them the “big books”) which will cover all areas of theology for the most part. Any book he publishes which is not 700+ pages is a simpler version (he calls them his “small books”)of some part of one of those huge works. He’ll take one section or one concept and condense it in simpler terms. These are usually pieces that he’s lectured on extensively and feels an acute need for some of the topics he’s worked out in his scholarly works. I can’t imagine that he’d ever try to make it simpler, because this is his attempt to do so!

    You know, this is one of my real issues with evangelicals, or even American Christians on a whole. We’ve stopped trying to embrace the need to read and learn and discuss theology, ethics and church history. We’re lazy and we don’t try. It’s really sad because that is part of why I think we’re held captive by people who have no problem dumbing things down to the point of distortion in order to control us. I think Dobson does that, Falwell used to, etc. I think that China or Latin America shames us. They are living a radical faith in a place where they are seriously oppressed. Their thirst for knowledge and teaching is so much more intense. I think our thirst is not intense because in our culture American and Christian are hardly distinguishable terms. We don’t need radical faith because our conceptions of Christianity have so conformed to the ideals of American culture (especially individualism, materialism and nationalism).

    I wonder if people who have trouble with N.T. Wright and dismiss him as “too thick” really struggle because of their previous rational attachments to evangelical theology, or maybe even dispensationalist theology, or maybe even just the American way of life. Why do they need to struggle with Wright? Everything’s fine with me right?

    That being said, I love that Wright is really strong on a theology of the Kingdom of God, or as you point out, his eschatological hermeneutic. But this isn’t something that can be put on a bumper sticker. You have to want it.

    I agree that “The Challenge of Jesus” is good. I reviewed it last year sometime. There are also four talks on the NT Wright page which correspond to the release of that book. He basically splits the whole book into four hour long presentations so it’s good to read the book as you listen to those talks over and over.

    I’d recommend Donald Kraybill’s “Upside Down Kingdom,” as well as McLaren’s “The Secret Message of Jesus,” for more good simple reading in the arena of the Kingdom of God.


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