Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense
reviewed by Louis Markos
Just as C. S. Lewis began Mere Christianity by arguing that our intuitive sense of the moral law points toward a supernatural Director of that law, so N. T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham, begins Simply Christian by arguing that our inbred yearnings for justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty point beyond our world to a Creator.
In this “pre-evangelical” section of his book, Wright appeals to the general experience of his readers rather than to abstract theological or philosophical propositions. He nudges us gently toward a realization that there is a troubling, gnawing mismatch between our desire to set things right and the realities of the world in which we live.
Like Lewis, Wright is conscious of the need to first argue for the existence of God before arguing for the unique theological claims of Christianity, and he locates that argument, like Lewis, precisely in that gnawing mismatch.
However, once he has established his foundation for a belief in God, he parts company with Lewis to take a more historical, Bible-based approach. As a prominent and prolific New Testament scholar who has defended the historicity of the Gospel narratives and explored the full context for and ramifications of Jesus’ messianic claims, Wright brings to his apologetical
primer a rich understanding of how Christian theology and practice is rooted in the history of Israel.
Wright defines God not in terms of abstract philosophy but in terms of God’s work in and through Israel. He first shows how God effects his divine plan through the royal Davidic line, the Temple, the Torah, and the prophetic promise of a new creation; he next shows how Jesus fulfills and incarnates all four; he concludes by describing how the church participates in the messianic fulfillment.
Of course, Wright does not plunge his reader immediately into the salvation history of Israel and the Church. He first leads us to the River Jordan by fashioning a simple parable of our modern world.
Once upon a time, there was a country fed by a thousand natural springs, which carried fresh water to the inhabitants but also left them prey to floods and the subsequent danger of muddy, disease-ridden water. A dictator seized control of the country and decided he would regulate these wild and often polluted springs through a series of man-made dikes and pipes. The project succeeded for a generation, but the springs eventually burst through the concrete.
The country, Wright explains, is the enlightened, materialistic West, the dictator, secular humanism, the fresh springs, spirituality. For many political and intellectual leaders, the recent upsurge of spirituality in Europe, North America, and the formerly colonized global South is a dangerous thing that will overwhelm civilization with floods (fundamentalism) and polluted water (irrational superstition). Much safer that we should find a secular substitute (the man-made dikes).
But for those who have felt the inner hunger—who seek true intimacy and community in a world of rampant individualism, and beauty and truth in a world of aggressive ugliness and anything-goes relativism—the springs promise health, joy, and life. Wright invites readers who hunger for such things, and who will admit their hunger, to join him on an odyssey through the fundamentals of Christian theology and practice.
It is only “when we understand Jesus,” he writes, “that we begin to recognize the voice whose echoes we have heard in the longing for justice, the hunger for spirituality and relationship, and the delight in beauty.”
Like Lewis, Wright is careful not to define Christianity by any denomination’s distinctive beliefs. Rather, he organizes his book around a central metaphysical question: “How do heaven and earth, God’s space and our space, relate to one another?”
Whereas most modern Christians reject the pantheistic belief that God and the world are essentially the same, many, he argues, have accepted, often unconsciously, pantheism’s polar opposite: a deistic or dualistic view that completely separates heaven from earth. He proposes a return to what he claims (convincingly) is a more traditional view: one in which heaven and earth “are not coterminous,” nor “separated by a great gulf,” but “overlap and interlock in a number of different ways.”
Wright not only defends this view but shows how it can radically transform our understanding of both divine and earthly things. The God who allowed his eternal realm to intersect with our own temporal one is not a removed, deistic being, but an active Creator-Redeemer who is intensely involved in restoring our world.
The Incarnation, by which heaven and earth were joined in the flesh of the Christ-child, marks the culmination and perfection “of the presence and action of the one true God in the world.” God’s giving of the Torah to Moses marked an overlap of heaven and earth for the Jews; for Christians, Jesus is the Torah in bodily form.
For Wright, we cannot understand the full impact of the Crucifixion until we see (with new eyes) that when Christ suffered on the Cross, the “sorrow of heaven joined with the anguish of earth.” Likewise for the Resurrection: “When Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb.” The drama of Holy Week, in Wright’s thrilling retelling, becomes a cosmic drama.
And it is a drama that extends to us. Theology 101 tells us that all who accept Christ receive the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Wright helps us understand the full implications of this doctrine: If we are indwelt by the same Spirit who filled the Holy of Holies, then we are ourselves “walking Temples, places where heaven and earth meet.” Our prayer and worship, too, are lifted up to become instruments by which the gap between heaven and earth continues to be bridged.
Wright & Left
Conservative Evangelicals (like myself) may balk at first at Wright’s heavy focus on what emerging-church theologians have come to call “orthopraxis” (“right action,” as opposed to orthodoxy, “right teaching”). When good works are allowed to overshadow clearly defined and affirmed doctrines, the Church risks falling into a benign but creedless social gospel.
However, in an age of “easy believism” and “name it and claim it” evangelism, his challenge to live out our faith is a much-needed one. His reluctance to put forth a single normative understanding of the Atonement may also cause some concern, but then it must be remembered that Lewis himself was equally reluctant to do so.
Wright’s tendency to see all atrocities in the world as stemming from the right side of the political spectrum, his silence on all issues related to what Pope John Paul II dubbed the “Culture of Death,” and his comparison of the Pharisees to the religious right (do not liberal mainliners resemble the Pharisees just as strongly?) will no doubt ring warning bells in the minds of traditional believers.
Still, it must be said that he affirms clearly and strongly that essential, God-ordained differences exist between the sexes and unapologetically defends biblical sexual morality, insisting that God created sexual intimacy for the marriage-bed alone.
Thy Kingdom Come
If the title of Wright’s book, Simply Christian, makes clear its indebtedness to Mere Christianity, its subtitle, Why Christianity Makes Sense, points to its distinctiveness from Lewis’s apologetical classic. It does so, however, in an ironic way.
Whereas Lewis’s book succeeds famously in highlighting the sensibleness of Christianity, Wright is far less committed to the rational, commonsense approach of his fellow Anglican. Indeed, his book might more appropriately have been subtitled, Why Christianity Should Be Practiced.
Wright shows little interest in describing or defending the rational basis of salvation or even in making a logically airtight link between believing in Christ and getting to heaven. When viewed from the context of Wright’s anti-dualistic understanding of heaven and earth, salvation takes on a more practical, more corporate, more here-and-now-centered purpose: that of helping to bring God’s kingdom to earth.
Wright’s invitation to his reader is not just to believe a creed but to carry on the work of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament disciples. For orthodox Christians who tend to focus their eyes exclusively heavenward, Simply Christian is essential reading.
N. T. Wright’s reflections on C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity appeared in the March issue.
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