A WORD ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Wright is a mammoth in the world of New Testament Studies,  a leading Historical Jesus Scholar in what has been dubbed the “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus”, and a voluminous writer. Wright is one of those especially gifted individuals who is able at one and the same time to write lengthy monographs in dialogue with biblical scholars (his Christian origins and Questions of God series is a good example of this) as well as deeply pastoral literature to the everyday non-believer or believer (For Everyone series is a good example of this).

Wright has taught at McGill, and Oxford; and is the Anglican Bishop of Duram. He is a scholar and an astute churchman of the highest degree in England. He is a well known evangelical defender of the Resurrection of Christ and has as well been attacked himself regarding whether he is truly an evangelical because of statements he has made concerning justification. He is a popular influence among the postmodern emerging churches community and remains a deep part of the institutional church, which often are thought not to go together. Wright is now currently serving as an officer on the “Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved.”

NT Wright, or Tom Wright in his popular literature, is perhaps the most dynamic biblical scholar to have emerged in the last fifty years of the church. He has been in dialogue with most of the leading religious figures of our period, and has been a prophetic-apologetic voice to the increasingly post Christian, post secular Western culture he lives and thinks within.

He is very qualified to attempt the feat he sets out to undertake in “Simply Christian.” I hope you’re as anxious as I am to see how that feat unfolds. I will follow the main divisions of his work, surveying several chapters at a time and then interacting with them all separately at the end of the survey. So if there is a critical point or a praise you feel I have missed please wait until the end of the survey to see if it surfaces.

Introduction

There are two sorts of traveler. The first sets off in the general direction of the destination and is quite happy to figure things out on the way, to read the signposts, ask directions, and muddle through. The second wants to know in advance what the road will be like, where it changes from a country road to a busy multilane highway, how long it will take to complete the different sections, and so on.” For those who read Simply Christian and skip over this intro chapter they are like the first traveler, for those who read it they are like the second traveler.

Wright’s aim in writing this book is “to describe what Christianity is all about, both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside.” To do this Wright begins his work by focusing on four echoes of the voice of God in the world today: the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty. After showing how these voices are heard by all of us Wright moves on to define some of the features of the one whose voice speaks in these echoes. And then finally takes his readers into the matter of what it means to follow the one whose echoes they’ve been hearing, a journey that will take them into working “for his kingdom within the world.” The echoes of God’s voice “are among the things which the postmodern, post-Christian, and now increasingly post-secular world cannot escape as questions – strange signposts pointing beyond the landscape of our contemporary culture and out in the unknown.” The unbelievers Wright has in mind are those people who are touched by postmodern, post-Christian, post-secular culture. Wrights believing audience is broadly catholic in shape, “I haven’t attempted in these pages to differentiate between the many different varieties of Christianity, but have tried to speak of that which is, at their best, common to all.”

It is to the echoes we now turn… 

Echoes of a voice 01-04

CHAPTER ONE: Putting the World to Rights

We dream the dream of justice. We glimpse, for a moment, a world at once, a world put to rights, a world where things work out…It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all…” The human heart longs for justice, from our earliest age Wright says we expect justice, but we are left with the odd preponderance that we can’t seem to fix what’s broken in us and in the world. “…we have a sense that justice itself slips through our fingers. Sometimes it works; often it doesn’t.” Even in those moments were we do seem to fix the worlds injustices we are all left with a sense of those things we cannot fix no matter how hard, or how desperate we are to fix them.

Wright says its not just injustices outside us, no quiet the contrary, “The line between justice and injustice, between things being right and things not being right, can’t be drawn between “us” and “them.” It runs right down through the middle of each of us.” We cry justice while at the same moment realize that injustice lies within each of us. “…people ask the question: Why is it like this? Does it have to be like this? Can things be put to rights, and if so how?…And isn’t the oddest thing of all the fact that I, myself, know what I ought to do but often don’t do it?” 

Wright says there are three ways of explaining this sense of the echo of a voice crying for justice:

  1. We can say, if we like, that it is indeed only a dream, a projection of childish fantasies, and that we have to get used to living in the world the way it is.
  2. Or we can say, if we like, that the dream is of a different world altogether, a world where we really belong, where everything is indeed put to rights, a world into which we can escape in our dreams in the present and hope to escape one day for good – but a world which has little purchase on the present world except that people who live in this one sometimes find themselves dreaming of that one.
  3. Or we can say, if we like, that the reason we have these dreams, the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking of us, whispering in our inner ear – someone who cares very much about this present world and our present selves, and who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, things being put to rights, ourselves being put to rights, the world being rescued at last.

Wright suggests that the three main religious traditions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – express the third option. And particularly “Christians believe that in Jesus of Nazareth the voice we thought we heard became human and lived and died as one of us. It’s about justice, because Christians not only inherit the Jewish passion for justice but claim that Jesus embodied that passion, and that what he did, and what happened to him, set in motion the Creator’s plan to rescue the world and put it back to rights.” 

The absence of justice in the world and in us can either make us weep tears of hopeless sorrow or laugh in cynical disconnection, but such is not the case for Jesus, “He was celebrating with the new world that was beginning to be born, the world in which all that was good and lovely would triumph over evil and misery. He was sorrowing with the world the way it was, the world of violence and injustice and tragedy which he and the people he met knew so well.”

Perhaps someone may say, “well yes justice is important and Jesus thought so, but certainly his followers haven’t embodied that echo well…” Wright is honest in his reply and say yes indeed people have done terrible things in the name of Jesus. BUT, there’s a hitch, too often today the deeds of the ‘West’ are paralleled with the deeds of Christianity, the Christian faith can easily become a whipping post for angst of the current political moment unjustly. And skeptics need to be fair in their proposals of what the church has done and include those things she has done well, “…the twentieth century saw a great many Christians martyred not only for their stance on matters of faith but more especially because their faith led them to fearless actions in the cause of justice.”

 CHAPTER TWO: The Hidden Spring

Wright opens up this chapter with a brilliant illustration of a form of secularism (or at least I think its referencing secularism, he calls it “this philosophy“), basically he says secularism is like a ruler pouring concrete over all the spirituality springs in the village, and laying down monitored pipes so that everyone only gets what he says is clean spiritual water. The ruler does this because rightly so he realizes that the water sources are unreliable and can often times cause catastrophes. But what he finds out is that the concrete cannot hold, the springs break forth and spiritually starving people run to the dirty yet free-flowing waters.

September 11, 2001, 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 that what really matters is economics and politics instead.” Wright says that the concrete is giving way all over the world today, “Anyone who supposes that religious experience is a minority interest, or that it has been steadily dying out as people in the modern world become more sophisticated, should look at the material and think again.”

Perhaps as a reader you’ll grant him that point, but you find yourself saying, “what are we to make of “spirituality” as we listen for the echoes of a voice that might be addressing us?” In answer to this question Wright says that having these desires and interests is completely normal and expected if anything like the Christian story is in fact true. But just because people are thirsty for spiritual water doesn’t mean that they could not potentially drink some very hazardous water in the process of seeking nourishment. “On the other hand, part of the Christian story (and for that matter, the Jewish and Muslim stories) is that human beings have been so seriously damaged by evil that what they need isn’t simply better self-knowledge, or better social conditions, but help, and indeed rescue, from outside themselves…People kept without food for long periods will eat anything they can find, from grass to uncooked meat. Thus by itself “spirituality” may appear to be part of the problem as well as part of the solution.”

Wright is quick to point out that however significant or meaningful a desire for spirituality or an experience of spirituality is, these in and of themselves will not convince a skeptic that there is after all something/someone ‘out there’ to experience. Still Wright believes that it is this very yearning itself so prevalent in the world today that signifies and embodies and echo of a voice. And those that say that something can be true for someone and not true for them, often are themselves twisting the referent of the word true to “not “a true revelation of the way things are in the real world,” but “something that is genuinely happening inside you.”” Going back to the analogy Wright opened this chapter up with, it would be like them saying that’s nice you believe your drinking water but really there is no water to be found and you just think its water that you’re drinking. There is a dishonesty to this form of relativism.

Once we see that the skeptic’s retort is itself open to problems of this sort, we return to the possibility that the widespread hunger for spirituality, which has been reported in various ways across the whole of human experience, is a genuine signpost to something which remains just around the corner, out of sight. It may be the echo of a voice – a voice which is calling, not so loudly as to compel us to listen whether we choose to or not, but not so quietly as to be drowned out altogether by the noises going on in our heads and our world.” And this echo of the voice in the human quest for the spiritual is joining the echo in the human desire for justice…

CHAPTER THREE: Made for Each Other

How is it that we ache for each other and yet find relationships so difficult? My proposal is that the whole area of human relationships forms another “echo of a voice” – an echo which we can ignore if we choose to do so, but which is loud enough to get through the defenses of a good many people within the supposedly modern secular world.” Human relationships are undeniably rewarding, but also at the same time terribly difficult; and our need for such contorted things is exactly what Wright in this chapter calls an echo or signpost to God.

Wright says that people search for purpose as individuals but they also search for purpose inside relationships and in communities of relationships. The puzzle in relationships is how they can be so vital our sense of self while also being so costly. And Wright doesn’t play down this puzzle on large scales either, even nations are struck by this dilemma. “Thus from the most intimate relationship (marriage) to those on the largest scale (national institutions) we find the same thing: we all know we are made to live together, but we all find that doing so is more difficult than we had imagined.”

In the midst of this puzzle people either laugh or cry, “We find ourselves, and our relationships funny and tragic. This is who we are. We can’t avoid being this way, and we don’t want to, even though things often don’t work out the way we want.” This puzzlement even carries over into our gender identities. In a stirring remark Wright suggests, “all human relationships involve an element of gender identity (I, as a man, relate to other men as a man to man, to women as man to woman), and that though we all know this deep down, we become remarkably confused about it.”

Wright is aware that not everyone is willing or happy to affirm the presence of gender identities inside relationships. Some say that gender is irrelevant, and others treat gender is their central way of sizing someone up for sexual reasons alone. Wright says both these postures deny reality and only end up hurting those who bear them.  In an even handed way Wright is also quick to say that just because you don’t affirm one of these dangerous ideas you somehow always have perfect relationships free of the puzzle he noted above, “things are far more complicated than we might have imagined, far more fraught with difficulty, puzzles, and paradoxes.”

But perhaps someone touched by the tragedy of death is reading Wright here and says, ‘what about death, doesn’t death nullify the value of relationships as pointing to a god you say is eternal?’ “We search for justice, but we often find that it eludes us. We hunger for spirituality, but we often live as though one-dimensional materialism were the obvious truth. In the same way, the finest and best of our relationships will eventually end in death. The laughing will end in tears. We know it; we fear it; but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Death is not natural, but it is actual; death is not avoidable, but it is conquerable. Wright in this section of the chapter tips his hand a bit and lets his readers know in no uncertain terms that the way he views death is framed by the Old Testament narratives; and that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all point to the impermanency of the created order. “That impermanence,” Wright says, “has now attained the dark note of tragedy. It is bound up with human rebellion against the Creator, with a rejection of that deeper of relationships and a consequent souring of the other two (with one another and with the created order).” Its not just an abstract echo we hear in this area of life, Wright suggests quiet creatively that it is the echo of a voice saying, as it said in the Garden, “where are you?

We hear this voice pointedly because we are the image of a God in creation, as in the Roman Empire and other ancient ones before it; God in his original creation created an image and stuck it in the middle of society for all to see that he indeed was present and powerful. Humanity, says Wright, is that image of God in his creation; and relationships form a significant part of how humanity reflects God as His image. “Relationship was part of the way in which we were meant to be fully human, not for our own sake, but as part of a much larger scheme of things. And our failures in human relationships are thereby woven into our failures in the other large projects of which we know in our bones that we are part: our failure to put the world to rights in systems of justice, and our failure to maintain and develop that spirituality which, at its heart, involves a relationship of trust and love with the Creator.”

It is in this echo that Wright as well begins to unfold the necessity and value of the Christian story alone among the other monotheistic faiths of the world, being able to answer the puzzlement and paradox of relationships. In the most beautiful prose thus far, Wright says, “One of the central elements of the Christian story is the claim that the paradox of laughter and tears, woven as it is deep into the heart of all human experience, is woven also deep into the heart of God.” The reader is left with the impression this is an echo behind which they want to get…

CHAPTER FOUR: For the Beauty of the Earth

Wright begins this chapter with an illustration, someone finds a lost piece of music composed by Mozart, its beautiful but its unfinished. “This is the position we are in when confronted by beauty. The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete. Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there for is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole.”

But the thing about beauty is that its like justice, its transient. We hold it or capture it only to find its presence here and gone. Its transient nature isn’t only due to its own fading glory, but changes in our perspective and taste as well. Wright likens all beauty to the glory of a sunset, full of splendor but destined to set.

Keats said “beauty is truth, and truth is beauty,” but Wright says that to identify the two in that fashion would lead us into utter relativism as well as deny the usual referent we intend by the word beauty. Neither is beauty in and of itself a direct access to God. Still, beauty is grand, “we must acknowledge that beauty, whether in the natural order or within human creation, is sometimes so powerful that it evokes our very deepest feelings of awe, wonder, gratitude, and reverence…beauty is both something that calls us out of ourselves and something which appeals to feelings deep within us.” The thing about beauty is that it points beyond this present world to a different one altogether.

Some may say that beauty is merely a composition of genetic reactions in us, but anyone who’s passed a turn to behold rolling hills, or seen the purples, organs, and reds in a sunset can hardly say this experience is only genetics says Wright. But beauty occurs in the real world where it isn’t merely transient but deteriorating. What does the Christian faith say in this regard? “We say that the present world is the real one, and that it’s in bad shape but expecting to be repaired. We tell, in other words…the story of a good Creator longing to put the world back into good order for which it was designed…[a story of a God] who completes what he has begun, a God who comes to the rescue of those who seem lost and enslaved in the world the way it now is.” But Wright says the answer isn’t merely a ‘story’, the answer is found in the actual workings of this Creator now. “…the present world really is a signpost to a larger beauty, a deeper truth. It really is the authentic manuscript of one part of a masterpiece. The question is, What is the whole masterpiece like, and how can we begin to hear the music in the way it was intended?” The answer is that we won’t until the rest of the manuscript is revealed, what we have in part will help comprise the final piece, but its a piece like the one in the opening illustration still awaiting completion. So if you admire beauty but are puzzle by its transience Wright says hang in there, for the Christian story tells of a day when it will no longer be transient.

The last area Wright explores this echo of beauty is in the complexity of life. A complexity that includes simplicity. Wright says its made up of five things: the telling of stories, the acting out of rituals, the creation of beauty, working in communities, and thinking about beliefs. Take away any of these and the beauty of life is lost, which is why in a latter part of his work Wright will demonstrate how the Christian story uniquely addresses these areas.

Because life is beautiful (complex and simple at once) we should be careful how we use the word truth. Wright says there has been a tug-a-war contest in the last generation of Western culture over this word truth. Some want to reduce all truth to ‘facts’, demonstrable, testable, observable realities; while others believe that all truth is relative and any claim to possessing it is really a gussied power-trip. Wright suggests a third way to this tug-a-war match that truth is actually relative to its referential context, ie we must measure the truth of something by the nature of that something. So that when we are talking about truth regarding a trip we’re going to take the proof of it would be if we took the trip. etc. “What we mean by “know” is likewise in need of further investigation. To “know” the deeper kinds of truth we have been hinting at is much more like “knowing” a person – something which takes a long time, a lot of trust, and a good deal of trial and error – and less like “knowing” about the right bus to take into town. Its a kind of knowing in which the subject and the object are intertwined, so that you could never say that itwas either purely subjective or purely objective.” Sort of like love, but before we talk about love says Wright, we need to talk about God…