On the Church and Society
July 25, 2006
Few books manage to be inspirational, moving, illuminating, challenging, and even a bit annoying all at the same time. But that is the case with N.T. Wright's "Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense" (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
Wright is a prolific author and the Anglican Bishop of Durham in England. The purpose of this book is rather daunting. "My aim," Wright explains, "has been to describe what Christianity is all about, both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside."
Given the attacks on Christianity from both the outside world and within the church, this is an important time for such an explanation. But does Wright stay true to the traditional Christian faith, or stray into the deceptive revisionism that has distressingly plagued so much of the church in recent times?
Some doubts might be raised in the few instances where Wright veers into the political. For example, he proclaims that "what the world needs now, in fulfillment of some of scripture's deepest plans, is global economic justice." And a bit later, Wright calls for Christians to campaign on "global debt," and the church to develop an agenda on issues like "globalization and fair trade."
But what, specifically, does "economic justice" and "fair trade" mean, and does Christianity really dictate certain positions on such issues? These unnecessary intrusions into Wright's book have nothing to do with what being simply Christian really means. Thankfully, they are rare. Experience also shows that an emphasis on such political issues often pushes aside the central themes of Christianity. Fortunately, though, that is not the case with Wright. He is a rare breed in that misguided political intrusions do not signal an overarching sloppy theology as well.
For example, Bishop Wright does not ignore the problem of sin. He observes: "It's no part of Christian belief to say that the followers of Jesus have always got everything right. Jesus himself taught his followers a prayer which includes a clause asking God for forgiveness. He must have thought we would go on needing it."
Wright does not even shy away from the radioactive question of sex and marriage: "Throughout the early centuries of Christianity, when every kind of sexual behavior ever known to the human race was widely practiced throughout ancient Greek and Roman society, the Christians, like the Jews, insisted that sexual activity was to be restricted to the marriage of a man and a woman. The rest of the world, then as now, thought they were mad. The difference, alas, is that today half the church seems to think so, too."
More important to this book is Wright's emphasis on those glorious places where heaven and earth meet. He observes: "This sense of overlap between heaven and earth, and the sense of God thereby being present on earth without having to leave heaven, lies at the heart of Jewish and early Christian theology."
The book traces this interlocking theme from the Old Testament to Jesus Christ. Wright explains that "in Jesus of Nazareth heaven and earth have come together once and for all. The place where God's space and our space intersect and interlock is no longer the Temple in Jerusalem. It is Jesus himself. We recall that 'heaven,' in Jewish and Christian thought, isn't miles away up in the sky, but is, so to speak, God's dimension of the cosmos. Thus, though Christians believe that Jesus is now 'in heaven,' he is present, accessible, and indeed active within our world."
Wright goes on to highlight where heaven and earth come together for us today. He points out that "those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God's new Temple," and "are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet." He also speaks beautifully and compellingly about prayer, the sacraments, with particular emphasis on Holy Communion, and reading Holy Scripture as "places to go where God has promised to meet with his people."
There is much more to mine and relish in "Simply Christian," including on truth, worship, liturgy, the arts, the meaning of Messiah, the divinity of Jesus, the role of the church, spirituality, Christian history, and trust in the Gospels. Bishop Wright's book not only introduces Christianity, but also spurs all Christians to reflect more deeply on their faith, and what it means for the world at large.
"Simply Christian" ranks as a marvelous achievement.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
Copyright © Raymond J. Keating