Monday, March 29, 2010

A book worth Wrighting about

I just finished and thoroughly enjoyed a book called Simply Christian, by N.T. Wright. I can’t talk about the book without comparing it to Mere Christianity, which is perhaps its wiser grandfather, consisting of the same marrow, but written to a different world. Making this comparison consistently earns me responses of disbelief at my audacity from faithful fans of C.S. Lewis, but the two books are so alike that it is the only place I can think to start. The books have the same purpose, which is to explain the basics of Christianity, common to all of its true manifestations.

They both talk about the inner conscience as a hint to the fact that justice is a real thing in the universe, that there is something that makes us long for it, and that this something is the same God that the Bible talks about. Wright adds that the knowledge of spiritual reality, the enjoyment of beauty, and the longings for community are also signs that point to Christianity being true. They give a lot of time to problems they find in the rival conceptions of God. They both conclude that the God the Bible talks about is the most coherent understanding of the universe available on the market, and beyond that, that He was and is God. They both talk about central Christian acts (baptism, the eucharist, prayer). Yet for those of us who have spent a lot of time with Mere Christianity, Simply Christian is not redundant. It adds a lot to the conversation.

Simply Christian talks more than Mere Christianity about the Jewish understanding of God and how Jesus fits into that understanding. Wright’s background as a New Testament scholar is helpful here. He explains that “heaven” was understood by Jews to mean “the realm/dwelling of God.” Important to this notion is that throughout the Old Testament, heaven and earth come together. So Jews did not understand heaven and earth as always-separate realms, but that God consistently brought His realm to ours. Through God’s election of the Israelites to be the instrument of God’s blessing, through the temple, and through the reading the Torah, God meets with the Jewish people, bringing “heaven” to earth, reminding them who they are and of their purpose.

Wright has helped me wrap my mind around this notion of “heaven” as central to understanding the thinking of the Old Testament people, and how early Christians (who were also Jews) understood Jesus’ coming. Early Christians understood that the God who had seen fit to overlap the two spheres of heaven and earth in a limited way, through his calling the temple and the Torah, had now come with the message that the kingdom of heaven was among them.

As a New Testament scholar, Wright speaks with authority about the Bible, and with how we should understand the words “inspired,” “infallible,” “inerrant,” “literal” and “metaphorical.” If I had read these chapters 10 years ago, it would have saved me a lot of headaches in trying to understand the Good Book. If someone has serious questions about how Christians should approach the Bible, these chapters (13 and 14) would be a good place to go looking for well-thought answers.

In his last chapter, discussing morality and justice, Wright says the following:

“At the heart of the Christian ethic is humility; at the heart of its parodies, pride. Different roads with different destinations, and the destinations color the character of those who travel by them.”

This idea struck me as an affirmation that Wright is not a wishy-washy “we’re all the same, follow your own path, and it’s all good” kind of thinker. And the point he makes has hung onto me more than any other idea the book offered. I will delve more into this idea in the sequel to this post. Stay tuned.

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