by N.T. Wright. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN 10:0-06-050715-2. Hb., 240 pp. $22.95
N.T. Wright admits, “Being a Christian in today’s world is, of course, anything but simple. But there is a time for trying to say, as simply as possible, what it’s all about, and this seems to me that sort of time.”
Now is that sort of time, it seems to me. Some who claim that Christianity “makes sense” pare it down until the mystery is peeled away and we are left with a God whose edges are sharply drawn and whose greatest attribute is clarity. N.T. Wright is not to be confused with these voices that reduce Christianity to simplicity.
Simply Christian is, to use Wright’s own image, a symphony in three parts. Wright begins by exploring four human dreams in today’s world. He calls these dreams “echoes of a voice.” These echoes are identified as a longing for justice, a quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty. These are common in human living because “there is someone speaking to us, whispering in our inner ear.” The speaker is God. We have a longing for justice, for example, because there is a voice that speaks to us of a world set to rights.
So, who is this speaking God? Answering this question presents the second movement in the symphony. The Christian God is the one speaking to us. Wright devotes a chapter to tell the story of God’s call to the people of Israel, two chapters to the kingdom work accomplished in Jesus Christ, and two chapters to the work of the Spirit.
Before telling this story, Wright speaks of heaven. Heaven is the place where God lives. Heaven is not simply a future place to which we will go to be with God, but heaven is a present reality, the dwelling place of God. “How do heaven and earth, God’s space and our space, relate to one another?” Some thinkers insist that heaven and earth are the same space. Other thinkers imagine heaven and earth are held apart. God is wherever God is, but not here. Wright points to Epicureans of the ancient world and Deists in more recent times as proponents of this understanding.
God, as revealed in Christian faith, fits neither pantheism nor deism. In the story of Israel, the life of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit, God from heaven comes to earth. Wright describes the relationship between God’s space and our space as the “overlapping and interlocking” of heaven and earth. This overlapping and interlocking makes sense of the presence of the holy that pantheism rightly sees, but does not see rightly. And yet, heaven and earth are not collapsed into one and the same, as the deists rightly insist. Instead, an eschatological, hopeful, new life is promised. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate announcement that God has brought new life–a new kingdom–into God’s world.
Simply Christian now turns to the third movement of this symphony, which is a discussion of what it looks like to follow Jesus who brings a new kingdom. The book includes a helpful conversation about worship (when you worship you become more human). There is an inspiring and explanatory discussion of prayer and the life-giving engagement of Scripture. The larger conversation behind these disciplines is the purpose of the church. Christianity is something that we do together.
Simply Christian will benefit those unfamiliar to the faith as well as many who are rooted in the church. The reader will be grateful that Wright has spoken a word that makes sense of Christianity without reducing or selling off the “bigness” of God. He has borne witness “as simply as possible” to a faith that is anything but simple.
Tom Are Jr., is the pastor of Village Church in Prairie Village, Kan.