God has blessed Coram Deo with a litany of reflective, articulate writers and thinkers. In this post, public school teacher, grad student, missional community leader, and ad-hoc-pastoral-research-assistant Paul Putz offers a review of NT Wright’s most recent book.
NT Wright’s latest work, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, is the third in a series of books designed to be an introduction to Christianity (Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope being the first two). With a tone that is often pastoral, Wright is seeking to answer the question “How shall Christians live?” and “Why does Christian character matter?”
In his view, western Christianity has focused too much on the conversion experience as the end goal of a Christian life. Those Christians who do emphasize sanctification tend to err by suggesting either rule-keeping or authentic, spontaneous actions as the proper way to approach life. According to Wright, “Jesus…is inviting us to something not so much like rule-keeping on the one hand or following our own dreams on the other, but a way of being human, a kind of transformation of character.” This transformation of character is what philosophers throughout history have referred to as “virtue.”
In fact, “virtue” is a key theme of Wright’s book. In his native England, the book was released under the title Virtue Reborn, but in America, fearing possible Protestant backlash, editors chose to keep the word “virtue” out of the title. Part of Wright’s contention in the book is that too many people have “guileless confidence in the unalloyed goodness of spontaneous impulses” and they “merely assume…that ‘being true to oneself’ is the central human command.” What the Christian world, and in fact the world at large needs, is a rediscovery of virtue, a realization that “what comes naturally” is not always good, and that true character transformation actually takes hard work. Similar to what Dallas Willard might write, Wright points out that it takes moral effort, over time, to develop virtue. A person must make “a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t ‘come naturally’—and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required ‘automatically’ as we say.” This falls in line with Paul’s constant exhortations in the New Testament for the Christian to “put on” or “put off” or “put away” or “put to death.” Paul clearly has the idea that a Christian, saved by grace and given a new identity in Christ, must then make repeated conscious moral decisions to live out and develop their new identity.
In all theories of virtue, there is a telos, or goal, that one is working towards. For pagan philosophers of virtue, the telos tended to be focused on self-glorification. In contrast, Wright says, “The Christian vision of virtue is different from that of philosophers such as Aristotle in that Christian virtue isn’t about you—your happiness, your fulfillment, your self-realization. It’s about God and God’s kingdom.” A major part of Wright’s theology is that Christians are called by God to be the restored, genuine image-bearers of God, those people through whom God’s plan for the whole world will be worked out. Thus, Christians should be developing habits of heart and mind that anticipate God’s coming future. The already/not yet tension of God’s kingdom coming to the earth is something that exists within each individual Christian. To be a follower of Jesus means that the Spirit empowers one to work, in one’s own thoughts and actions, towards the goal of God’s kingdom coming in fullness to earth.
As Wright lays the theological framework for a life of Christian character, a life centered on living right now in ways that reflect how one will live when God’s kingdom comes in full, the reader may ask: “What practices should I be engaging in to develop this kind of character?” Wright’s answer (reading Scripture, praying, being in community, etc) is sure to disappoint those who are looking for a new Christian thing they can do. However, he says, it’s not the practices themselves that offer the cure, but rather the way a person consciously and reflectively engages in those practices that can develop Spirit-led character transformation.
Reinhold Neibuhr wrote, “A vital Christian faith and life is under the necessity of perennially preserving its health against the peril of diseases and corruptions arising out of its own life.” In essence, Wright’s book arises out of this corrective need. He is writing to correct the error that living a Christian life requires no hard moral work on the part of the individual Christian, or that a Christian must only focus on keeping some rules and then going up to heaven upon death. The benefit of Wright’s book comes not in what he suggests to do, but rather in the way that he provides a rich theological framework for understanding why a Christian should develop a life of virtue, and how that life can then reflect God’s purposes for mankind.
For those familiar with Wright’s previous work, it will come as no surprise that throughout the book he interacts with and provides insightful reflections on culture, politics, society, philosophy and more. Sometimes, it’s these digressions that make for his most salient points. Take, for example, this passage where he pushes the reader not to let the difficulty of Scripture stop one from studying it:
“This isn’t to say there aren’t hard bits in the Bible – both passages that are difficult to understand and passages that we understand only too well but find shocking of disturbing (for example, celebrating the killing of Edomite babies at the end of Psalm 137). Avoid the easy solutions to these; that these bits weren’t ‘inspired,’ or that the whole Bible is wicked nonsense, or that Jesus simply abolished the bits we disapprove of. Live with the tensions. Goodness knows there are plenty of similar tensions in our own lives, our own world. Let the troubling words jangle against one another. Take the opportunity to practice patience (there may yet be more meaning here than I can see at the moment) and humility (God may well have things to say through this for which I’m not yet ready).”
These frequent digressions, although useful to some, might also be off-putting for some readers. Reading Wright is not like reading an organized, systematic presentation. Rather, it’s more like being placed in a whirlwind of ideas and thoughts, some awe-inspiring, some confusing, all of them centered on and swirling around a couple of key themes.
It should be noted that After You Believe has been criticized by some for its portrayal of the Reformers, particularly Martin Luther. At times, Wright suggests that Luther believed the development of Christian virtue to be hypocritical and unnecessary, a suggestion which has been contested by men such as Michael Horton. Despite this, I recommend After You Believe for any person who is looking for a deeper biblical understanding of why Christian character is needed and how it can be developed. Those who have enjoyed Wright’s work in the past will almost certainly enjoy this book. Those who have never been exposed to his writing would do well to take this opportunity to examine the insight of one of today’s Christian intellectual giants.