Book Review: N.T. Wright's Simply Christian

Tom Wright. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. London: SPCK; New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 256 pp. Buy at Amazon or CBD.

If you are looking for a book as a primer for Christian faith, or as an introduction for those who are interested, Wright’s Simply Christian is the one. Wright’s mastery of theology, history, and English prose, join together with his pastoral insight into the postmodern psyche in an apologetic and evangelical tour de force. I have never read an introduction to Christianity which contained as many helpful reorientations as this one.

The book is written for the average person, and its title contains a clear echo to a similar book by CS Lewis, Mere Christianity. Lewis’ book is and will remain a masterpiece of the genre, but it has a problem: it is written to a generation of people who have long since died and been replaced by others who have different questions and presuppositions about reality and God.

The perennial problem of each person in each generation is to meet God for herself, and to follow Jesus Christ within her own unique context. Thus, whereas Mere Christianity begins with age-old questions about the existence of God,Simply Christian begins with observations about our deep-seeded longing for Justice, Spirituality, Love, and Beauty.

I take it as a necessary insight that I am part of generation that is not impressed by the coherence of logical arguments for God. As a philosophy major I can clearly remember the apathy that swept through the room (and through myself) when we were forced to consider the ontological, teleological, and deontological proofs for God’s existence, as well as all other arguments that ended in the suffix “-logical.”

Far from being a simple case of obstinacy about rational thought, I believe the current intellectual milieu has been created by something Wright describes in the second chapter of Simply Christian. That is, over the past 200 years or more, people were born and bred in a post-Enlightenment thought world which systematically precluded most elements of spirituality.

Wright compares that world to a country whose dictator decides that his people have more sources of water than he can control, which are variously polluted with different minerals. As a result the dictator decides to pave the land over with cement and provide only a few, tightly controlled places to get water, which are highly regulated with his chosen additives.

For a while the plan works excellently, and people seem to stop noticing altogether that they drink only the water of dictator. In the next generation, however, the cement ground all around the land begins to crack, and the old springs burst forth everywhere with new force. Now they are even more polluted than before, and the rulers of the land are unable to keep them under control.

That water, says Wright, is Spirituality: the mysterious world within and beyond our own material existence. The main reason Spirituality is today so totally unruly is none other than the fact that we have allowed it become so, and the church has been complicit in the great cover-up of the dictator in his attempt to banish the spiritual world from the plane of human existence. So begins Wright’s attempt to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves today.

Simply Christian is not a long book, so at the outset we must understand that its scope is limited to a rather broad assessment of our world, and the God who is remaking our world through his son Jesus Christ and his body, the Church. Yet within its limitations, I find Wright’s explication of Jesus, the Church, and the role of worship and prayer, to be remarkably satisfying.

Wright summarizes his own message about the purposes of God in chapter 16, in a quotation from the final stanza of an old American hymn “This is My Father’s World,” by Maltbie Babcock. It says:

“This is my Father’s world; O let me ne’er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong,

God is the ruler yet.

This is my Father’s world; The battle is not done;

Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied,

And earth and heaven be one.” (pp. 185-186, italics mine)

The goal of creation is the joining of heaven & earth, the reentry of earth into the presence of God through resurrection and recreation. Wright supports his conclusion from the collective visions of Isaiah, Paul, the final chapters of John’s Revelation. It is difficult for me to imagine a more insightful interpretation of the kaleidoscopic lenses offered in these texts.

One way I like to think of a book’s value is through “A-ha!” moments. This is because I read not primarily to reinforce my preexisting notions about life, but in order to be shown new things by the others. Simply Christian was full of such moments for me. So far as I can tell there are few people today who, like Wright, possess both an encyclopedic understand of the themes, books, and authors of the Bible, but also an ardent faith in the most ancient convictions of Christianity.

I could wish that he were not such a rare breed, and that my “but” could be an “and.” Alas, we live in a world of small minds, and perhaps even smaller tolerance for fresh expressions of our faith. In any event, this book shines a bright light into that world.