Book 4 – Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

The book we read this week may be called Simply Christian but if you read it with me you’ll probably agree that it isn’t simple. Amazing, Yes! Simple, No.

There is a reason that N.T. Wright is called the C.S. Lewis for the post-modern generation. He has written more books (lots of BIG THICK books) and papers about Jesus than I could read in a dozen summers and is engaged in the conversation about what it all means with both skeptics and believers from all around the world.

I first met him when he was the biblical scholar and teacher at our InterVarsity national conference for graduate students and faculty in 1998. Since then he’s been with us at Harvard on many occasions – most recently as a speaker for a series in 2008 we called Reconstructing Hope (scroll down on the website, the recordings of those lectures and the question & answer time are worth a listen.)

When he was a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School a few years ago I had occasion to sit in from time to time on his lectures about Jesus and the Gospels. After each class I felt like we should end the class on our knees in prayer or communion or something – so profound were the ideas, drama, and Christ of the gospel we were being led to encounter. It was just overwhelming.

So, I’m a fan and think that his books and ideas are worth whatever work it takes. I’m not the only one. Each of the books we’re read this summer have more than traces of Wright’s ideas. Of course, you could say they are all reading the same Bible but I know that Carl, James and Brian are all fans too. Not primarily fans of N.T. Wright but rather of the One whose kingdom he is inviting us to embrace.

THINGS I LIKED

1. Putting the World to Rights. It isn’t the way I talk but I love the phrase and the idea. Something is wrong and God intends to set it right.

2. While it is not conclusive, the discussion in the fist part about Echos is helpful. He says that our longings for Justice, Spirituality, Relationship, and Beauty all point to something – to someone – who is both the source and fulfillment of all of these. I totally see it and feel it – these impulses seem to come from God. It is interesting, though – only a few of the scholars from China who have been reading this text with me this summer were persuaded. In the last pages in the book he lines out how these echos are renewed and consummated – it is beautiful.

3. God’s sphere and ours overlap, intersect and coincide in different ways at different times. In this regard he references Torah and Temple (p. 132) but also the community of Jesus followers as they gather in witness (p. 134-5), worship (p. 144), prayer (pp. 161-5), and Bible study (p. 187).

4. God’s future leaks back into the present in the lives of those who embrace his coming kingdom – It is happening here and now!

5. I loved his discussion of worship and how it both retells the story of God’s might acts in Scripture and anticipates the kingdom.

6. Chapters 9 (God’s Breath of Life) and 10 (Living by the Spirit) are about the Holy Spirit. Both are beautiful.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. The thing I found most challenging about the whole book is knowing how to use it. Like I said above, it may be called Simply Christian, but it is far from simple. Virtually every page is loaded with references to other texts or theological ideas that are difficult for people who don’t read this stuff.  I suppose that is just the way it goes, but very few of my skeptical friends would be able to pick up this text and decode it on their own.

2. Chapter 5 (God) was difficult – especially the philosophical section that distinguished pantheism & dualism from his “overlapping and interlocking” description of heaven and earth.  The section on The Name of God seemed confusing to the Chinese scholars in the Bible and Tea Group.

3. In chapter 7 Tom briefly takes on questions related to the trustworthiness of the text – the Gospels in particular. Of course he says that these few pages can’t truly assess “their historical worth,” (p. 99). This disclaimer helped a bit but was undone by his poetic line at the end of the paragraph:

The Jesus who emerges is thoroughly believable as a figure of history, even though the more we look at him, the more we feel once more that we may be staring into the sun.

4. In chapter 8 (Jesus: Rescue and Renewal) Tom draws us into the mystery of Jesus’ own vocation, suffering and self-understanding. Once again, these are big important questions but I worry that his comments only serve to raise more issues than he resolves.

At the end I’ve gotta say that I think this book is a gift. I’m sure I’ll keep coming back and rereading sections in the future. Who knows, someday maybe I’ll tackle his multi-volume Christian Origins and the Question of God. In the meantime, I want to conclude this short reflection by quoting Wright’s soaring answer to the question, “So what is Christianity about, then?” It seems to me almost impossibly beautiful…

Christianity is all about the belief that the living God, in fulfillment of his promises and as the climax of the story of Israel, has accomplished all this—the finding, the saving, the giving of new life—in Jesus. He has done it. With Jesus, God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once and for all. A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut. It’s the door to the prison where we’ve been kept chained up. We are offered freedom: freedom to experience God’s rescue of ourselves, to go through the open door and explore the new world to which we now have access. In particular, we are all invited—summoned, actually—to discover, through following Jesus, that this new world is indeed a place of justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty, and that we are not only to enjoy it as such but to work at bringing it to birth on earth as in heaven. In listening to Jesus, we discover whose voice it is that has echoed around the hearts and minds of the human race all along.

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About Jeff Barneson

Husband to Tara Edelschick Dad to Zachary, Ezra & Nafisa Keeper of Bees Campus Chaplain Bicycle Racer Coffee Drinker Follower of Jesus View all posts by Jeff Barneson

6 responses to “Book 4 – Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

  • Tout

    One thing that leaves an impression among the N.T. Wright books that I have read is the way he finds the right metaphor or allegory to illustrate a key point. In The New Testament and the People of God, he asks what one ought to do with a book like the New Testament, and makes his point by noting that a volume of Shakespeare can be used to prop up a table leg, as the basis for a philosophical theory, or, for still more authenticity, as the source material for a dramatic production. Likewise, Wright continues, for full authenticity the New Testament “must be read in such a way as to set in motion the drama which it suggests.”

    When writing in Simply Christian about echos of beauty in our world, Wright offers a memorable allegory about how this beauty is stunning in places and incomplete to the point of frustration in others. Imagine, he writes, that a collector uncovers an old, forgotten manuscript of music, and experts soon begin to suspect that it is a lost work of Mozart. A musician plays the piece on a piano, and while there are places where there is the same rich, imaginative music that Mozart would have written, elsewhere the piano is almost silent, as though something was missing. With time, the experts realize that the piano part is indeed a work of Mozart, but it is a piece written for an ensemble of instruments. The full beauty of the music will not be complete until the lost parts are restored.

    It is this mastery of metaphor and allegory in N.T. Wright’s work that most of all reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who made many of his key points not by direct persuasion, but by telling a story crafted to show readers that they already know what the writer is reminding them of. We find examples of this in the Bible, from Nathan confronting David in 2 Samuel 12, to the parables Jesus told in the New Testament.

  • Ryan Andrew Moore

    In regards to then historical worth of the figure of Christ, I’m left wondering what you mean when you say that Wright’s position was undone by the “staring into the sun” comment and wondering what exactly Wright is getting at with that phrase? I would give my opinion on his meaning, but sadly, I couldn’t get the book down here to Mexico in time, but hope to pick it up once I’m back in Cambridge.

    While humbly admitting to not having read this book, if Dr. Wright were to comment on this forum (as you’ve been so successful in drawing previous authors into the discussion of their works), I’d be thrilled to hear his opinion (as well as that of others in this discussion) on what in some respects seems to be a resurgence of restoration eschatology, with both Rob Bell and Brian McLaren’s recent works giving some impression that they believe that Peter’s “restoration of all things” may be a key clue to interpreting Christ’s view of the “things to come.” I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter, but I personally (not being a scholar by any means) perceive less dissonance between Bell and McLaren’s less apocalyptic eschatology and Christ’s words on the Kingdom.

    To put my question into question form, what might it look like for Christ to destroy “all dominion, authority and power?”

    Thanks, Jeff, for leading the discussion.

    • Jeff Barneson

      Thanks Ryan. It’s sort of an impossible task right? Demonstrating in just a few pages that the text of the Gospels is reliable – that it/they give us a picture of Jesus that is consistent and fits with what really happened. Professor Wright has done this work in other places and takes time here (p. 99) to affirm his conviction that “the four canonical Gospels, broadly speaking, present a portrait of Jesus of Nazareth which is firmly grounded in real history.” When he says that looking at Jesus is may feel like “staring into the sun” I think he is describing the overwhelming experience of looking at someone so pure and consuming. For me anyway, staring into the sun is painful and, unless you’re wearing welder’s goggles, causes retinal damage. Looking at the sun also means you lose the ability to distinguish fine detail and recognize other things around you – something that I wouldn’t compare to looking at Jesus. One thing for sure – it’s really bright.

  • Chris Nichols

    I wonder if part of the challenge of Simply Christian is Tom’s determination to give the complex beliefs of Christianity their due. We have grown used to a gospel presentation that avoids complexity for the sake of a false clarity. What I mean is this; in our efforts to communicate the gospel to a new, more secular generation, we have often glossed over the real challenges Christianity presents to the myriad of world views readily available to that generation. We who are committed to consistent engagement with the secular world often yearn for content that allows us to present the good news of Jesus in such away that is clear, tightly reasoned, and compelling. We’d like to avoid the often exhausting and confusing discussions that ensue when we merge onto the philosophical and religious world discussion highway that leads to intellectual traffic jams. Tom joyfully steers into that traffic snarl with a crystal clear vision of God’s glorious triumph in Christ that allows him to discuss complexity without losing sight of hope.

    • Ryan Andrew Moore

      Well said, Chris. Great diagnosis of modern Christianity’s avoidance of complexity, which links in with the view that Christianity was mechanized and put into boxes by the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, respectively (although I guess I’m guilty of putting history into boxes by attempting to explain a complex reality with simple labels!).

  • NT Wright

    Thanks, Jeff.

    Let me simply say the following.

    First, I’m naturally flattered and delighted that you read the book and seem basically to like it! It was written at a time of considerable difficulty and stress from various angles and for some reason the week I wrote it I was blessed with an oasis of peace and tranquillity out of which the book emerged.

    Brief comments, first on your queries.

    As to simplicity, I’m sorry if there are folks who find it difficult. All through I was doing my best to boil down complex ideas into simple expressions. Of course, part of the trouble is that our culture is not ‘neutral’ on all this: even those right outside the church have very clear worldviews on all sorts of matters, including eg ‘Heaven and hell’, and on the meaning of the word ‘God’. This relates to your second point: unless we make it absolutely clear that the God of the Bible, the Father of Jesus, is NOT the ‘God’ of popular culture, we won’t get to first base. Hence the heaven/earth overlap material. The same spring I wrote the book I did some talks on the parables for our big Diocesan Conference and the heaven/earth overlap was one of the points that many people remarked on and found particularly helpful. Of course, I may have explained it better in person than in print…

    Saying that the closer we get to Jesus the more we find ourselves staring into the sun is not intended for one moment to imply that I am after all casting doubt on the gospels. Far from it! On the contrary: the more seriously we take the gospels the more we ought quite properly to find ourselves looking at the central character as one who takes our breath away, who bursts our categories, who fascinates and disturbs and compels and scares and loves… my trouble is that may Christians, including very ‘orthodox’ ones, are no longer surprised by Jesus: they have him nailed down, they know in advance what to ‘find’ in the gospels; and they miss the main point.

    And yes, I raise more issues than I resolve. That’s always a problem in a book covering more or less everything. But that’s what I was asked to write. I have tried to explore the particular themes in other books, much more fully, and there are, DV, more to come. Anyway, no bad thing to leave people saying ‘Yes, but does that then mean…?’ That’s healthy.

    Anyway thanks again for your kind comments!

    Now to the three posts:

    1. Thanks for the kind remarks about stories and metaphors! I love telling stories and I have no idea where they come from…

    2. The question of the kingdom is a vital one, but much obscured in much popular Christianity. I’m afraid my answer to the question must be that I have recently written both “Revelation for Everyone” (due out in October I think) and also a book called “Simply Jesus”… and that these two books, though no doubt again raising plenty of questions, will at least take these discussions a long way further. Enjoy!

    3. I’m grateful to Chris Nichols for his wonderful image of me joyfully steering into the middle of heavy traffic… reminds me of when we lived in Montreal… Yes: we can easily over-simplify, and when we do what’s probably happening is that we’re simply colluding with one or other of the ruling (and highly misleading) paradigms. When I left Lichfield Cathedral after five years as Dean, one of the lay people made a speech of thanks which included, to my surprise, a thank-you that I had treated them as grown-ups and had preached sermons which had stretched them and made them think differently. I hadn’t set out to do that nor, of course, had I set out to dumb things down. I think a lot of lay folk are quietly bored with clergy and other Christian professionals churning out the same old stuff and would love a bit more of that driving into the middle of the heavy traffic…

    4. Finally: yes, Enlightenment/Modernity has a lot to answer for (even though, I agree, that too is a ‘box’ into which we put things). Among other things, of course, the C18 gave us Thomas Jefferson and the idea that the ‘birth’ of America was a Novus Ordo Seclorum … go check your dollar bills, guys, and figure out what’s going on when someone quotes Virgil on such an occasion…

    Just thought I’d drop that in to keep you awake across the Pond there. Of course, our coins and notes also have interesting pagan iconography and it might be fun to tease out all that some time.

    Anyway, thanks again very much for reading the book and engaging with it. By the way, I too LOVE CS Lewis’s “Great Divorce” — especially the scene between the Bishop from Hell and the curate from Heaven…

    Good wishes to one and all,

    Tom Wright

    Prof. NT Wright
    St Andrews

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